PORTLAND – By 2009, Portland West had become stagnant, according to its then-chief executive officer, Ethan Strimling.
Funding was down. The recession had taken its toll. And the social service agency was no longer striving for excellence, board members and employees said.
Strimling, who started working at Portland West in 1997, took drastic action, he said. He replaced senior management. He put in specific expectations with which to measure his and his employees’ performances. He altered the organization’s mission and changed its name to LearningWorks.
In the two-plus years since, LearningWorks — which provides learning opportunities across southern Maine for at-risk youths, immigrants and low-income families — has increased its budget from $1.8 million to $3.1 million, added 50 jobs, expanded its service area and increased its client base by 76 percent, according to company documents.
Strimling, now one of 15 candidates running for mayor of Portland, said he can have the same impact on the city.
“We were — for lack of a better word — in a malaise,” Strimling said of LearningWorks. “We weren’t really putting (performance) metrics in place to hold ourselves accountable at the level that we needed to.
“In all reality, that’s what the city of Portland needs. … (It) needs to have someone in place who has the proven leadership skills, who has shown how to do this work, so we can really revitalize the city and help it become what it can become.”
Strimling has a varied background. Many voters know about his time at LearningWorks and his six years as a Maine state senator. But long before he became a politician and educator, Ethan Strimling was an actor.
The son of a New York City actor, Strimling attended The Juilliard School in Manhattan, one of the most acclaimed performing arts colleges in the country. At 20, however, he fled New York and moved to Maine. He attended the University of Maine and then earned a master’s degree in education at Harvard University.
He fell into politics after being offered a job as a legislative aide for then-1st District U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews, D-Maine.
Although Strimling no longer acts, those skills inform a lot of what he does. An excellent speaker, he knows how to communicate well with an audience — co-workers, employees and voters. He knows how to stir passion and feelings, and that’s part of being a leader, supporters say.
Tim Soley, the owner of East Brown Cow Management company, said Strimling’s leadership skills set him apart.
“It’s an intangible,” Soley said. “It’s about energy, voice, charisma. There are a number of quality candidates, but leadership is beyond just philosophical beliefs and the intention to do good. It’s about changing the culture of the city from the top — every person, from the person who fixes the sidewalk to the person in an office in City Hall — and making them feel like they own a piece of the process. It’s an infectious quality, and not many people have it. Ethan does.”
Like many other candidates, Strimling is running on a pro-business platform. City Hall needs accountability just as LearningWorks did, Strimling said, and its new leader needs to set clear expectations for each employee.
“I can’t expect the economic development department to send out all building permits in two weeks if I haven’t told them I want them to do that,” he said. “But if South Portland can do it in a week, we can do it.
“And then as a leader, I have to go to the appropriate people and say: ‘What do you need from me, or what resources do you need to accomplish this task?’ Then it’s my job to make that happen. That’s how leadership and metrics work.”
Fellow candidates have criticized Strimling for his portrayal of the mayor’s job as a CEO-type position. Markos Miller and Michael Brennan have said the city manager — not the mayor — will interact with staff, implement policy and manage day-to-day operations. The mayor will only set the vision and build consensus, they said.
But Strimling scoffs at that notion. He said part of the mayor’s role will be to build a relationship with City Manager Mark Rees, so they trust each other to share the responsibility for implementing strategy for the city.
Strimling, who said he’s knocked on more than 7,000 doors during the campaign, believes voters want a strong mayor, regardless of the specific powers allotted to that position.
“They want someone who’s going to stand up and be accountable and say, ‘Yes, I’m responsible for the city, and I’m responsible for its successes or failures,’ ” he said.
Others are skeptical of Strimling’s pro-business stance. As a state senator from 2002 to 2008, he received low ratings from the National Federation of Independent Business and the Maine Economic Research Institute.
The latter repeatedly ranked Strimling as one of the least business-friendly senators, although Democratic legislators have long accused the institute of having a Republican bias.
Lone Republican mayoral candidate Richard Dodge — who ran against Strimling for City Council in 1999 — accused him of “suddenly” becoming business-friendly. He said Strimling and several other candidates are running the race like DINOs — Democrats In Name Only.
“Some of these Democrats, including Ethan, they’ve never been for less regulation, they’ve never been pro-business,” Dodge said. “It’s like they’ve suddenly seen the light, and I’m not sure everyone will buy it.”
But Strimling defends his record. He voted in the state Senate to eliminate a business tax on personal property, which passed. He said LearningWorks shows he’s committed to creating jobs and improving service.
Numerous local businesses have bought in. Brian Petrovek, the owner of the Portland Pirates hockey team and a self-proclaimed “conservative Reagan Republican,” said he will support Strimling even though he’s a Democrat.
“He listens to what the business community has to say,” Petrovek said. “He not only listens, but he takes what he’s heard and implements it into a strategy.”
Petrovek said he also likes Strimling’s experience in both the public and private sectors. “I’ve looked at candidates and what he’s done at LearningWorks and I’ve seen a guy who’s run something. He’s proven to me he can do it successfully.
“I also like that he’s got a political background and has that dynamic. He just has leadership skills. I sense it. I feel it. It’s part of his DNA.”
Outside of putting performance metrics in place, Strimling doesn’t cite many specific initiatives he wants to accomplish. “It’s a cultural change, not programs,” he said.
He wants City Hall to have a “can-do” attitude instead of a “can’t-do.” He points to the Maine State Pier redevelopment fiasco and Roxanne Quimby’s abandoned attempt to fix a dilapidated building on Congress Street as evidence that City Hall’s slow action has driven away development.
“We need to change the culture of City Hall (to one) that says, ‘We are going to accomplish these tasks,’ ” Strimling said. “But if you haven’t led in the public and private sector, then you don’t know how to do it. … You have to have gone through it. We can’t have someone learning on the job.”
Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]