PORTLAND – There’s apparently nothing like an arts-themed debate to splash some color on a race for mayor.

During a debate Monday night at the State Theatre, candidates who want to be Portland’s mayor read poetry, drew smiley faces and talked about their air-guitar and singing skills.

Former state Rep. John Eder said the city has largely priced artists — who built the creative economy — out of the community. If he’s elected Nov. 8, Eder said, he will offer a tax break for affordable housing in Bayside so developers will build at least 1,000 no-frills units where artists could live and work.

The Portland Arts & Cultural Center Alliance co-hosted the two-hour event with another nonprofit, the Portland Music Foundation.

The event centered on the city’s creative economy and included 14 of the 15 mayoral candidates. Richard Dodge couldn’t attend because of work-related obligations, and Mayor Nicholas Mavodones and City Councilor Jill Duson left early to attend Monday’s council meeting.

The debate featured two types of questions: long-form and short-form. The moderator, Sam Pfeifle of the Portland Music Foundation, started the night with 10 long-form questions. Each candidate could answer only three.

Pfeifle later asked 10 short-form questions. Candidates wrote (or occasionally drew) answers on large pieces of paper to questions like: “Name an event that has taken place at the State Theatre in the last six months?” or “How much money does the average person spend in Portland on First Friday?”

The questions, it appeared, were meant to show how engaged each candidate is in the city’s creative economy.

In response to a question about housing, former state Sen. Michael Brennan echoed Eder’s early comments, saying “gentrification” first pushed artists out of the Old Port, then out of the Arts District and to Munjoy Hill.

“The city hasn’t made enough of a commitment to the arts community,” he said.

Jed Rathband and Ethan Strimling said the city needs to switch from a “can’t-do” attitude to a “can-do” attitude when housing projects come along.

Rathband pointed to a housing development at Danforth and High streets led by Peter Bass. He said it fell through because the city didn’t help with funding through its various loan programs.

Strimling said philanthropist Roxanne Quimby tried to redevelop an abandoned building on Congress Street into housing, but gave up because the city made her jump through too many hoops.

Two lower-profile candidates elicited the biggest cheers of the night. In response to a question that essentially asked, “How can you prove you’re a supporter of the arts?” Hamza Haadoow said he writes poetry in both Arabic and English, and read a quick poem for the crowd.

“I am an immigrant / but also a U.S. citizen,” Haadoow said. “I was born in Somalia / but I’m not a pirate. I am poor / but I am rich in my heart. … I am not a politician / but I like to check in on politics.”

At another point, Pfeifle asked, “Should public money be spent to build live/work space for artists in Portland?” All of the candidates wrote “yes” on their answer cards, except for Chris Vail, a firefighter.

But Vail, to loud cheers, said taxpayers can’t handle any more burdens and the private sector must find a way to fund such projects.

“That well isn’t running dry,” Vail said, “it’s already dry.”

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]