PORTLAND, Maine — The elected mayor’s seat in Maine’s largest city has been a source of political strife since it was enshrined in 2011. On Nov. 5, Portland voters will decide whether to keep their rebranded incumbent or pick someone who may be a more conciliatory choice.
Mayor Ethan Strimling is running for another four-year term in the liberal stronghold. In the nominally nonpartisan race, he’ll face two more centrist Democrats — City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau and former school board chair Kate Snyder — and political outsider Travis Curran.
The race is as much about the scope of the mayor’s job as it is about the ideas of the candidates. Here’s how they are pitching themselves to voters — in 400 words or less.
First-term mayor, former nonprofit director and legislator
The context: The 51-year-old mayor has run in all of Portland’s three mayoral campaigns. He lost in 2011, then beat an incumbent in 2015 with support from councilors and the business community behind a promise to be a “ listener-in-chief.” He has reinvented himself in 2019 as a progressive movement-builder after battles with City Manager Jon Jennings and most of the council. He has contended the tension has bred constructive work, citing voters’ 2017 passage of a $64 million school bond as the highlight of his tenure.
Key quote: “Our city is squeezing the middle class. Wealth is flowing into the city, but it is not flowing to our working people,” he said at a Thursday debate held by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We are going to lose our city if we don’t focus on this, if we don’t recognize that the heart and soul of who we are is our working class and middle-class families.”
Major backers: Strimling raised $148,000 — more than any other candidate — by mid-September, according to financial disclosures. His campaign said it came from 1,500 donors. He is endorsed by labor groups including the Maine AFL-CIO. A majority of the Portland school board support him alongside just one city councilor — Pious Ali, who holds an at-large seat. Big-name donors include developer Joseph Soley and former Maine Gov. John Baldacci and he has been endorsed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
On the mayor’s role: During the height of his power struggle with Jennings and councilors in 2017, Strimling made a call for a review of the mayor’s authority in the city charter, which gives the mayor little formal power and says they should “articulate the city’s vision and goals.” It fell on deaf ears. Strimling has said he would favor eliminating the city manager position and handing their authority to the mayor, but he said Thursday the role shouldn’t be changed now.
One big idea: Strimling pledged for the first time in the Thursday debate to push for an hourly minimum wage of $15 in the city, almost goading the chamber audience by saying he knew the crowd would “light your hair on fire” over it. He opposed such a hike during a 2015 campaign in which he had chamber backing. Voters rejected that increase in the same election.
City councilor and real estate attorney
The context: Thibodeau, 31, is a well-connected Democrat who was elected to the council in 2015 and served on Gov. Janet Mills’ transition team in late 2018. He is pitching himself as someone who will be able to collaborate with councilors while leveraging relationships with state and federal politicians and he has inherited much of the business support lost by Strimling. He and the council are at least slightly more conservative than the mayor. For example, he opposed a citywide sick leave proposal earlier this year citing a less-sweeping state paid-leave law that was in the works that now preempts cities and towns from setting stronger standards.
Key quote: “Results don’t just matter, relationships also matter. Relationships with the governor matter. Relationships with our federal delegation matter or else, what else are we doing here?” he said at the Thursday debate. “That’s the difference that I offer you on Nov. 5 — somebody who’s oriented towards relationships and team-building.”
Major backers: Thibodeau raised $89,000 by mid-September. He is endorsed by a majority of the city council and has financial backing from many developers and members of the Portland business community including Crandall Toothaker of Portland Maine Rentals, Landry French Construction of Scarborough and Bill Caron, the CEO of MaineHealth. Many of Thibodeau’s donors have given to a political committee opposed to Strimling’s re-election, according to the Portland Press Herald.
On the mayor’s role: Thibodeau has hit Strimling for wanting to change the scope of the mayor’s role. He said at a September debate that he would spend his office hours doing “background work” for councilors and collaborate with Jennings with the goal of driving toward a shared agenda. He noted on Thursday it’s “not always going to be Kumbaya,” but said the mayor’s job is to work toward building coalitions.
