In The Race For Portland Mayor, It's Democrats Versus More Progressive Democrats

Nov 1, 2019

It's a slow year for the statewide ballot, but an intriguing mayoral race will be decided in the city of Portland on Tuesday. Politics in Maine's largest city closely resemble the topics and tenor of state and national politics, but with one key difference: In Portland it's not Democrats and Republicans duking it out, but Democrats essentially debating how progressive they want the city to be.

Incumbent Mayor Ethan Strimling appears the most comfortable leading left, but he's being challenged by Kate Snyder, a former school board member and director of a non-profit supporting Portland schools; Spencer Thibodeau, a real estate attorney who sits on the City Council; and Travis Curran, a former comedian and restaurant worker. Maine Public's chief political correspondent Steve Mistler talked to Portland Press Herald reporter Randy Billings to break down the race.

MISTLER: Let me just pull back real quick on Kate Snyder and Spencer Thibodeau. What is their argument against Strimling? Why do they think he needs to go?

BILLINGS: Well, basically, they point to this conflict, the tenor in city politics over the last four years. Now, they kind of look back on on those years and they say, look, you know, even within his first year, he made a pretty hard pivot, turned into a more progressive, more activist sort of mayor, you know, really clashed with a city manager to the point where they don't have much of a relationship at all anymore. And he repeatedly was questioning and sort of pushing the boundaries of what he thought he should be allowed to do in City Hall versus what others thought the charter defined for them.

What's interesting when Strimling was elected, his big case for becoming mayor was that he would be quote-unquote, the "listener in chief."

Ethan turns around he says, look, you know, I have been the listener in chief, I've been listening to the people of the city and you're just not agreeing with the policies that people in the city want.

Let's get to the city charter and the position of Portland mayor. Its mayor is more figurehead than somebody who can basically enact policy by fiat. How much of the limitations of that position are playing into this tension between the current mayor, Ethan Strimling, and the City Council?

Yeah, the mayor position in Portland - it's not like Boston, it's not like New York. It's not like the mayor says something and it happens, and if you don't do it, you get fired, and you can hire someone. I mean, it was deliberately made to be this hybrid position. And part of the impetus was, you know, to unite a fractured view on the council, to speak on behalf of residents, and to have just a little more accountability in a longer term in City Hall.

Previously, the mayor was chosen by the City Council, would serve for one year and then someone else would come in. So they thought, let's pay someone to do this full time and give them a four-year term so they can span out over some turnover of council, give them some time to actually set some priorities. But they wanted to maintain a professional city manager to protect the finances of the city, and the fiscal health of the city. And that's where, like, all of this friction really comes from, is, like, where do these lines sort of begin and stop? They're not real black and white. There's a lot of gray area.

You've reported that three of the four candidates are raising a lot of money. You've got to give us an overview.

You have two candidates - the top two candidates - each hit six figures. According to the most recent reports, Ethan Strimling reports around $160,000 and Spencer Thibodeau's right behind him - $110,000. You got Kate Snyder - you know, she's pushing that she's in the mid 80s. And then Travis, of course, isn't raising much of any money. And when you look at who's supporting these candidates - you know, for Strimling, by and large, it's union support. They're really fueling his campaign.

And when you look at Thibodeau's, you know, he's a real estate attorney. He's getting support from a lot of professionals - you know, people in the real estate industry, real estate brokers, landlords, developers. Kate Snyder, she has a pretty broad base of support out there. I mean, in the recent report, it looks like some of the developers and real estate attorneys are also hedging their bets with her. Now you're seeing some of the same donors donating to Kate who donated for Spencer now. But then you've got, also, a lot of educators supporting Kate due to her previous service on the school board.

I have to wonder, though, you know, when we just talked about how limiting the position of mayor actually is, why aren't all these donors kind of going around that, and going to the real power, which is actually the City Council. Why don't they just fund those candidates, I wonder?

It may not have a lot of hard power in terms of who you can hire and who you can fire. But, I mean, there's there's a lot of soft power involved in this. I mean, you've got a bully pulpit, you're doing this full time, you can build coalitions either in the council or outside of the council. You know, as Mayor Strimling has shown, I mean, you can run a news cycle if you want to.

And I think there's also this other sort of expectation that if you're a Portland mayor for one term, and you get re-elected, and you do a good job for four to eight years, well, that could set you up for, you know, a higher office. And I think that that was in the Charter Commission's mind when they did it. It wasn't the purpose of setting up the position, but I think it was one of the sort of, like, fringe benefits of it, to say, OK, well, you know, we can cultivate some statewide leadership, you know, by giving us a higher profile, but with not all the risk of turning over all the keys to this person.

And we should remind people that when Portland voters made the change to select the mayor themselves, they also switched to ranked-choice voting, a system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Randy, you said, this is a very tough race to handicap. So does that mean you're not going to make any predictions?

You're not going to get a prediction out of me.

That was Portland Press Herald reporter Randy Billings. Randy, thanks again for breaking down the race for us.

No problem. Thanks for having me.

You bet.