We’ve never seen an election quite like the race for mayor in Portland. Voters are trying to choose the best person for the job, of course, but because this is the first direct election to fill City Hall’s top spot in nearly a century, their choice will go a long way toward defining the job itself.
In setting out to make an endorsement in the mayoral race, members of our editorial board reviewed the qualifications of the candidates and conducted spirited interview/discussion sessions with all 15 contenders. One candidate clearly stood out: Michael Brennan is the right leader for the city’s new era.
Brennan not only has the best grasp of what the new mayor’s role should be, but also has the skills, experience and energy to carry it out.
Much has been made of the way the position has been defined by the city charter, and questions have been raised about whether the charter gives the eventual winner enough power to make changes that need to be made. While it’s true that this not a “strong” mayor — one with the executive authority to hire and fire department heads — that does not mean that the mayor has to be “weak.”
This is a job for a political leader, one who can build majorities on the City Council and also form coalitions with neighborhood groups, business leaders, other municipalities and members of the Legislature.
The right person could use such relationships to lead the city toward a shared vision. If it’s done successfully, there would be nothing “weak” about the influence Portland’s elected mayor could have.
Brennan comes to the job with a set of skills that are unmatched in this field of candidates. As a member of the state Legislature between 1992 and 2004, he served terms as chairman of the Education and Health and Human Services committees, two of the most important policy oversight committees in state government, and was elected Senate Majority Leader. Those posts are evidence of the trust legislative leaders and colleagues had in him.
As a senator, Brennan organized an effort to change the school-funding formula in a way that brought increased revenue to Portland schools. This was not accomplished by strong-arming the opposition or because Portland was more popular in Augusta than it is today. It was not. Brennan was successful because he was able to assemble a coalition of lawmakers who shared an interest with Portland in educating poor children in their districts. With Portland scheduled to lose $1 million in school funding this year, that’s the kind of effort the city will need to support its schools.
But that’s not all. “Mayor” is not shorthand for “lobbyist in chief.” The kind of communications skills needed to put together coalitions of lawmakers will also be needed to unite disparate interests in the city to develop housing and new businesses that can supply jobs for Portland’s work force.
Brennan brings some of the best ideas to the campaign, such as his concept of creating a coalition among colleges in and near the city to increase research and development projects and create more training opportunities for workers in Portland.
This campaign is not just about ideas, however. There are other candidates who also have great ideas for running the city. But Portland is not suffering from a lack of ideas. What has been missing from city government is a lack of focus and follow-through. Brennan’s brand of leadership is well-suited to fill that void.
NOT TIME TO STAND STILL
This is not a slam on the city’s elected officials. As national magazines have noted, Portland is one of the most livable places in America and it’s a popular place to visit. Current leadership deserves a share of the credit for making the city what it is.
But this is no time to be complacent. Portland faces significant challenges forced by a struggling economy and diminishing support from Augusta in crucial areas such as education and social services. What has been good enough in the past will not be good enough in the future as the city wrestles with new economic realities.
The people of Portland wanted change when they voted to change the city charter. They were looking for the new leadership that we believe Brennan can provide.
With 15 candidates, and with ranked-choice voting making its first appearance on a Maine ballot, voters will face a confusing selection process. For the first time, they will be asked to express their preference not only for their first choice, but for additional choices that could be counted under some circumstances.
We considered ranking several candidates, just as the voters will be asked to do. But in the end, only one person will be elected mayor and our choice is clear. Brennan has our unqualified support to be Portland’s first mayor. We urge voters to mark him as their first choice on Nov. 8.