PORTLAND – His wavy brown hair is gone. He’s no longer the de facto leader of the Maine Green Independent Party. But five years after John Eder lost his state House seat amid controversy, he soldiers on, fighting for middle-class workers.
For a recent interview in the Bayside neighborhood with a Portland Press Herald reporter, Eder showed up wearing a construction hat. The message? The city needs to push for affordable housing on the peninsula for artists, laborers and other working-class residents, who are being pushed out of the downtown by high rents.
“We’re on the verge of the creative economy toppling the artists and workers who helped make Portland become what it is,” he said. “We can’t lose those people.”
Affordable housing would be a centerpiece of Eder’s mayoral agenda. If elected Nov. 8, he promises to start construction of 1,000 affordable units in Bayside by the end of his term.
He would accomplish that, he said, by pushing the City Council to advertise a tax break for developers who will build simple, sustainable and reasonably priced housing.
In return for such a tax break, the City Council should demand living wages for construction workers, he said.
“We give tax breaks to the things we value in this city,” Eder said. “So why haven’t we given a tax break to help the working people?”
Eder, now 42, began his political career in 2002, when he became the first Green Independent to win a House seat in Maine. He won a seat again in 2004, despite being redistricted away from his base.
In the 2006 election, however, his political career took an unexpected turn. A few weeks before Election Day, the National Organization for Women made calls on Eder’s behalf, endorsing him and implying that his Democratic opponent, Jon Hinck, was soft on women’s rights.
But the robocalls never said they were funded by Eder — in violation of a new state law — and Hinck later said he was a strong women’s-rights advocate. Eder was fined $100, and with a backlash from the calls, he lost his seat by about 90 votes.
He said he’s learned his lesson.
“I had never done negative campaigning before, and I won’t ever do anything close to it again,” he said. “What the calls should have said, and what I will say in the future is, ‘Vote for John Eder because you like my ideas.’ That’s it.”
Regardless of all that has changed in recent years, Eder still has plenty of ideas.
In addition to tax breaks to promote affordable housing, he would like to push living-wage jobs in all development contracts involving the city.
He also would like the schools and the Metro bus system to combine some of their resources, and have high school students use the bus system to get to school. That would foster sustainable habits in the city’s youths, he said, and give Metro the money and riders it needs to make much-needed improvements.
High-quality public transportation systems, he said, attract young people and families. That would help broaden the city’s tax base by increasing population, and would help enhance Portland’s “sustainable” image.
Eder also would like to lower health care costs through two initiatives:
n By organizing small businesses into co-ops that can take advantage of the federal Affordable Health Care Act exchange coming online in 2014.
n By better marketing the state’s Dirigo Health medical coverage, which he said has “underutilized” money-saving programs that can aid businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Those programs include health care for part-time workers.
“If we want to build a real sustainable city, we need to start tackling these big issues,” Eder said. “We can’t be afraid to talk about them and we can’t keep passing responsibility to the next generation. The cavalry isn’t coming.”
Eder’s mayoral opponents have criticized some of his ideas. Charles Bragdon said Metro can’t run efficiently with the few riders who use it now, so adding high school students to the ridership and expecting the buses to get them to school on time is impractical.
Some city officials noted that the city has used tax breaks to encourage affordable housing, for projects on Marginal Way and Stevens Avenue. City Councilors Nicholas Mavodones and David Marshall also said housing projects must meet very specific criteria to earn tax increment financing.
“I don’t think a blanket policy for housing (tax breaks) is appropriate,” Mavodones said. “You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis and make sure there’s an economic benefit for the public.”
In some ways, Eder represents the American Dream, a man who “pulled himself up by the bootstraps,” as one supporter said recently at a mayoral forum.
As a 15-year-old in Brooklyn, Eder said, he fled a physically abusive and alcoholic father and spent time homeless, sleeping on the New York City streets.
In his 20s, he lived a nomadic lifestyle, moving from city to city and state to state. He eventually settled in Portland, he said, because he fell in love with the politically engaged, community-focused atmosphere.
His experience with his father eventually led him to become a mental-health technician. He now works with alcoholics and drug addicts at group homes in Portland.
In some ways, Eder also represents the current American experience. He has a family, works two jobs and goes to school. He fights for the middle class, he said, because he’s one of them and understands their plight.
The artists who built Portland’s creative economy often work two jobs, he said, and many still can’t afford to live in the downtown they helped build.
“We need someone who will stick up for working people of this city and will talk about their issues,” he said. “That’s why I’m running.”
Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]