The early returns in Portland’s mayoral race are in, and the vote is 14-1.

That’s 14 candidates running for mayor who are promising to change the way Portland does business, and one, current Mayor Nick Mavodones, who is saying something different.

It’s not that Mavodones is anti-change. No candidate in any election will ever print up signs and buttons that say “Vote for me: I represent the status quo!” But Mavodones’ campaign message comes close.

“We have a great city,” Mavodones said at “So you think you can mayor?”, last week’s candidate forum put on by the League of Young Voters, when he was challenged on Portland’s loss of some economic development opportunities. “I’m proud of the business that we’ve got,” he said.

Pride notwithstanding, it wasn’t enough to win over the crowd, and Mavodones finished fifth in the straw poll of 100 or so activists and political junkies in attendance. (Former state Sen. Michael Brennan was their choice.)

But Mavodones’ case is supported by the fact that what he says is basically true — not a requirement in politics, but it can be helpful.

Portland actually is a great city, and rather than an economic development failure, it is one of the state’s few bright spots during this recession.

Portland is probably on the top 10 list for cities named in top 10 lists. Mavodones cited two last week: One publication put the city on the list of best places to retire, and another called it a top location for young people to move to.

Plans are in the works for a $100 million entertainment development at Thompson’s Point, and the transformation of an under-utilized waterfront warehouse into top-quality office space is also under way. Both projects were supported by the city in the form of property tax breaks.

Despite having the title “mayor,” Mavodones is not the incumbent in this race.

The full-time, popularly elected mayor who will be chosen Nov. 8 is a new position, the first for the city in 88 years. Mavodones is essentially the chairman of the City Council, chosen by his colleagues for a second consecutive one-year term. But more than even his two fellow councilors in the race, Jill Duson and David Marshall, Mavodones looks like an incumbent and gets all that comes with that position.

And with what’s good about the city, that would be a comfortable place to be, except when you realize that there are at least 14 other people who think that Portland is due for some serious change, and they, not the current mayor, are the ones who should lead it.

The case for change? In a changing economic environment, Portland can’t keep doing what it’s been doing and expect things to stay the same.

Since 2007, Portland has seen a rapid decline in non-tax revenue that used to support municipal services. First it was the loss of fees from building permits, then it was cuts from Augusta. Now it’s the expiration of federal stimulus support, and next will be more cuts from Augusta.

The one thing that hasn’t gone down is property tax revenue, but that is at a breaking point. Any tax increase would come with considerable pain for vulnerable residents.

Budget cuts can’t be the only way to protect them, however. As services decline and schools suffer, Portland starts dropping off a few of those top 10 lists.

Housing in Portland is becoming unaffordable, which is not just a problem for people who are homeless, but also for people whose wages don’t let them buy or rent here. A city made up of people rich enough to afford living anywhere they want and those too poor to leave is not sustainable.

Which is a lot easier for someone from outside City Hall to say than it is for Mavodones, who was first elected to the School Committee in 1989.

Not that he would even want to deliver the change message.

As Mavodones told The Forecaster newspaper, “If you’re looking for someone to blow things up in Portland and start over, I’m not the guy.”

While that may not be “Vote Status Quo!” it’s close. And if that’s what Portland voters are looking for, they have their man.

But if the early returns mean anything, there is enough interest in change to give the de facto incumbent something to worry about.

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

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