PORTLAND – Many of Portland’s 15 mayoral candidates talk about the city’s problem with homelessness. Some have even visited or worked with Preble Street, the city’s largest agency for the homeless.
Charles Bragdon has a deeper connection with that place: He got married there 20 years ago.
That’s why, if he’s elected Nov. 8 to be Portland’s mayor, homelessness will rank high on Bragdon’s agenda.
“I know what it’s like to live on the margins because I’ve lived there,” said Bragdon, 43. “That’s why I say I identify well with that population. I’ve been there and I know exactly what they’re dealing with.”
Charles Bragdon and Jennifer Rothrock got married on Nov. 1, 1991, at the old Preble Street Resource Center, one block from the current center. About 80 people — mostly the center’s users and staff members — flocked to the cafeteria, where the morning wedding ceremony was held.
The smell of pancakes was still hanging thick in the air from the recently finished breakfast. A local lawyer and Bragdon’s friend, Andy J. Doukas, performed the ceremony.
The day before the wedding, Bragdon had lost his job as a fish cutter for a seafood company, leaving him and his fiancee with few wedding options.
Even before he lost his job, the couple had little money. Bragdon had spent time homeless, and regularly visited Preble Street to get free meals and browse the newspapers for better job opportunities.
Nonetheless, the couple knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. So a Preble Street staffer recommended a cheap option: getting married at Preble Street.
On the wedding day, the staff pulled together dishes and towels to give the Bragdons as gifts, as well as $25 to help jump-start their lives. Twenty years later, the Bragdons are still together.
“I remember they cared for each other deeply and wanted to protect each other, and that hasn’t changed,” Doukas said recently.
The Bragdons eventually escaped “the margins.” Bragdon owned and operated A-Plus Family Taxi for 10 years. He now publishes The Portland Maine Gazette newspaper and drives a taxi in his free time.
But not everyone is so fortunate, he said. In August, the city had nearly 400 people per night using its shelter, a record high. The number of homeless individuals and families has increased dramatically.
The city’s current system, in which able-bodied homeless people do workfare in exchange for public services, leaves homeless people “trapped in a vicious cycle,” Bragdon said.
While they complete workfare, which includes menial tasks like cleaning the streets, they lose time to look for real jobs or acquire more job skills.
As mayor, Bragdon said, he would like to work with businesses to start an apprentice program to help able-bodied homeless residents acquire skills and find employment.
“We can’t keep using the system we’re using and expect things to change,” he said. “It’s clearly not working, and both the homeless and the taxpayers — who pay for public services — are suffering because of it.”
The mayor’s race is Bragdon’s fourth political campaign in three years. He ran for City Council in 2009 and 2010, and for the state House District 120 seat in 2010, losing in all three races.
In last year’s run for City Council, however, he got more than 9,400 votes while spending only $80 on his campaign. It’s a sign that his message has caught on with part of the electorate, he said, and that’s a point of pride for him.
“I don’t win votes by buying them,” he said.
For better or worse, Bragdon doesn’t necessarily look or act the part of a traditional mayor. At the campaign’s first mayoral forum, at The Portland Club, Bragdon wore sneakers, faded blue jeans and a polo shirt, while most of the other male candidates wore suits or at least ties. (He has since dressed in more suits).
He’s missing some teeth and speaks with a thick Maine accent. In a recent interview with The Portland Press Herald’s editorial staff, Bragdon said he didn’t want its endorsement.
“I don’t want anyone’s endorsement,” he said somewhat cryptically. “That’s not why I’m running.”
In addition to addressing homelessness, Bragdon wants Portland to take the lead in tidal-power exploration by seeking grants and pushing legislation to help that industry get off the ground.
He also said the current administration made a mistake by trimming the city’s Economic Development Division, and he would like to increase that office’s budget.
He also would like to better market the loans the city has available for its small businesses. Not enough of them know about the program, Bragdon said.
“I’m not a politician. I’m an Average Joe like most of the voters,” he said, noting that his dress and mannerisms sometimes reflect that. “And as mayor, I would look at policies that would focus on the average people of this city. We’re suffering right now, and we need new leadership who will do things differently.”
Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]