When the Maine People’s Resource Center (for which I work) released a poll last week showing Portland Mayor Michael Brennan 25 percentage points behind challenger Ethan Strimling in his race for re-election, I was as surprised as anyone. That’s an unexpected and difficult position for any incumbent.

Portland’s mayoral race isn’t like other elections, however.

First, both the position itself and the method of filling it are new. The mayoralty in its current form was created by referendum in 2010, and Brennan is the first person to serve in this role.

The mayor is elected by ranked-choice balloting, where voters rank the candidates in their order of preference and, if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote initially, second and third-place preferences can make a difference in who wins.

The election is also a nonpartisan one. So, unlike most other high-profile races in Maine, the usual party allegiances and signifiers don’t come into play. Both front-runners are Democrats.

All of this combines to create a very fluid contest. There is a high percentage of undecided voters, and a plurality of voters who choose either Strimling and Brennan as their first choice rank the other candidate as their second. This isn’t an election marked by bitter divisions, but of choices of degrees between candidates who people generally like.

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The largest factor in Strimling’s early lead may be the timing of the poll. It came after a very good week for the LearningWorks director and former state senator. He had formally announced his campaign just a few days before, garnering the usual positive media attention.

Also that week, a group of city councilors and school board members held a news conference to back his campaign and criticize the incumbent. It was an unprecedented event in city politics, and this newspaper’s editorial board described it as looking “more like a coup than a campaign.”

There had been little other coverage of the race up to that point, and voters who responded to the poll likely had those events foremost in their minds. As Brennan has more opportunities to hold his own events and conduct his own campaign outreach, we’ll probably see the race tighten.

Still, that far down is a tough place for any incumbent to be.

These numbers show clearly that Brennan has failed to capitalize on his incumbency. For one example, he doesn’t seem to be getting much credit for his successful push to increase the local minimum wage.

Raising the wage is incredibly popular, with 75 percent of voters in the poll supporting the local increase from $7.50 an hour to $10.10 in 2016, and then to $10.68 in 2017. But that popularity doesn’t translate into support for Brennan despite his championing of the increase. The margins between him and Strimling are virtually the same among supporters of the minimum-wage increase as within the general electorate.

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(I’m part of the coalition seeking a statewide ballot measure to increase the minimum wage in Maine, which was also on the poll.)

One of the reasons for this disconnect may be the way Brennan handled the aftermath of that vote. Rather than proclaim his accomplishment, he stepped on his own victory by admitting he was unaware that the ordinance also increased the minimum wage for workers who receive tips and seeming to oppose that part of the ordinance.

“I’m in the uncomfortable position of talking to a reporter who knows more about this issue than I do,” Brennan said to the Press Herald.

Strimling jumped on the blunder, declaring in a freelance column for this newspaper July 12 that the tipped increase was a “much deserved boost in pay” for “some of our lowest paid workers in the city.” (The column, “Agree to Disagree,” was suspended after Strimling announced his candidacy Aug. 18 and will be on hiatus during the mayoral campaign.)

This division and the ongoing focus on this issue (the City Council intends to revisit the tipped-wage component of the minimum-wage ordinance next week) aren’t good for Brennan. The public overwhelmingly supports an increase for tipped-wage workers – and 82 percent of those affected by such an increase are women, a key voting bloc.

The Maine People’s Resource Center poll showed that 67 percent of voters support the council’s (inadvertent, apparently) decision to raise the tipped wage from $3.75 an hour to $6.35 in 2016 and $6.93 in 2017.

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The vote will be a test for Strimling as well. If his supporters on the council don’t join him in standing with women and low-wage workers on such a popular measure, that doesn’t bode well for his ability to bring people together (a centerpiece of his campaign) and serve successfully as mayor.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who works for the Maine People’s Resource Center. He can be contacted at:

writebacktomike@gmail.com

Twitter: @miketipping

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