Second of three parts

Tom MacMillan believes his passion for social justice started with his own childhood struggles with poverty and what he says is a political system that puts profits ahead of people.

Born in Portland, MacMillan said his dad’s struggle with alcoholism forced his family to move 12 times, mostly in the East Deering neighborhood, before he was 13 years old. His mother, a medical technician, had to tolerate sexual harassment from their landlord to keep one of their apartments, he said. And from time to time, his family had to rely on public assistance to get by.

“My life is part of what’s happening to everyone,” the 29-year-old MacMillan said. “That’s what helped me connect what’s going on in the broader economy with my circumstances.”

MacMillan is one of two challengers looking to unseat incumbent Mayor Michael Brennan on Nov. 3. The other opponent is Ethan Strimling, a former state lawmaker and nonprofit director.

Brennan and Strimling, both former Democratic state lawmakers, agree on many issues. MacMillan stands apart, and he says his opponents wouldn’t make the changes that Portland residents are seeking.

“People are sick and tired of the status quo,” MacMillan said. “Portland residents have given up hope that their City Council represents them. The City Council is supposed to be the most accessible level of government.”


MacMillan, a special education technician, faces an uphill battle against his well-known opponents, who have a proven ability to raise a lot of money to get out their messages. In fact, three elected members of the Portland Green Independent Party, which MacMillan has led for the past three years, have endorsed Strimling.

MacMillan dismisses those endorsements. He says Brennan, Strimling and the council as a whole are “owned and paid for by lobbyists and developers.”

“I feel like I’m in a different world than the other mayoral candidates,” he said.

MacMillan said he first began to connect global economic and political struggles to the local level when he traveled to post-war Kosovo at age 16 and stayed with a friend he met through Seeds of Peace, a New York City-based nonprofit that promotes peace-building skills by bringing teenagers from international conflict regions to a camp in Otisfield. That experience opened his eyes to war, poverty, discrimination and exploitation inherent in a political system that put profits over people, he said.

He got his first taste of politics and community organizing while attending Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he graduated in 2009 with a degree in international development. MacMillan and other students protested the university president’s decision to ban a pro-Palestinian speaker from campus because his lecture was scheduled to occur on the same day as a Holocaust conference.

“That was my first taste of direct political action and protests and changing hearts and minds more broadly,” he said.

MacMillan came back to Portland in 2009 when his mother died at age 49 from pancreatic cancer. His father and grandfather died the following year, and his grandmother died in 2011.

In Portland, MacMillan worked as a volunteer on City Councilor David Marshall’s 2011 mayoral campaign. Marshall finished fourth out of 15 candidates.


MacMillan has never held elected office, but he doesn’t think that should be a requirement for mayor because it is the city manager’s job to handle day-to-day operations. He thinks the mayor should have experience as a community organizer who is at ease with poor people and minorities.

“The mayor’s job is to provide the vision for the city and set the priorities for the city and run meetings, and I have done all of the those,” he said.

In recent years, MacMillan has helped re-establish the Portland Tenants Union to improve housing conditions. He helped draft a proposed ordinance to establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Portland and to increase the city’s base wage for tipped workers from $3.75 to $11.25 an hour. That proposal will be decided by voters Nov. 3.

MacMillan co-founded the nonprofit that successfully overturned the city’s sale of Congress Square Park. He also advocated for a successful citywide referendum that declared recreational marijuana use to be legal in Portland, a vote that fueled the statewide legalization effort even though city police say it hasn’t changed their enforcement of state law against recreational use.

Gentrification is a big concern for MacMillan. Not only does he believe that the city should establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage to help workers better afford rising rents, but he also says it should prohibit landlords from raising rents on existing tenants, and should give tenants more time – 90 days instead of 30 – to find a new apartment when being evicted. He also believes the city should hire a full-time tenant advocate to handle housing complaints.

MacMillan said an inclusionary zoning ordinance supported by Brennan, which would require that new apartment buildings with 10 units or more make 10 percent of them affordable to the middle class, doesn’t go far enough. He believes 30 percent of all new housing units should be affordable to the middle class.

“That’s not overreach – that’s making a law that reflects the needs of tenants,” he said. “(Landlords) are providing a public service.”

MacMillan is the only candidate raising the issue of racial profiling by police, noting that black people make up 7 percent of Portland’s population but account for 18 percent of the arrests. City officials claim he is overstating the disparity.

He also accuses police of selectively enforcing some city ordinances, such as public drinking and anti-smoking rules, while ignoring others, such as the ordinance aimed at legalizing recreational marijuana.

“We criminalize poverty and we criminalize people of color,” he said. “We don’t enforce public drinking laws or smoking laws unless they’re homeless.”

MacMillan’s website states that anyone making less than the mayor – $70,000 a year – deserves a property tax break. He said in an interview that the program would be funded by eliminating tax breaks for businesses, assessing a surcharge on ticket sales at city facilities and examining the police department’s $14.3 million budget.

He conceded that the $70,000 income benchmark may need to be revised downward, after he was told that about 85 percent of the city’s 66,000 residents would receive the tax break.

“The general principle is that taxes are too high. We need targeted tax relief if we’re going to be a city for all people,” he said. “I think we should just say no sometimes to corporate welfare and development at all costs.”


MacMillan is the only mayoral candidate to support Question 2 on the city ballot, which would create a way for citizens to protect scenic views from being blocked by new development projects. He is concerned about the increase in luxury housing projects, and dismisses the idea that building high-end housing will ultimately reduce housing costs for lower-income residents, calling it a “pseudo-economic idea.”

MacMillan concedes that some of his views are well-left of the council, comprised mostly of Democrats, and that there would likely be many 8-1 votes if he were elected mayor.

However, he points to Seattle, where a self-described socialist was elected mayor and the Democratic council is making an effort to find middle ground.

“I think there’s a role for a really radically minded politician in local government,” he said, “and that’s what I would bring as mayor.”

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