PORTLAND – As a child, Jill Duson witnessed the power that citizens can have if they’re committed to the same goal.
In Chester, Pa., on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Duson saw her mother and neighbors use a rent strike to improve their living conditions. She also saw protests that led to the end of school segregation in her city.
“My sense of people being able to come together and accomplish is embedded in me,” she said.
Forty-five years later, Duson is one of 15 candidates to be the city’s first popularly elected mayor since 1923.
Duson, 57 and a city councilor, comes to the race with one of the most impressive resumes of any of the candidates.
She rose from poverty to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. For more than six years, she was director of the state’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, an agency with a $24 million budget and 150 employees.
In that position, she helped erase a multimillion-dollar deficit and an 11-month waiting period for services, said former Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, who hired Duson.
That’s one of the main reasons her supporters say Duson is the most qualified candidate.
“Her experience is relevant and current,” said state Rep. Anne Haskell, Duson’s campaign treasurer. To fix those budget and service problems, “(Duson) brought department heads together, told them, ‘Here’s what you have to do, I expect these results, and I’m going to check in on your progress.’
“It worked, and that’s the kind of relevant experience the mayor will need for something as intricate and complex as an entire city,” Haskell said.
Duson has run a relatively low-profile campaign. She hasn’t mixed it up with other candidates during debates and forums. She hasn’t criticized any opponents, focusing only on her resume and experience.
She has forgone typical door-to-door campaigning. Instead, she said, she has thrown house parties in each neighborhood, and advertised them with fliers and volunteers.
No one has directly attacked her policies or campaign. Any salvos have come in the form of broader criticisms of the current City Council and city administration. Duson has been a city councilor for 10 years, and mayor twice.
“The vote last year to have an elected mayor was a call that the city didn’t like the leadership it was currently getting and wanted a change,” said fellow candidate Jed Rathband. “They want a fresh voice and new ideas.”
Duson says her life experience has also prepared her for this role. In addition to witnessing protests and rent strikes, she grew up on welfare, the daughter of a polio survivor.
She recalls waiting in line to get food at shelters. Of her mother’s five children, she was the only one to graduate from high school. That life experience — as well as her professional success — has enabled her to connect with people from all walks of life, she said.
“Even though I’ve achieved a lot in my professional life, my early years framed my world view,” she said. “I don’t look at people and think I know their whole story. I listen. … Fairness and economic justice drive how I make decisions.”
If she’s elected Nov. 8, Duson said, she hopes to jump-start the city’s newly crafted economic development plan. It involves visiting businesses, getting owners’ feedback and using that input to design policies that help them.
She said that’s the best way to help the city grow, rather than focusing on luring out-of-town businesses.
“I believe in the saying, ‘Love the one you’re with,’ ” she said at a recent mayoral forum.
Duson’s supporters extol her resume. She worked for almost 15 years for Central Maine Power and Northern Utilities in various management positions. She was repeatedly promoted, her resume shows.
She also owned and operated a lobbying firm in the early 2000s. Unlike many of the other candidates, she has public, private and elective-office experience.
Fortman said the leadership skills that Duson exhibited at the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services would transition well to the mayor’s job.
“You’re talking about thinking and planning strategically, and tenacity,” Fortman said. “One of the quotes Jill used to use — which I think would help anyone — is she always approached ‘Any complaint as a gift.’ And I think that says something about being open. Embracing criticism, instead of having to become defensive, is a wonderful attribute.”
Despite her resume, Duson hasn’t won the number of high-profile endorsements that rivals like Michael Brennan, Ethan Strimling, Nicholas Mavodones and David Marshall have. But she said that if voters focus on resumes — and she believes they will — she’ll win the election.
“If voters look at what I’ve done over 10 years instead of what I might have said in the last 10 weeks or even 10 months,” she said, “they’ll see I have shown the fiduciary skills and assertive engagement necessary to do this job. … I feel like this job was made specifically for me.”
Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]