First of three parts

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan’s social and political activism can be traced to the late 1970s when he was doing work for Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and activist who would later run for president.

Brennan was fresh out of college, with an education degree from Florida State University, when he took a job in Massachusetts working with Nader, helping to build a nationwide network of attorneys for low-income people and advocating against nuclear energy.

“That had a really big influence on my life because (Nader) was the ultimate example about how one person could make a difference,” the 62-year-old Brennan said.

In some ways, that also is how Brennan views his job as Portland’s full-time elected mayor. Rather than being the most powerful of nine city councilors, Brennan sees himself as one man trying to make a difference. And he hopes to keep at it for four more years.

Brennan is being challenged by Ethan Strimling, a fellow former Democratic lawmaker and nonprofit director, and Portland Green Independent Party leader Tom MacMillan. Election Day is Nov. 3.

While his opponents say Brennan hasn’t worked well with the City Council or listened to differing viewpoints, Brennan is unapologetic about focusing on initiatives that he believes have the support of voters. Brennan said he wants to continue advocating for the city at the state and federal levels, and advancing priorities such as improving education, expanding workforce training and promoting local food.

Brennan became the city’s first popularly elected mayor in 88 years when he won the 15-candidate mayoral election of 2011. Soon after taking office, he was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer and had surgery to have a slow-moving tumor removed from his intestine. He said he still gets monthly treatments, and his prognosis – and his overall health – remains good.

The cancer “was a huge surprise, because generally speaking, I had been in good health and fairly athletic and active,” Brennan said. “You realize that the work you’re doing and how you’re spending your time becomes more focused and more precious.”

CITY GOVERNMENT’S GROWING PAINS

As the first to assume the new role of full-time mayor, Brennan has at times clashed with city councilors as both have tried to define their roles in a new power structure at City Hall. Before the change to a full-time elected mayor in 2011, city councilors chose part-time mayors who would serve for a year at a time and had little additional power beyond chairing council meetings.

Councilors have fought to preserve their ability to guide the city’s priorities and policies, while the mayor has focused much of his attention on his own initiatives, working with groups outside of City Hall and representing the city’s interests in the state’s capital.

Brennan said his successes during his first term include reinstating the state’s circuit-breaker program, which provides property tax rebates, and fighting against more drastic state cuts to revenue sharing payments to the city.

Brennan’s most high-profile accomplishment was creating a $10.10-an-hour citywide minimum wage that will take effect in January, with future increases tied to inflation. The ordinance makes Portland the only community in the state with a minimum wage above the state’s $7.50 an hour minimum.

A referendum question on the Nov. 3 city ballot – which Brennan opposes – would gradually increase the wage again to $15 an hour.

Brennan also has been in the spotlight when he’s battled the administration of Gov. Paul LePage – with mixed results – on such issues as public assistance funding.

For example, the city lost a court case that challenged the administration’s decision to stop providing state General Assistance funds for asylum seekers who could not afford to pay rent or other basic expenses. The city, with Brennan’s support, continued providing aid at its own expense. The state is now expected to restore the funds – at least temporarily – after LePage failed to veto a bill making asylum seekers eligible.

Brennan’s focus on collaborating with community groups and state legislators and working independently of the council has prompted many of his colleagues to endorse Strimling, including four of the eight councilors and seven of nine school board members.

Brennan downplays the division on the council and defends his view that the mayor is popularly elected by voters citywide to carry out his own policy initiatives and advocate for the city’s interest at the state and federal levels.

“I think there are some councilors who have not accepted that we have a new way of governing in the city,” Brennan said.

He said it shouldn’t be surprising that the council has been divided at times, given that the city has been under attack from the LePage administration, forcing the city to deal with thorny issues that include immigration, welfare and homelessness. “Ultimately, I think the council has made the right decisions,” he said.

If re-elected, Brennan said he intends to carry on with his first-term initiatives and also expand access to broadband Internet, provide city-owned land for affordable housing developments and create a program to divert heroin addicts from jail into treatment programs, among other things.

BACKGROUND IN EDUCATION, SOCIAL ACTIVISM

Brennan has deep roots in Portland. He often relates a story about how his grandmother came to Portland as an Irish immigrant.

Brennan was born to a “very religious” Irish Catholic family on Munjoy Hill. Although he has lived in Portland for the past 45 years, he spent most of his childhood years in Miami. In 1968, his father lost his job as a ticket taker at Union Station in Portland and followed a job to Miami.

Brennan, the second-oldest of five children, was an altar boy and sang in the church choir. He attended a private Catholic school until the eighth grade, when he became the first member of his family to attend a public school.

He would play high school football – as a fullback – before attending Florida State University, working on the side as a union construction laborer and an editor for the university newspaper.

With a degree in education, he returned to Portland and worked as an educator at two public housing projects – teaching adult education at Sagamore Village and running a recreation program at Kennedy Park.

After that, he worked for Nader. From 1979-1980, he was a field coordinator for the Equal Justice Foundation and the Campaign for Safe Energy.

He also served a stint as the director of community programs for United Way from 1984 to 1991. In that capacity, he served on the city’s homeless shelter committee, which played a lead role in the city’s commitment in the 1980s to house anyone in need of emergency shelter.

He went on to serve in the Maine House of Representatives from 1992 to 2000, then in the Maine Senate in 2002, and became the Senate majority leader in 2004.

As mayor, Brennan is intensely focused on state-level politics, often traveling to Augusta to meet with lawmakers and testify in front of committees.

While Strimling notes that property taxes have increased by 15 percent over the past four years, Brennan said the city has done well in the face of state changes in welfare spending, revenue sharing and education funding.

“We have had to work hard in the city of Portland to maintain services, invest in our school and keep property taxes at a reasonable level,” he said.