Two activists running for their first elective office are trying to unseat a veteran on the Portland City Council in what has become the most contentious race in the city election next month.

The three candidates, all Democrats but with widely different personal backgrounds, disagree about rent limits, housing affordability and whether to move forward with renovations to four elementary schools at city expense. The race has become the most expensive council contest on the Nov. 7 ballot and has divided the city’s progressives.

The seat is now held by Jill Duson, 63, who is completing her 16th year on the council. She is being challenged by Joey Brunelle, 32, a print and digital marketing professional, and Bree LaCasse, 41, a development officer for the nonprofit Community Housing of Maine, both of whom are looking to parlay their community activism into a three-year term on the council.

All three candidates oppose Question 2 on the city ballot, a referendum that would give more power to some neighborhood residents to stop zoning changes proposed to accommodate real estate development. Brunelle and LaCasse both support the $64 million bond to rebuild four elementary schools, while Duson continues to support a $32 million bond for two schools that would preserve the option of state funding for two of the schools.

The candidates are divided on Question 1 on the city ballot, a referendum that would limit rent increases to the rate of inflation plus property tax increases and institute stronger protections for tenants. After not taking a position for much of the campaign, LaCasse said Monday that she is leaning against the rent initiative. Brunelle supports it and Duson opposes it, having rejected rent controls as chair of the council’s Housing Committee over the last two years.

Brunelle and LaCasse have criticized Duson’s leadership on the Housing Committee, saying she has not acted aggressively to protect renters.

ABOUT JILL DUSON

Portland City Council at-large candidate Jill Duson is completing her 16th year on the council.

Duson got her first taste of community organizing while growing up in substandard housing in Chester, Pennsylvania. The middle daughter of five children, Duson was helping her mother, a polio survivor, tend to family chores when she began attending meetings with tenants concerned about their housing conditions, which included sporadic heat, broken plumbing and cockroaches.

A local attorney encouraged residents to withhold their rent until conditions were improved. He kept their rent money in an escrow account, so the landlord knew he would get paid. She said the effort worked and the units were fixed.

“I watched how that worked and how you can get things done by people working together around common issues,” said Duson, whose first job after law school was working for that same attorney. “I lived in a city that has no interest in enforcing basic health and safety codes, which is the connection for me to my passion for housing, both in terms of quantity and quality.”

Duson defended her work on the Housing Committee, which is under attack by her opponents. Over the past few years, the committee has collected testimony and ideas from renters, policy experts and housing officials, and posted that information on the city website. It first moved on proposals that had obvious committee support – modest tenant-security measures to provide more notice for rent increases and require disclosure of what it means to be an at-will tenant, that either the tenant or landlord can terminate a tenancy with a notice of at least 30 days.

Over the past year, the committee has adopted zoning incentives that will make low- and moderate-income housing projects more competitive when seeking state funding. And this month, the committee will receive its first report on the city’s housing market and whether the policies have made an impact.

But one of her opponents is reluctant to give Duson any credit for that work, especially the zoning incentives for affordable housing.

“They voted on it – they didn’t lead,” LaCasse said of the committee. “The impetus for the vision for it came from outside” of the council.

Duson said she also has asked staff to go back to the ideas offered two years ago and bring forward any that could make a difference.

Although some say the committee didn’t listen to their concerns, Duson argues that the members simply did not agree on proposals such as rent control. Formerly a compliance manager for the Maine Human Rights Commission tasked with mediating disputes, she believes her strength is listening to people make passionate pleas – and sometimes accusations – to understand ways to improve proposals before the council.

“You don’t see me getting up and lecturing people about their tone,” she said. “If they offend me deeply enough I will get up and say something back, but for the most part I am trying to hear what they are saying.”

Duson had raised a little more than $3,400 as of July 1, the most recent data available.

ABOUT JOEY BRUNELLE

Joey Brunelle says he experienced the damaging effects of gentrification when he lived in San Francisco. Staff photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette and Ben McCanna

Brunelle grew up in Kennebunk and attended college at Brown University before moving to San Francisco, where he worked in communications and as a web developer and experienced the damaging effects of gentrification. He said his rents more than doubled, African-Americans were priced out of the city and rental units were converted into short-term rentals.

“I thought I was escaping that by coming to quaint little Portland, only to find out we’re dealing with that here,” he said.

