Fed up with Washington, D.C., Emily Figdor and Steven Biel moved to Portland in 2010, drawn by its small-town feel, seaside location and progressive values.

At the time, Figdor was known as a top lobbyist in Congress on environmental issues and women’s rights, while Biel had been overseeing national online organizing and fundraising platforms for progressive causes for MoveOn.org.

Six years later, Figdor and Biel are using skills honed in the nation’s capital to push a progressive agenda at Portland City Hall – an agenda that aligns neatly with that of Mayor Ethan Strimling. And they’re making an impact.

The couple, who have two daughters attending Reiche Elementary School, coordinated aggressive lobbying campaigns to push a $61 million school bond, helping fill a hearing room in City Hall last week.

Their efforts, together or separately, have influenced the city and legislative campaigns and helped define the mayor’s progressive vision laid out last month in his State of the City address.

Their work has brought praise for their energy and skills, as well as criticism for bringing aggressive big-city politics to their adopted home town.

Now the couple is eyeing other causes to push through local government.

“Both of them brought their national-level experience and organizing to the local level,” said Willy Ritch, a former spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree. “I think that was cool to have around.”

Within the last year, Figdor has taken over leadership of the Portland Democratic City Committee with the goal of emphasizing local issues. The committee has typically focused on state and federal campaigns. She also has formed Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, the group pushing the school bond. And she aided efforts to ban tar sands oil in South Portland.

Meanwhile, Biel has helped local candidates run for office, raised money and recently launched a new grassroots group, Progressive Portland.

Biel also is advocating for the school bond.

“It seems like every time there’s something that goes out from Emily Figdor or Steven Biel, we get a flurry of calls or emails,” said City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones.

Mavodones, who has been targeted for expressing concern about the cost of the school bond, is generally concerned about politicization of City Hall. “They’re skilled and professional at what they do,” he said.

DOING THE MAYOR’S BIDDING?

Figdor and Biel labor to point out that they are separate individuals who don’t discuss each other’s work. Figdor is now a national campaign manager for MoveOn.org and Biel owns his own consulting business.

But both appear to be interested in testing public opinion – through polling or member surveys – about similar issues, whether it’s Strimling’s approval ratings, the school bond, voting rights for legal noncitizens, rent control, or maintaining services at the city-run India Street clinic.

“By all appearances on social media and other venues, they certainly seem to be doing the mayor’s bidding to push his political agenda, creating an ugliness in Portland politics unlike anything I have ever seen before where advancing a political agenda is a priority over the desires and needs of the community,” said Cheryl Leeman, a Republican who served for 30 years on the City Council and supported Strimling’s mayoral bid.

Leeman pointed to Biel’s false claims in a letter to the editor linking City Manager Jon Jennings to the controversial sale of Congress Square Park and saying he still lived in Cape Elizabeth. She also pointed to social media attacks against Mavodones and former City Councilor Jon Hinck that she says became “vicious” and personal.

Progressive Portland recently conducted a poll measuring community support for Strimling and for Jennings.

Strimling said he shares political views with Figdor and Biel, but laughed off Leeman’s suggestion that the couple was doing his bidding. “I wish,” he said.

“I can assure you I am not asking them to poll my favorables or (City Manager Jon Jennings’s) favorables,” the mayor said. “There are places where we share progressive values. I hope they keep pushing.”

While Figdor prefers to keep a low public profile, Biel has developed a reputation as being an aggressive advocate for progressive causes. And he’s not above lashing out at fellow progressives who disagree with him.

In Washington, Biel lobbied and organized on behalf of environmental and women’s rights issues before spending four years building online platforms for MoveOn.org.

In the past few months, Biel launched Progressive Portland, an aspiring nonprofit that is looking to conduct community organizing campaigns in support of progressive local issues, which could range from passage of the school bond, to equipping police officers with body cameras to enacting rent control.

“Steven is sometimes brutally honest,” said Diane Russell, a former state legislator who works for a nonprofit on national security issues. She got to know Biel through his work with MoveOn.org and considers him as a friend.

“Steven loves a good fight and he fights for the causes that really matter,” Russell said.

But his style does not sit well with some in the local Democratic establishment, especially those who have been in his cross hairs. Those people include former state Sen. Justin Alfond and state Sen. Benjamin Chipman.

During the three-way state Senate primary last summer among Russell, Chipman and another candidate, a negative letter about Chipman was placed on doors of women voters. It was eventually tracked to a group in Washington, D.C. Although Russell and Biel denied any involvement, Alfond held a news conference denouncing Russell and her allies as resorting to “gutter politics.” In response, Biel launched a series of attacks against Alfond, calling him “the worst possible leader” of Maine Democrats, “a trust fund baby” and a “political disaster.”

FORMER COUNCILOR BECAME TARGET

Former City Councilor Jon Hinck faced withering criticism from Biel as both a potential state Senate candidate and later as a council candidate. Biel chastised Hinck on social media for offering an amendment to the city’s minimum wage law to exclude a base wage increase for tipped workers and for opposing welfare for immigrants after a court ruled the aid did not comply with federal law.

Biel admitted in a series of tweets over several months that he was out to settle a personal score against Hinck, saying that the only reason he was interested in the state Senate race was “to prevent Senator Hinck.”

“When you raise the kind of money I do, you always have friends. You should pick your enemies better,” Biel said in an April 20 tweet to Hinck.

Hinck ended up not running for the state Senate seat and ultimately lost his at-large council seat to a candidate for whom Biel helped raise more than $24,000 from a national pool of donors.

“Steven seems to think there is no gutter or septic tank low enough to pursue a progressive cause,” said Hinck, who was one of the council’s more liberal members despite his concerns about increasing property taxes.

Biel, 41, almost seems embarrassed by his firebrand reputation on social media. He says his foray into Twitter came at a time when he was feeling liberated to speak as a private citizen, rather than as a spokesman for a national organization.

He said he became frustrated with social media bullies espousing conservative points of view, and wondered whether the left should be fighting back harder. But ultimately, Biel decided that engaging on social media was neither healthy or productive.

“I’m off Twitter now,” Biel said. “It’s not really who I am. It’s never been who I am – this sort of provocateur.”

Meanwhile, Figdor, 42, prefers to stay behind the scenes, but she appears to be working toward pushing similar local policies through the Portland Democratic City Committee, albeit with a different style. Over the past year, the committee has conducted a poll and hosted forums on Portland’s affordable housing shortage and what was called “systemic racism” in the Portland Police Department.

Figdor refused to be interviewed for this profile. She said she objected to being included in a joint profile with her husband, calling it a sexist format that would only minimize her accomplishments. “We’re two separate people and we share some of the same interests,” she said.

People who know Figdor well describe her not only as generous and compassionate, but also as tenacious.

“One thing that stands out to me, she has the ability to take a complex situation and distill it down to a couple key questions,” said Taryn Hallweaver, who worked with Figdor when she was the director of Environment Maine. “She’s is just such a force.”

“She’s like this train that can just keep going,” said Joanna Frankel, a close friend and a fellow parent active in Protect Our Neighborhood Schools. “She’s had years and years of working in D.C. and working to organize around big issues, so she knows what she’s doing.”

Frankel added, “I feel like (Figdor and Biel) have really added some important voices to politics in our city, being able to organize and mobilize people for change. I think it’s great they’re here. It’s nice to have the big fish in a small pond.”

According to her LinkedIn profile, Figdor holds a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University and worked in Washington as a senior policy expert for women’s reproductive rights from 1997 to 2002. In 2002, she became a clean-air advocate for Environment America, an advocacy group formerly known as the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Figdor ran Environment America’s global warming program from 2005 to 2010, before moving to Maine.

“(Emily) was ready to be done. She didn’t want to work on the hill. And I never liked D.C. It was hot and it was crowded,” said Biel, who grew up just outside of Chicago. “We just sort of got on a map and said, ‘Where do you want to go?’ ”

From 2010 to 2014, Figdor led the environmental advocacy group Environment Maine. In 2013, she helped lead a successful effort to ban tar sands oil from being transported through the Portland Pipe Line in South Portland. The town is now in a costly lawsuit defending that ban.

Figdor is now the platform campaign manager for MoveOn.org. She describes her job duties as supporting efforts to run “powerful, creative and winning campaigns on local, state and national issues.”

Strimling encouraged Figdor to seek a leadership position on the Portland Democratic City Committee in March 2016. He formally nominated Figdor, who ran with a slate of other new officers that also included Joey Brunelle, who is now challenging Jill Duson for her at-large seat on the council.

Over the next few months, Figdor raised thousands of dollars for the city committee and commissioned a poll testing Strimling’s approval ratings and his positions on several issues, including the school bond. It also included questions about whether legal immigrants who live in Portland should be allowed to vote.

Biel acknowledged that Strimling helped Figdor with the poll.

Months later, Strimling called on the city to extend voting rights to legal immigrants who are not yet U.S. citizens in his State of the City address.

PROGRESSIVE DIRECTION FOR CITY

Meanwhile, both Figdor and Strimling speak in the same terms about Portland voters wanting bold, progressive action. And after two incumbent councilors who were critical of Strimling were ousted in November, both the mayor and Biel offered the result as proof that Portland residents wanted the city to head in a more progressive direction.

“(Edward) Suslovic lost by 300 votes 2 days after slamming @mayorstrim on the front page,” Biel said in a tweet on election night. “Councilors who want to keep their jobs noticed.”

Biel said he and Figdor keep their work separate in large part for legal reasons.

For example, the Portland Democratic City Committee led by Figdor polled voter opinions about a City Council race last year between Hinck and Pious Ali. The results were never released publicly, but Ali was later endorsed by Strimling and easily won the election.

Biel also supported Ali, helping to raise over $24,000 for his candidacy, but said he was not involved in the poll and never saw the results. If he had, he said, it would have been illegal coordination.

Progressive Portland, the group formed by Biel, conducted its own poll last week, asking people to rank the job performance of Strimling and Jennings, the city manager.

The group plans to issue a progressive scorecard for City Council members, and it has launched an online petition calling for Portland to refuse to help the Trump administration deport immigrants.

Portland does not fit the strict definition of being a so-called sanctuary city because the city’s police department does cooperate with federal immigration officials. But the group’s petition effort would move the city in that direction at a time when President Trump has also threatened to strip sanctuary cities of their federal funding.

COMMITTEE LEADING THE CHARGE

Progressive Portland is not a one-man show. The group has a five-member steering committee that also includes Michael Langenmayr, a North Deering resident who is the director of campaigns at Daily Kos and formerly the political director of Democracy for America. Biel described him as a “another national net-roots powerhouse.”

Also serving on the committee is Patricia Washburn, a former newspaper editor who now runs her own information technology company. Washburn, a former treasurer of the Portland Democratic City Committee, is excited about the new focus on local politics. She noted that Democrats now seem to be championing issues that were once pushed by the local Portland Green Independent Party, which has practically evaporated.

“Portland is a changing city and I really like to see new young progressives stepping up and getting things done,” said Washburn, noting that the group tries to keep Strimling in the loop about any planned events. “We’ll tell him what we’re doing because he’s brought us some very good publicity and participation.”

Biel and Figdor have clearly found many like-minded people since moving to Portland.

Biel said his focus on politics at the city level stems from his frustration with a lack of progress at the federal and state level, where brash Republicans have seized control. Portland, on the other hand, has long been a testing ground for progressive change, having led the state on such issues as ending discrimination in the workplace, legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage.

“This is the only place in the state of Maine where Democrats are able to enact an agenda,” Biel said. “If, in liberal Portland, Democrats can’t fix the damn schools, then what are we for?”

This story was corrected at 1:50 p.m. on Monday, March 6, 2017. Because of a reporting error, a previously-published version of this story suggested that city council candidate Joey Brunelle was nominated to be an officer in the Portland Democratic City Committee by Mayor Ethan Strimling. In fact, he was nominated as an officer by Jeremy Kennedy.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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