Last in three-part series

Ethan Strimling is best known as a political personality – candidate, former legislator, and TV and newspaper pundit.

But he says he is most proud of the nonprofit he leads – LearningWorks, which helps low-income families, immigrants and at-risk youth. In some ways, Strimling says, he sees a bit of himself in the kids who come to the West End agency.

His parents divorced when he was 3 years old and the family struggled financially, relying on food stamps to get by. Spaghetti was a frequent family meal when he was growing up, and he remembers his mother adding food coloring to the pasta to make it seem different.

Strimling said he started making “bad decisions” at age 10 after moving from New Jersey to California, including starting fires in piles of trash. He stole from a family friend and ran away from home for short periods of time. His mother eventually sent him to New York to live with his father, an actor.

“I think what I felt growing up was being lost and alone, and that’s what you see here,” Strimling said about LearningWorks, a once troubled organization he is widely credited with turning around. “I acted out a lot. I think I was looking for attention.”

Now, at 48, he is one of two challengers looking to unseat incumbent Mayor Michael Brennan on Nov. 3. The other challenger is Tom MacMillan, a special education technician and leader of the Portland Green Party.

It’s a rematch for Strimling. In the 2011 race, he came in 1,833 votes behind Brennan, finishing second among 15 candidates.

PROMISES TO BE ‘LISTENER IN CHIEF’

Strimling promises to be the “listener in chief” of the city. It’s a message that seeks to capitalize on the frustrations that some councilors and residents have expressed about Brennan, who believes that he has an obligation to pursue his own policy goals outside of the council, rather than simply taking direction from councilors. Four city councilors and seven of the nine school board members endorsed Strimling, citing his ability to listen.

“Your own policies are only as strong as your ability to bring people together and join you in that,” Strimling said.

So far, Strimling has not released a detailed policy agenda, saying he is listening to voters about their priorities. Strimling’s campaign has said he will release a “complete rundown of the vision Ethan has heard Portland residents want implemented,” although he is not campaigning on any major policy differences with Brennan.

Instead, Strimling has been promoting numerous endorsements by labor groups, including city firefighters, and current and former elected leaders. He has touted endorsements through traditional news conferences and videos posted to social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

It wasn’t until a live televised debate on Tuesday that he announced his opposition to Questions 1 and 2 – contentious issues on the city ballot that would establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage and allow residents to protect scenic views from development, respectively. Brennan also opposes both questions.

Also during the debate, Strimling expressed an interest in creating more accountability in the city’s social service programs, establishing a program to provide property tax relief to the elderly, offering universal prekindergarten citywide and improving access to broadband Internet.

His view of the full-time mayor’s role has changed since his 2011 campaign, when he promised to be a strong, CEO-style leader, even though day-to-day city operations are overseen by the city manager. Now he believes the mayor should act like the president of the board of directors, who would lead and take direction from the council.

“Your first job is to go in and hear what this body wants to accomplish,” Strimling said. “You have to bring people together because if that body is divided, then your organization is divided and your city is divided.”

FINDING A PATH AND A PURPOSE

Strimling said he learned to cope with his parents’ divorce and overcome his rebellious inclinations by becoming involved in the theater.

He attended the Juilliard School from 1985 to 1987 and said it was a safe place with caring adults who allowed him to process his emotions. Juilliard is a prestigious performance arts school in Manhattan, where he focused on acting, but also studied singing, dancing and directing.

But at the age of 19, he was ready for a change, so he moved to Maine and eventually attended the University of Maine in Orono. He graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in U.S. history. There he became involved in the Aspirations Project, which provided educational opportunities for at-risk kids and advocating for school reforms.

“That’s really when I began to see the path to education and the work I’ve been doing at LearningWorks,” he said.

Activism and politics were always part of his life. As a child, he would attend demonstrations and marches against nuclear weapons with his parents, while his dad was involved with the Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament.

While attending UMaine, he worked as the assistant field director for U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews. In 1995, he was the campaign manager for Democratic state Sen. Dale McCormick’s congressional campaign.

Three years later, a 29-year-old Strimling ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on the Portland City Council. He lost by about 24 votes, but was named the winner after the council awarded him 35 disputed ballots that were marked for a write-in candidate but had no names. Strimling ultimately decided not to take the seat amid public outcries of a stolen election and the launch of a recall effort to unseat five councilors who voted to give him the disputed ballots.

HELPING PEOPLE TOWARD MORE STABILITY

Over the last 18 years in his current job, Strimling has focused and refocused the mission of what was once a financially struggling nonprofit that provided an array of social services to low-income families, immigrants and at-risk youth. In 2009, he decided to focus the nonprofit’s mission on education, changing its name from Portland West to LearningWorks.

Since then, the organization has been able to serve more people, set and achieve more personal goals for its clients, and reduce costs for every person serviced, according to data provided by Strimling. The nonprofit’s operating budget has continued to grow, from $1.9 million in 2009 to $4.1 million in 2015.

Strimling said his philosophy is equal parts compassion and pushing people to take control of their own lives. “We need to have that philosophy in our government programs,” Strimling said.

That’s why he has hit Brennan over his response to a state audit, which revealed that some long-term clients at the city’s homeless shelter had money in bank accounts, but that the city was nevertheless paying for their shelter costs with state and local General Assistance funds. One of the shelter residents had been there a decade. Brennan and other elected officials held a news conference several days later defending the city’s programs, and Brennan argued that the city was a victim of a coordinated attack by the LePage administration but was managing its welfare programs properly.

Strimling has said the city should have been asking how that happened and vowing that it would never happen again.

“We should never say having someone be in a shelter for 10 years is good policy,” he said. “It’s not OK because it’s not OK for that person.”

He has also hit the mayor over his handling of the conflicts surrounding asylum seekers.

Over the last year and a half, much of the debate has been focused on the city’s effort to keep asylum-seeking immigrants eligible for General Assistance until they get federal work permits. Strimling supports that effort, but he says not enough attention has been paid to the more than 100 asylum seekers who had federal work permits, but continued to collect General Assistance.

“We’ve got to create accountability in our programs,” he said. “We need to help people transition from a life of poverty and instability into a more stable life.”