Members of People First Portland prepare to speak to the media at Portland City Hall on Nov. 4, 2020. Voters approved all but one of the group's ballot initiatives against the advice of most of the City Council. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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“Democratic Socialist Republic.” What does that phrase evoke?  

The Soviet Union? Venezuela? North Korea?

How about Portland?

Maine’s two largest newspapers have both run stories about the intranecine political warfare between traditional liberal Democrats and aggressive “progressive” insurgents in our state’s largest city. The latter group includes those affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America.

Portland’s recent political history is a study in contrasts. And it is most discretely typified by former Mayor Ethan Strimling.

In 2015, then-candidate Strimling was opposing incumbent Mayor (and now state representative) Michael Brennan. Brennan had found himself at odds with the City Council, city manager and others. Strimling set himself up as the “consensus builder” candidate.

Some of his quotes?

“I see [the mayor’s position] as chairman of the board. You are being elected to lead the council. The city manager is the CEO.”

When it came to far left referendum questions, he was “fearful of the unintended consequences and our inability to fix any potential negative impacts for five years.”

In terms of policy making, he believed “you have to, as much as possible, do it through the council.”

Now, he is one of the most public voices of the Democratic Socialist-affiliated efforts, leading ballot questions to work around the council, locking in unintended consequences and advocating for the abolition of the city manager.

What a difference five years makes.

In some narratives, this is simply representative of the sharp left turn taken by the Portland electorate. Exhibit A in that story are the five ballot questions passed last November. Exhibit B is the charter commission election, with far left candidates leaping past more moderate ones after numerous ranked choice rounds.  


However, this past week saw two members of Portland’s school board step aside. One was a longstanding member who first was elected back in 2006 who withdrew from her reelection campaign. The other was a new face in his first year on the board who stepped down immediately.

They decried the toxicity of the seemingly ascendent “progressive” movement. They suggested that a school employee’s political views were becoming a factor in promotion decisions. And their stand has rallied the more traditional, longstanding and left-leaning Democrats to push back.

November’s election will probably tell the real story. Strimling handily lost the mayoralty in 2019. He received 4,575 votes in the first round when more than 18,000 were cast.  

The 2020 election is an outlier. Normal campaigning was greatly constrained by COVID and former President Donald Trump was on the ballot. Pretty much anything “anti-Donald Trump” would win resoundingly in Portland.

The 2021 charter commission was much closer. The more moderate candidates had strong showings in the first round of voting. It wasn’t until ranked-choice voting cycles were completed that the far left leapt into victory. But just over 9,000 voters cast ballots, or about half the amount that went to the polls in November 2019.

After the charter commission election, one of the newly elected, progressive-affiliated commissioners immediately took to Twitter to call the city manager a “white supremecist.” She hadn’t done so on the campaign trail, likely because she knew it would result in a resounding backlash against her candidacy.

That was the action giving rise to one Portland school employee’s objection. Which became the subject of an “executive session” of the school board. Which resulted in questions about that employee’s worthiness for promotion. Which, ultimately, resulted in the recent school board resignations.  

So how many voters will come to the polls in Portland in November? And will Portland become a “Democratic Socialist” city? Or just a regular old Democratic city?

I’m cheering for the Democrats.

Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.