For only the second time since 1923, Portland voters will head to the polls on Nov. 3 to elect a full-time mayor.

However, unlike the mayoral election four years ago that featured 15 candidates, the ballot will bear only the names of three men who hope to win the city’s top elective office for the next four years.

Incumbent Mayor Michael Brennan is being challenged by former state Sen. Ethan Strimling, a fellow Democrat who heads a local nonprofit and came in second in 2011, and Portland Green Party leader Tom MacMillan, making his first run for office.

The full-time position pays about $70,000 a year plus benefits. But it comes with little official power, instead drawing its strength from the four-year term, the full-time presence at City Hall and the citywide endorsement of the winner’s vision.

The election is technically nonpartisan, but partisan politics and policy issues often find their ways into council chambers.

MacMillan’s policy positions are self-described as “radical” and far to the left of his Democratic opponents. He is the only candidate vocally advocating for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a proposal to be decided by voters Nov. 3.


Brennan and Strimling are longtime political adversaries. But they have similar social views and policy goals for the city, making their rematch more about leadership style and visions of the mayor’s role than philosophical differences.

Brennan, who led a successful effort to establish a $10.10-an-hour minimum wage in Portland that will take effect in January, has openly opposed the $15 minimum, while Strimling has not yet publicly taken a position.

Strimling argues that tip earners such as restaurant wait staff should have gotten a base wage increase in Brennan’s minimum wage proposal, something Brennan and most of the council prevented.

Brennan and Strimling face off in their third contest. Both ran unsuccessfully against Chellie Pingree in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Congress in 2008. Brennan edged Strimling by 101 votes in Portland that year, finishing second.

Brennan came out on top again in the 2011 Portland mayoral race, besting Strimling by about 820 votes in the first round of ranked-choice voting. Once the votes of the other 13 candidates were redistributed in an instant runoff, Brennan won by about 1,900 votes.

MacMillan says both Brennan and Strimling represent the same policies and politics that have led to distrust of and displeasure with city government.


“People are sick and tired of the status quo,” MacMillan said.


During his first term, Brennan and the other eight members of the City Council have struggled with their roles within the new structure of city government.

Before the 2011 election, the council chose the mayor, which had become a ceremonial, part-time one-year position. Since the change, councilors have clashed with the mayor over access to the agenda and their ability to help set priorities for the city. The mayor still maintains a vote on the council under the new system.

Brennan has largely worked behind the scenes with community partners on his own policy initiatives – such as a workforce development program called Growing Portland, an education initiative called Portland ConnectED and a city food policy – often leaving his fellow councilors out of the loop.

That lack of communication and conflicts over control of staff and policy prompted four city councilors to endorse Strimling.


Brennan said in an interview that, in hindsight, he wished he had done a better job at communicating with the public and his colleagues about his initiatives and how they relate to the issues facing the city, whether it’s low wages, increasing housing costs or improving public education.

He also highlighted the limitations of the office – a lack of even one part-time staffer for the mayor and council – as well as rapid turnover among top city officials, including the city manager.

“I’ve done the best I can within the limitations within the charter,” Brennan said.


During the 2011 mayoral campaign, Strimling promised to be a strong, CEO-style mayor, even though the day-to-day operations are – by charter – given to the city manager. Now, he believes the mayor’s job is not unlike being the president of a board of directors. The mayor should focus the agenda, run meetings, advocate for the council’s collective goals and be the spokesman for the city, Strimling said.

“Your own policies are only as strong as your ability to bring people together and join you in that,” he said. “Every word that comes out of your mouth, you’re speaking for the city. Your job is to carry the emotional weight of the city. Every day you’re carrying its joy, its fear, its sadness, and its hope.”


Brennan continues to believe the mayor’s role is to advocate for Portland at the state and federal level, while forming community coalitions outside the City Council to advance the policies that the voters supported when they elected him.

“I am elected at-large by the people who vote,” Brennan said. “I have to articulate issues and positions relative to what I think I was elected to do as mayor.”

He added, “I don’t think I ever give up my voice as mayor in that process.”