Brunelle, who owns his own web and print marketing business, was first drawn into politics in 2015 when he started volunteering with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, phone banking and canvassing in Maine and New Hampshire. He became secretary of the Portland Democratic City Committee, but has since left over disagreements with leadership. He has refused to take money from political action committees or developers and believes there should be a clean elections program for municipal candidates.

He decided to run for City Council after the city outsourced its HIV treatment program at the India Street Public Health Center in 2016. He helped lead the effort to save the clinic, which he said was important to Portland’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He was later appointed to the transition team to ensure patients at the city clinic were able to find care elsewhere.

“Hearing the thoughts of some of the councilors, it was crystal clear to me that, since none of the councilors are LGBTQ and very few staff people are, that their lived experience was very different from mine,” said Brunelle, whose campaign is highlighting the fact that he would be the first openly gay councilor in at least a decade. “I thought had there been an LGBTQ voice on the council at that time, that conversation would have been totally different.”

Brunelle thinks the city could be doing much more to confront housing issues, including stricter limits on short-term rentals, such as those arranged through Airbnb, VRBO or homeaway.com. In addition to new regulations on rent increases, he believes the city should not let developers buy their way out of building workforce housing in certain cases and should reconsider its definition of “affordable housing,” which is defined as spending 30 percent of household income on housing. The city uses the area median income to gauge affordability, but Brunelle thinks that metric is too high because it includes salaries in wealthy communities such as Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth. Instead, he thinks the city should look at renter income, which is much lower.

He also thinks the city should offer more tax increment financing, and other financial incentives, to affordable housing developers and be more aggressive about requiring that affordable housing be built on city-owned land, rather than selling it for market-rate or commercial development. “We’ve gone on a fire sale of city land and very little of that land has come with strings attached,” he said.

As of July 1, Brunelle had raised $5,800, and that’s after returning $2,200 in donations from out of state friends and associates.

ABOUT BREE LACASSE

Bree LaCasse got involved in city politics in 2014, when the City Council voted to sell Congress Square Park.

LaCasse said she was lucky to have had “loving parents and resources” while growing up in Portland’s West End, as the daughter of a prominent artist and an engineer. But, she said, she learned at a young age that it was her responsibility to help those with less – whether it was the childhood friend whose alcoholic father was found dead in a city park or, more recently, the little boy from a broken home who helped make her son feel welcome at school.

“You should judge people by who they are and what they bring to the community, and not their circumstances,” LaCasse said. “I’ve always felt a personal responsibility to fight for people who start out with less.”

When it comes to housing policy, LaCasse doesn’t think the city has done enough. However, she is leaning against Question 1 on the city ballot, which would limit rent increases, strengthen tenants’ rights and establish a rent board, because she thinks it will create a disincentive for landlords to improve their properties. She’s concerned that changes to the eviction rules will cause private landlords to be less willing to accept renters using housing vouchers.

“I have concerns that the people who need the affordable housing the most won’t be helped under this ordinance,” said LaCasse, a development officer at Community Housing of Maine, a nonprofit affordable housing provider.

Before her current job, she worked for Bobby Monks, a local investor, developer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, and contributed to his book, “Uninvested: How Wall Street Hijacks Your Money and How to Fight Back.”

LaCasse, who had raised over $20,000 in her campaign as of July, got involved in political issues in 2014, when the City Council voted to sell Congress Square Park so it could be developed into an events center. The proposal faced significant public opposition. She helped lead a successful citizen initiative to reverse the sale and add protections to the city’s open spaces.

Her frustration with the council was renewed when Duson and two other councilors insisted on putting a smaller school bond on the ballot as a competing measure, despite strong public support for the four-school approach.

LaCasse shares concerns that Portland is losing its character, especially with the incursion of national chain stores downtown. But she stopped short of calling on the city to reconsider its repeal of a ban on so-called formula businesses.

LaCasse often accuses councilors of not listening to constituents. Even though that is the impetus behind Question 2 on the city ballot, she does not support the push to give residents the power to stop a zoning change by collecting petition signatures, because it could stop the development of much-needed housing.

“I will make people feel valued even if they don’t agree with the outcome,” she said.

She believes the city needs to find more creative ways to capitalize on the city’s Housing Trust fund, which provides incentives for affordable housing. One option would be a local sales tax on tourism-related industries – a perennial issue pursued unsuccessfully by Portland’s legislative delegation.

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: randybillings

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CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. on Oct. 24, 2017, to clarify Bree LaCasse’s description of her upbringing.