Think Portland is a mecca of liberal values? Think again, says a newly formed group of progressive activists who Thursday released a scorecard of City Council votes for 2016.
Although Portland is known as a liberal city, especially by Maine standards, Progressive Portland said councilors have a long way to go, given the city’s recent support of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist, in the Democratic caucuses. Progressive Portland is a nonprofit that formed after the 2016 elections.
“What we found in researching this scorecard is that contrary to Portland’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism, the City Council had few consistently progressive voting records,” said Steven Biel, a founder of the group.
Biel, a former Washington, D.C., lobbyist and national campaign organizer who lives in the West End, said Progressive Portland’s six-member steering committee selected 19 votes on progressive issues with the help of 20 other people who were promised confidentiality.
The group chose votes on renter protections, tax breaks for businesses, the India Street clinic and the details of an increase in permitting fees to pay for a new permitting and inspections department, among others.
Councilors on average cast progressive votes only 57 percent of the time on the issues analyzed by the group, Biel said at a news conference at City Hall.
City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, ranked the third most progressive on the council, said he wasn’t aware of the scorecard and that it would not change the way he works as a councilor. He said it’s important to work with all councilors, regardless of their scores, to move policies forward.
“These types of things might be meant to try to divide us, but that doesn’t matter to me,” said Thibodeau, noting the importance of directly communicating with constituents. “At the end of the day, my constituents expect me to get things done.”
Progressive Portland, which has 3,700 email subscribers who list Portland as their home address, plans to mail the scorecard to registered city voters sometime in March, Biel said. He expects the group will spend up to $6,000 on the effort.
As a 501(c)(4), the group does not have to disclose its donors and can participate in politics, as long as politics is not its primary focus.
Biel said the early mailing is intended to insulate the group from any accusations that it might be trying to influence an election.
According to the scorecard, Mayor Ethan Strimling had the highest progressive rating at 83 percent, losing points for votes to close the India Street HIV clinic and rezone the former Elks Lodge from residential to office.
‘These types of things might be meant to try to divide us, but that doesn’t matter to me. At the end of the day, my constituents expect me to get things done’
— City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau
Strimling, who could not be reached for comment, has close ties to Biel and his wife, Emily Figdor, who runs the Portland Democratic City Committee. Both Progressive Portland and the Democratic committee have polled Strimling’s approval ratings and policy positions.
Former City Councilor Jon Hinck had the second highest progressive rating at 78 percent. Biel helped City Councilor Pious Ali raise more than $24,000 to unseat Hinck in November.
There will likely be debate about how some of the council votes are characterized.
The group took issue with the council’s vote to increase permitting fees from 1.1 percent of a project’s cost to 1.5 percent, rather than to 1.6 percent.
That resulted in “a loss of revenue that will push up property taxes for middle class homeowners and low-income seniors and cost the city resources for parks, school and other priorities,” the group said.
However, the revenue from those fee increases was devoted to a new permitting and inspections department, not the general fund.
Also, the group takes issue with the council’s rebuke of Strimling’s last-minute effort to derail a land sale on the Eastern Waterfront and a tax break for a local business, saying that, too, would push up costs to local taxpayers.
The group describes the land sale as a “corporate handout,” because the land was sold for less than full market value. Yet, the full market value the group refers to assumed the site had roads and utilities built on it, which is not the case.
City Councilor David Brenerman said he hadn’t seen the scorecard, but he hoped the issues were fairly represented.
“I think it’s great there is a group interested in local affairs,” said Brenerman, who scored 44 percent. “But they have to present the information in a fair and balanced way.”
He added, “you can’t bring Washington-style politics to Portland and take issues out of context and misrepresent the facts and then give councilors a score based on that.”
The council as a whole received good marks for raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, removing transgender restrictions in the city’s health plan, banning city-funded travel to states with anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender policies, creating an Office of Economic Opportunity for new Mainers and approving a solar array at the former Ocean Avenue landfill.
Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at: