PORTLAND – When The Portland Club opened on High Street 125 years ago, it was a “grand social event — maybe the grandest in the city’s history,” says the current club president, Steve Luttrell.
Tuesday night’s forum for 15 candidates who hope to become Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in 88 years didn’t live up to that standard, but it was a sight to behold.
In the first public event of the campaign, each candidate gave a three-minute speech in front of more than 100 people, hoping to stand out in a crowded field. Some even offered specific policy initiatives, a sign that campaigns have kicked into high gear.
Jed Rathband guaranteed that he would make 25 cold calls per day to out-of-state small businesses to lure them to Portland. Former state Rep. John Eder said he would offer a tax break for affordable housing to draw middle-class residents back to the city and downtown.
Peter Bryant said he would bring back “Big Trash Day” twice per year, so residents without trucks could dispose of refrigerators, couches and other large items.
And City Councilor Jill Duson said she would use a computer system to track complaints — and subsequent responses by the city — to improve service at City Hall.
Others spelled out their differing visions of Portland. The lone Republican, Richard Dodge, said poor business acumen and regulations chased away Nappi Distributors, prospective Maine State Pier developers and a postal distribution center.
“If you’re happy with the status quo, you need to vote for these people you see before you,” he said, referring to the candidates with political experience. “I would run the city like a business, not like a charity.”
The incumbent mayor, City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, took exception to Dodge’s and other candidates’ criticism of the city, saying they weren’t offering solutions. He cited pending projects at Thompson’s Point and Bayside as evidence of progress, and called Portland “a great city.”
“With your help, we can keep the good things going,” he said, to loud applause.
Several candidates said Portland must expand its population and widen its tax base. City Councilor David Marshall said he would invest in state-of-the-art school buildings, which would attract families.
Former state Sen. Ethan Strimling said he would lower taxes, and Rathband said he would start a low-interest college loan program for low- and middle-income parents, which also would help attract families.
The chance to see candidates distinguish themselves helped the voters who attended, who will have to rank the candidates on the November ballot.
“It’s refreshing to see them in person, so we can see where they start to differ,” said Sharon Nelson, who liked former state Sen. Michael Brennan’s off-the-cuff, no-notes speaking style.
Brennan said he would use his extensive political experience and connections to lobby in Augusta and Washington, D.C., for more policies that would favor Portland.
Some candidates used their life stories and humor to convey their personalities to voters.
Hamza Haadoow, a Somali immigrant, talked about living in a refugee camp for 10 years. He survived, he said, and took advantage of America’s opportunities by earning a bachelor’s degree and starting a transportation business and a grocery store, and providing for his family. He’s now one semester short of earning his master’s degree, he said.
Jodie Lapchick, a marketing consultant, said she would help the city market itself better.
Ralph Carmona talked about overcoming life in Los Angeles, and described himself as the three “S” candidate: spirit, smarts and stamina. At 16, he said, he wanted to be a professional baseball player, but at 5 feet and 97 pounds, he didn’t have the physical tools.
He decided to swim — a sport that’s less reliant on size — but didn’t know how. He taught himself, made the varsity team his senior year and became a lifeguard. That kind of stamina, he said, made him successful in the public and corporate world. His humorous story and enthusiasm drew laughs from the audience.
Charles Bragdon was one of only two male candidates who didn’t wear a tie, which went along with his message of being the “average Joe” in the race. He said he would expand the economic development department at City Hall, instead of trimming it as the city has done in recent years.
Lastly, a few candidates threw barbs — the first of the campaign season.
Portland firefighter Christopher Vail said he is “sick” of politics, politicians, their partisan bickering and cliches like, “I reach across the aisle.”
“Does anyone know who reaches across the aisle?” he asked. “An adult.”
Vail’s message: “Bring common sense back to City Hall.”
Before the night began, candidate Markos Miller, a teacher, said it was good to finally start debating the issues.
“There’s only so much preseason you can do,” he said. “This is what I like, getting in front of voters and engaging people.”
Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org