PORTLAND – Exactly two weeks before the Nov. 8 election, 13 of Portland’s 15 mayoral candidates had their most contentious and substantial debate of the campaign.

In a ballroom at the Holiday Inn By the Bay on Tuesday, former state Sen. Ethan Strimling made the case that the city needs a strong, accountable and out-front leader.

He said it must be someone who will personally listen to and address the problems of businesses and residents and take responsibility for all of the city’s success and failures instead of deflecting blame and responsibility to the City Council, committees and staff.

If he’s elected mayor, “it will be clear where the buck stops and change starts,” Strimling said.

Not everyone bought into Strimling’s vision. Former Sen. Michael Brennan pointed out that Strimling “never said and never used the word inclusive.”

Brennan said the new mayor – who will have limited powers – must lead by building consensus among city councilors and stakeholders, instead of using top-down power.

The voters have a choice between “two different types of leadership,” Brennan and Strimling said, clearly delineating their differences.

The debate, hosted by the Portland Community Chamber and the Maine Real Estate & Development Association, started with a lightning round, in which candidates raised their hands to agree or disagree with statements like, “Are you in favor of a local-option tax?” or “Would you describe the new mayor’s position as a CEO?”

The fireworks began when moderator Chris Hall, the senior vice president of government relations for the chamber, asked candidates individual questions.

He asked Strimling, who is perceived as a liberal Democrat, when he began championing the private sector, as he has done in this race.

Strimling said that in 2009, when LearningWorks, the agency he heads, was struggling, he brought in private-sector leaders like Dan Reardon, former CEO of Bass Shoe, and Joel Russ, former CEO of the Portland Chamber. They helped shape his leadership style to a stronger, clearer and more accountable voice, Strimling said.

Hall asked City Councilor David Marshall, who’s known as a technocrat, to make the case that he has leadership skills to go along with his intellect and knowledge of City Hall.

Marshall said he proposed and worked to get an elected mayor’s position in Portland three times before it finally got on the ballot. “That’s not sitting back,” Marshall said. “That’s leadership.”

Last, Hall asked candidate Jed Rathband to prove he’s the new voice and leadership the city needs – something Rathband has touted. Rathband said people like the fact that he brings creative and numerous ideas to the table and said the city can’t afford to elect leaders who have already served.
“To solve old problems, we need new solutions,” Rathband said.

He also took a jab at Strimling, after Strimling’s private-sector remarks. “We all appreciate the eagerness of a neophyte,” Rathband said, “but I’ve had my convictions a long time.”

With time running out in the campaign, the other candidates continued to lobby for notoriety. City Councilor Jill Duson, an experienced lobbyist, said that to combat Gov. Paul LePage’s cuts in Portland, the mayor must build relationships with state legislators and make a clear case for why Portland’s success helps the rest of the state.

City Councilor and current Mayor Nicholas Mavodones said the city must streamline its permitting process. He sees a near future, he said, when city employees can go to neighborhoods with laptops and complete permits in one visit for small projects like new decks.

Markos Miller said the city’s zoning is “too restrictive and cumbersome.” He said each neighborhood and its residents should design visions for what the neighborhoods should look like.

Jodie Lapchick said the city must market itself better, especially to people who spend time in tourist havens like Bar Harbor. “How many people love Maine and don’t even know we’re here?” she said.

“That’s low fruit.”

Charles Bragdon asked the businesspeople in the audience to help him with the problem of homelessness. He has proposed starting an internship program for able-bodied homeless people. They would work for free at local businesses to acquire job skills and eventually get off the public payroll, he said.

Firefighter Chris Vail said the other candidates’ proposals are too grandiose. He said the city needs to focus on simple and in-house solutions, like better marketing its water resources and better using its waterfront land.

Peter Bryant and John Eder didn’t attend. Eder, a student at Southern Maine Community College, said he had class commitments he couldn’t break.

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or at: jsinger@pressherald.com