One big idea: Thibodeau is floating an initiative aimed at the “missing middle” of Portland’s housing market. His plan would set aside five parcels of city-owned land for developers who set aside a certain share of housing units for families making between $30,000 and $75,000 per year. He said Thursday “that’s how you get shovels in the ground” to address a housing crunch.
Former school board chair, nonprofit official
The context: Snyder, 49, served on the Portland school board for six years, chaired it between 2010 and 2012 and has run a nonprofit that raises money for city schools since 2015. She and Thibodeau are running as consensus-seeking centrists relative to the rest of the field. Snyder has said sick leave was a state issue and told supporters she would have voted against putting a Strimling-backed proposal to allow publicly financed municipal elections on the 2019 ballot. Snyder said at the Thursday debate that the council is seen as an “exclusive club.”
Key quote: “During these final weeks of the campaign, our community is going to decide if we feel represented at City Hall, if the most important issues are being addressed well, if government is working in its current configuration and I assert we need a change,” she said at the debate. “As mayor, I will set a tone of civility and inclusion. I’ll offer leadership that respects all neighborhoods and all constituencies.”
Major backers: Snyder raised $70,000 as of mid-September. Her donors included Angus King III, an executive at Summit Utilities and the son of Maine’s independent U.S. senator, and City Councilor Kim Cook, the only councilor to endorse Snyder outright. Others look to be hedging bets between Thibodeau and Snyder. Former Maine Senate President Justin Alfond and Allagash Brewing Company founder Rob Tod contributed to both candidates, while City Councilor Justin Costa urged his supporters to support either Thibodeau or Snyder when he dropped out of the mayoral race earlier this year.
On the role of the mayor: Snyder is a good government-type candidate who talks more about how city officials should make decisions than what those decisions should be. She largely sees the mayor’s role as a facilitating one. She has said meeting agendas must reflect “the priorities of the council” and that the mayor must build a process that “allows people to accept outcomes and for those outcomes to be durable.”
One big idea: Snyder would work to revamp Portland’s transit system, arguing the city and region must rely less on vehicles. She supports lowering mandatory minimums for parking spaces attached to new developments, encouraging employers to promote bus passes instead of parking spaces and expanding the Greater Portland METRO bus system to include more frequent routes and to allow Portland middle- and high-school students to ride for free.
The context: Curran, 33, is a longshot candidate who works at Empire Chinese Kitchen and has said he is running to represent the service industry. He has run an optimistic, unvarnished progressive campaign, backing tighter restrictions on short-term rentals, arguing that the proliferation of Airbnb has pushed him and other working-class Portlanders from their apartments. He supports safe-injection sites for drug users that have been shown to reduce overdose deaths in other countries but have been called illegal by the federal government.
Key quote: “I’m not a politician. I’m a working man,” he said at the Thursday debate. “I’m part of the Portland people. I talk to them, I listen to them and I absolutely want to represent them to fix the problems that I feel and they feel so passionately about.”
Major backers: Curran hasn’t raised money or noted high-profile endorsements during his campaign. Former Portland City Council candidate Rob Korobkin, who ran against Thibodeau from the left during the councilor’s first election, has said he will rank Curran first and Strimling second and urged progressive voters to do the same.
On the role of the mayor: Curran looks to be closest to Strimling on policy and he has suggested a similarly active role if elected, saying the job of the mayor is to be “a voice of the people” while also “the infighting and the divisiveness” at City Hall. He said a mayor should “guide city council to be the will of its constituency and not corporate interests or conflicts of interests by other parties.”
One big idea: Curran supports an electric light rail system in Portland that he has said could be similar to the one operated in greater Boston. He has said it “doesn’t have to be huge” and it could run on and off the city’s peninsula to ease the burden of parking downtown. Strimling called for examining a new commuter rail system on existing tracks in a January address and it was recommended in a 1993 report for the city.