PORTLAND — Two political newcomers are challenging a longtime city councilor and member of the city’s Democratic machine for an at-large seat on the City Council.
The at-large seat is for a four-year term rather than a three-year term – a one-time adjustment to ensure there is an at-large seat at play in each election.
The City Council oversees a $215.5 million municipal budget and sets the bottom line on school spending.
Incumbent Jill Duson is a 59-year-old compliance manager at the Maine Human Rights Commission who has served four terms on the City Council. She ran for the elected mayor position in 2011, placing sixth in a 15-way race.
Her challengers are political newcomers Christopher Shorr and Gregory Smaha, two 30-year-olds who graduated from – and played football together at – Deering High School.
Shorr, a Green Independent who has been endorsed by the Maine League of Young Voters, has a criminal history dating back to 2003, when he was convicted of theft by receiving stolen property and disorderly conduct. He was convicted of operating under the influence in 2005 and disorderly conduct (excessive noise) in 2008.
“I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life, but over the last several years I’ve really tried to grow up and mature and I think I have followed a pretty solid path towards that,” said Shorr, who is now a stern man on a Portland lobster boat.
While Shorr says he would bring a fresh voice and new opinions to the council, Smaha believes he is the only candidate who can stake that claim.
Smaha is running as a fiscal conservative associating with the Republican Party in one of the most liberal and reliably Democratic communities in the state. He is the supply chain and expense controller for LIA International in Scarborough, where in the last year, he says, he has identified $1 million in savings without layoffs.
Smaha views everything through an economic lens, and would not look to the fire or police budgets for savings, nor would he support budgets that lay off teachers. Instead, he would look to social services.
For instance, he believes the answer to homelessness is not providing housing or investing in “incestuous” social service programs that breed generational dependency. Instead, the city should be reducing regulations and permitting fees, as well as offering tax incentives to businesses, he said. As businesses grow and prosper, more jobs will be available for those who are able to work.
In the city’s budget, he would also look to regional services, such as public works, to find savings, he said.
“We can’t give everything to everybody,” he said. “The status quo no longer works.”
Shorr said he is making advocacy for the homeless and marginalized members of society a focus of his campaign. He wants to change the conversation around the homeless. He found the rhetoric of banning panhandling on street medians unbecoming of the city and an ineffective solution to the problem.
“That attitude – the lack of compassion that clouds our city – it’s upsetting to me,” Shorr said.
Shorr would like to bring the North American Street Newspaper Association to Portland as a way to help the homeless. The paper is written for and by homeless people and sold by the homeless on street corners. Newspaper sellers keep a percentage of their sales and gain valuable job experience, habits and confidence, he said.
Shorr is critical of giving tax breaks to large corporations. He opposed the sale of a portion of Congress Square Plaza to Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital, which is renovating the former Eastland Hotel and is planning to build an event center on the plaza. He described the sale as a “back-room deal.”
Duson, meanwhile, cast a crucial vote to sell the plaza, even though she proclaimed she could have gotten a better deal. She said she respects the process undertaken by the council’s Housing and Community Development Committee.
Her opponents both knocked Duson over the plaza sale – Smaha believes she should have held out for a better deal, while Shorr doesn’t support the sale of public space.
Duson said holding out for a better deal would have been a bad idea, and pushed back against the suspicion that she would advocate for the sale of additional public spaces, calling the notion “ridiculous.”
Duson has supported several efforts that some argue limit free speech. She supported requiring street artists to register at City Hall before selling their work on sidewalks, a buffer zone around an abortion clinic and banning panhandling in street medians.
Duson missed the vote on panhandling, but said she would have supported the ban – reversing her position from a year ago.
Although the ordinance was essentially the same, Duson said she was moved to change her position because “the conversation around it was completely different.” She rejected the notion that her opinion changed when public sentiment changed.
“I’m not wishy-washy,” she said. “I don’t change my mind based on how many people come into the chamber.”
Duson said she is interested to see how the fire chief will implement the recommendations for a top-down study of the department.
Other departments – such as health and human services, as well as public services – could benefit from similar reviews conducted by in-house staff, she said.
Education and housing are also issues Duson hopes to focus on, if re-elected.
Shorr supports the city’s ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, but Duson will be voting against the referendum, saying it should be a statewide effort. Both believe the city should respect the will of the voters.
Smaha, however, believes in personal liberties but is undecided about the referendum. The council should stay out of policing, he said.