MacMillan believes the mayor should be a community organizer who listens to everyone – including the poor, minority groups and others he says are easily ignored. However, powers granted to the mayor need to be re-examined, he said.

“We need to either strengthen (the office) or get rid of it,” MacMillan said. “People think you have authority, but you don’t have significantly more authority than other councilors.”



Several campaign themes have emerged with three weeks left before Election Day.

Strimling has emphasized the need to listen to constituents and councilors to reach a consensus – a theme reinforced in a news conference in which he was endorsed by four councilors and seven school board members.

Strimling, whose motto is “Portland Together,” says he is still listening to residents about whether he should support Questions 1 and 2 on the municipal ballot. Question 1 would set a $15 an hour minimum wage and Question 2 would establish a process for residents to protect scenic views. With three weeks until the election, his campaign has yet to outline his policy goals, saying they will be based on what he has heard from residents.

Brennan, who opposes both referendum initiatives, has repeatedly raised the issue of trust, emphasizing the fact that he has taken public stands on the issues and been open about his policy agenda. The motto on his website reads: “Making promises. Getting results. Moving Portland forward.”

On Friday, he became the first candidate to release detailed policy goals for a second term that touched on such topics as economic development, affordable living, education, healthy food, fighting substance abuse and keeping Portland a welcoming place to people of all colors, orientations and nationalities.

“I don’t think as a candidate I’m substantially different than four years ago,” Brennan said. “That’s why the trust thing is important to me.”


MacMillan is making social justice a central campaign theme. He supports Questions 1 and 2, as well as requiring developers to keep 30 percent of their housing units affordable to working class families. He also wants to make it more difficult for landlords to raise rents and evict existing tenants.

Unlike his opponents, MacMillan also believes that racial profiling by local police is a problem that needs to be addressed.

“It’s not that individual police officers are bad or the profession is bad, but we selectively enforce the laws,” he said. “We criminalize poverty and we criminalize people of color.”

Though reluctant to attack Brennan directly, Strimling talks about leadership mistakes made in the last few years – whether it was the city’s response to a state audit of its homeless shelter and public assistance programs, or decisions that prompted widespread community unrest, such as selling Congress Square Park (reversed by a public referendum), establishing a citywide minimum wage or development issues on the eastern waterfront.

“You’re seeing folks rising up,” Strimling said. “If both sides have legitimate points, we need to sit down and solve this so we don’t govern by referendum. When people are feeling not listened to or shut out, they govern by referendum.”

Strimling does criticize Brennan on one issue in particular.


When it appeared the state would cut off General Assistance for some asylum-seeking immigrants, the City Council voted 5-4 to create a $2.6 million local assistance program, funded mostly by $1.7 million in additional state education funding.

Several councilors – including those who now support Strimling – advocated for a smaller amount of assistance over a shorter period of time. They voted against the program supported by Brennan.

Unlike the mayor, Strimling said he would have found a consensus among the councilors and funded the program in a way that didn’t take money from the schools.

“I believe we had nine councilors who wanted to solve that problem. I think it was damaging to the community that we couldn’t get consensus,” Strimling said. “I don’t think taking money from the public schools was the right long-term answer.”

Brennan defended using education money for the temporary program, noting that more than 100 children would have lost much-needed housing and food subsidies. He defended his education record, highlighting his support for school budgets and his role in securing $20 million in state funds to rebuild Hall Elementary School, saying that funding would not have come to the city were it not for him.

Brennan pushed back against Strimling’s assertion that he could have reached a consensus among councilors over General Assistance funding, especially during an election year in which some of his colleagues were already considering challenging him for the mayor’s job.


“I don’t agree with Ethan about that,” he said. “I think it reflects a lack of understanding about the issue and how it developed in the council.”

While Brennan and Strimling both are concerned about the number of citizen referendums in the city, MacMillan is encouraged by the trend, saying it more closely reflects democratic principles.

MacMillan helped spearhead the successful effort to overturn the sale of Congress Square Park, as well as an initiative that put Portland on record as supporting the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. He also co-authored the referendum to establish a $15 an hour minimum wage in Portland.

“I’m a big believer in citizens initiatives,” MacMillan said. “Democracy is a good thing. I’m not scared of what people think.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: