Editor’s note: This is the first of 15 daily profiles of Portland’s mayoral candidates, paired with online chats. 

PORTLAND – Markos Miller should be packing for Mexico.

Earlier this year, the Spanish teacher at Deering High School was granted a six-month sabbatical beginning in January 2012.

Miller planned to take his wife, Heather, and their 4-year-old son, Oliver, to the Chiapas region near Guatemala.

They wanted a family adventure and to immerse themselves in a new culture, and in Mexico, Miller could also collaborate with universities to design newer, more effective Spanish curriculums.

But when the mayor’s race started taking shape this spring, Miller didn’t like the choice of candidates. The family decided to put Mexico on hold.

“Mexico will always be there,” Miller said during a recent interview at the Blue Spoon on Congress Street. “We have a chance to do something special here.”

Miller, 43, is one of 15 candidates running to fill the city’s first popularly elected mayoral position in 88 years. A native of Dayton, Ohio, he has a certain Midwestern charm to him.

He always seems relaxed, even during debates or answering questions from the press. He wears bright colors and big smiles. He’s bilingual, well-educated and a former Fulbright Scholarship winner, but rarely talks about himself.

Although he’s never held or run for political office, Miller is running on a record. Since moving to Munjoy Hill in 1997, Miller has become a successful community organizer.

In late 2006 and 2007, as president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association, Miller put together a group that researched how the city should redevelop the old Adams School site, which sat vacant on Moody Street.

The group suggested affordable housing and a playground — recommendations that the city adopted — and Avesta Housing will begin building a 16-unit development and playground there later this year.

Miller also spearheaded the effort to design and get funding for a new bike and pedestrian path, which will soon link the popular Back Cove Trail and Bayside neighborhood.

Peter Bass, a longtime local developer who built PelotonLabs on Congress Street, described Miller as one of the mayoral race’s “strongest candidates.”

“(He’s taken) the lead on a number of Portland initiatives,” Bass said. “He is a good communicator and can bring people together.”

Miller would run the city much as a community organizer would, he said. He’s a champion of community input, and said the city has failed in that respect.

Whenever city leaders host community forums and public hearings, they mostly ask for lists of what residents want. Unfortunately, he said, they don’t engage residents in deeper discussions about larger issues, such as a vision for Portland, or the city’s problems, or potential solutions to those problems.

“We’re kind of stuck in autopilot,” he said. “We sometimes do things because that’s the way we’ve always done them, instead of thinking, ‘Is there a more effective or efficient way to do this?’ “

Miller doesn’t have many specific issues. He wants to ensure all 4-year-olds have the option of preschool by 2015, a goal Portland Public Schools Superintendent Jim Morse recently set.

If elected Nov. 8, he would also push for implementation of a Bayside neighborhood development plan, which would create a mixed-use neighborhood where people can “live, work and play” and increase the city’s tax base.

But mostly, he said, he just wants to improve the process with which the city engages residents. Better community engagement does three things, Miller said.

First, it produces better ideas. Communities know better than politicians what they want and need, he said.

Second, people become excited about community governance when they feel more included in the process.

Third, it creates more accountability. When residents are excited about projects, they push for them, and if a certain administration doesn’t get those projects off the ground, residents will find someone who will.

“Portlanders want to be engaged,” he said. “Most of them have shown an interest in it.

“We just have to know how to engage them better,” he added. “It’s not rocket science. Yes, it takes some specific facilitation skills, and I’ve shown that I have those. But once you get them in a meaningful discussion on the issues, they’ll get us to where we need to go.”

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or:

jsinger@pressherald.com