The campaign to persuade Portland voters to approve an elected mayor had its formal kickoff this week. But the effort has been going on for years without success — although this time its chances appear better.

The position Portlanders will be voting on is a bit of a compromise, neither strong-executive fish nor figurehead fowl, but it does represent a significant change.

First, “figurehead” is a word that comes close to describing the current mayor’s job; a more accurate title would be “council chairman.” Elected only by the votes of other councilors, the mayor oversees council meetings and represents the city at national civic gatherings and conventions, but has no independent constituency.

That’s problematic because, while there are many ways to structure a democratic form of government, all such governments have one characteristic in common: Their leaders are chosen by the people.

That hasn’t been the case in Portland, however, and one of the consequences is that an appointed official, the city manager, has wielded substantial power over city spending, policies and personnel.

Under the changes proposed by the Portland Charter Commission, however, the mayor would have some real duties and a substantial salary — and be able to weigh in on the budget-setting powers of the manager.

Even more important, the mayor would be elected by a citywide vote, giving the position democratic authority and, it is to be hoped, considerable clout in setting goals for the city. Such goals, if ratified by the voters in a competitive race, would have a chance of capturing the attention of elected and appointed city officials.

Much, however, will depend on who runs for the office, how they campaign and how specific they are willing to be about the directions in which they would like to lead the city.

Portland is not deciding on a “strong mayor” with the hiring and firing powers of a true chief executive, and thus the strength of the position will reside primarily in the ability of the officials who hold it to persuade others to accept their vision for the city.

Someday Portlanders may decide to boost the position’s powers. For now, however, this is what’s being offered, and since it’s better than the status quo, it’s worth voter approval.