PORTLAND – In November, when Portland voters decide to elect or appoint the city’s mayor, one thing is certain: This time racial and religious bigotry will have nothing to do with the decision.
The last time this issue came to a vote, such biases swayed the election.
By 1923, Portland’s established Protestant communities, who saw themselves as the representatives of Maine’s “Yankee spirit,” and were centered in the city’s Woodfords and Deering neighborhoods, had had enough of a sizeable Catholic and Jewish representation on the City Council, especially from the heavily Jewish Ward 3.
Numerous Jews had been elected to the council since Samuel Rosenberg was the first Jew to hold elective office in 1898.
A “Committee of 100,” made up of 99 Protestants, one Catholic and no members from the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, sought to replace Portland’s elected mayor, the 18-member common council and the nine-member board of aldermen with a form of government administered by a business manager and a five-person City Council.
The announced aim of the committee was to end partisan politics, the ward system and political cronyism. But those communities who saw the end of their political representation felt otherwise.
Portland’s Roman Catholic Bishop Louis Sebastian Walsh warned that “anti-Catholic feeling is now on top.”
Portland attorney Israel Bernstein, one of the city’s most prominent Jews, addressed an anti-Committee of 100 rally a few days before the election:
“If this plan goes through, every man of Irish descent may as well pack up his trunk and leave the city as far as representation on the city government is concerned.”
He did not have to state the obvious: that such a change would essentially deny Portland’s Jewish community a similar representation.
Another organized community seeking to guarantee Protestant control of politics in Portland also made its presence felt.
The Maine Ku Klux Klan, led by the flamboyant F. Eugene Farnsworth, sought to ally itself with the Committee of 100.
The Klan purchased a very visible headquarters on Forest Avenue.
In August 1923, it held an opening ceremony where KKK members were initiated by the light of a 50-foot burning cross as 10,000 spectators watched the proceedings.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Portland branch, founded in 1920, was already engaged in an effort to fight the KKK.
A year before the Klan was officially founded in Portland, the NAACP’s national director of branches, Robert Bagnall, urged the Portland branch to join forces with other Portland groups that faced the Klan’s active intimidation.
“We would advise that you arrange conferences with the leading Jews and Roman Catholics, also Labor leaders, as the Klan is against all of these, as well as against the Negro, and that you get them to enter actively into the fight.”
At a rally several weeks before the election, Farnsworth threw out a challenge to the opposition:
“Gather together all the anti-Klan voices you can — Catholic, Negro, Jew and Italian votes — all the gang, and I wouldn’t give you 10 cents for the whole bunch.”
In September 1923, Portland voters threw out the old form of government and voted in the new council-manager government by a margin of several thousand votes.
In December, when elections were held for the new City Council, Klan- and Committee-endorsed members swept to victory and defeated the one Jewish candidate for the Portland school board.
The new City Council was made up entirely of Protestants, and it would be three decades before a Jewish member would again hold a council seat.
Portland city politics has come a long way, as have the efforts of its racial and religious groups to share in the making of an open and representative political system.
Nov. 2 will allow the voice of the people, all the people, to speak without the underlying prejudices that have no place in our community.