October 20, 2011

Ethan Strimling: A pledge to energize, build 'can-do' culture

By Jason Singer jsinger@pressherald.com
Assistant City Editor / Online

PORTLAND - By 2009, Portland West had become stagnant, according to its then-chief executive officer, Ethan Strimling.

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AGE: 43

ADDRESS: 211 Spring St.

Married to Mary Beeaker

B.A. in history, University of Maine; M.A. in education, Harvard

CEO of LearningWorks

POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: State senator for Portland, 2002 to 2008

WEBSITE: StrimlingForMayor.com


• Institute metrics to measure city employees' performances

• Bring accountability to City Hall

• Transform City Hall's culture to "can-do" attitude

• Lower property taxes

• Invest in school buildings


will answer questions from Press Herald readers during an hour-long live chat with the candidate starting at 11 a.m. today. Go to www.pressherald.com to participate.

Editor's note: This is part of a 15 daily profiles of Portland's mayoral candidates, paired with online chats. You can find out more about other candidates in our Portland Mayor Race 2011 special section.

Funding was down. The recession had taken its toll. And the social service agency was no longer striving for excellence, board members and employees said.

Strimling, who started working at Portland West in 1997, took drastic action, he said. He replaced senior management. He put in specific expectations with which to measure his and his employees' performances. He altered the organization's mission and changed its name to LearningWorks.

In the two-plus years since, LearningWorks -- which provides learning opportunities across southern Maine for at-risk youths, immigrants and low-income families -- has increased its budget from $1.8 million to $3.1 million, added 50 jobs, expanded its service area and increased its client base by 76 percent, according to company documents.

Strimling, now one of 15 candidates running for mayor of Portland, said he can have the same impact on the city.

"We were -- for lack of a better word -- in a malaise," Strimling said of LearningWorks. "We weren't really putting (performance) metrics in place to hold ourselves accountable at the level that we needed to.

"In all reality, that's what the city of Portland needs. ... (It) needs to have someone in place who has the proven leadership skills, who has shown how to do this work, so we can really revitalize the city and help it become what it can become."

Strimling has a varied background. Many voters know about his time at LearningWorks and his six years as a Maine state senator. But long before he became a politician and educator, Ethan Strimling was an actor.

The son of a New York City actor, Strimling attended The Juilliard School in Manhattan, one of the most acclaimed performing arts colleges in the country. At 20, however, he fled New York and moved to Maine. He attended the University of Maine and then earned a master's degree in education at Harvard University.

He fell into politics after being offered a job as a legislative aide for then-1st District U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews, D-Maine.

Although Strimling no longer acts, those skills inform a lot of what he does. An excellent speaker, he knows how to communicate well with an audience -- co-workers, employees and voters. He knows how to stir passion and feelings, and that's part of being a leader, supporters say.

Tim Soley, the owner of East Brown Cow Management company, said Strimling's leadership skills set him apart.

"It's an intangible," Soley said. "It's about energy, voice, charisma. There are a number of quality candidates, but leadership is beyond just philosophical beliefs and the intention to do good. It's about changing the culture of the city from the top -- every person, from the person who fixes the sidewalk to the person in an office in City Hall -- and making them feel like they own a piece of the process. It's an infectious quality, and not many people have it. Ethan does."

Like many other candidates, Strimling is running on a pro-business platform. City Hall needs accountability just as LearningWorks did, Strimling said, and its new leader needs to set clear expectations for each employee.

"I can't expect the economic development department to send out all building permits in two weeks if I haven't told them I want them to do that," he said. "But if South Portland can do it in a week, we can do it.

"And then as a leader, I have to go to the appropriate people and say: 'What do you need from me, or what resources do you need to accomplish this task?' Then it's my job to make that happen. That's how leadership and metrics work."

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