Two weeks before Election Day, the three men who are running for a four-year term as Portland mayor sought to differentiate themselves on a wide range of women’s issues in a forum before more than 50 people at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall.

During the hourlong event Tuesday evening, the candidates broke some new ground by discussing the lack of diversity on the city’s boards, committees and staff, as well as the minimum wage, transgender rights, paid sick leave and protests at Planned Parenthood’s clinic on Congress Street.

Mayor Michael Brennan and challenger Ethan Strimling, a former state senator, agreed in principle on many of the issues, but that didn’t stop them from showing their differences.

Green Independent Party leader Tom MacMillan repeatedly set himself apart from both, highlighting the fact that he is the only candidate to support rent control and a $15 minimum wage – changes that he said can make the city more affordable for women.

“If you think the minimum wage should be a living wage, I’m the only candidate that agrees with you,” he said, noting that tipped workers would see a base wage increase of about $7.50 an hour.

All three candidates said they support requiring employers to give workers paid sick leave.

Strimling said he was raised by a single mother who taught him about feminism. He said the nonprofit he heads, LearningWorks, has already taken steps to have a diverse staff, noting that 13 of his 16 managers are women or people of color, and that his highest-paid executive is a woman. He said diversity would be important to him when appointing city committees.

“This is making sure that my staff is made up of people who can do the work and represent the community,” he said.

Brennan said he had just met with the city manager about ways to increase diversity on city boards and committees. He said there isn’t much a mayor can do to encourage women and people of color to run for office.

The City Council now has only one female member, Jill Duson, who is black.

MacMillan, who was also raised by a single mother, said he would push for term limits to break up the “good old boys” club of “politically connected white men” that the council has become.

He said he would also push for a clean election system in the city, so more people can compete against candidates who can raise $50,000 to $90,000 for their campaigns.

Regarding transgender people, MacMillan said the city should not have gender-specific bathrooms, while Strimling said he would make sure transgender people are covered under the city’s health plan, noting he has done that at LearningWorks.

Brennan conceded that he has only recently learned that transgender employees are not covered under the city’s health plan, but is eager to address it. “I wish I had acted more quickly in the last year,” he said.

Brennan went on the attack when asked about the city’s relationship with Gov. Paul LePage, who has visited LearningWorks and celebrated Strimling’s work there. Brennan said that by working with other mayors and legislators, he was able to reduce the impact of state spending cuts and policy changes on the city.

“What scares me is that (LePage) said he prefers to have Ethan as mayor, rather than me,” said Brennan, adding that he is most equipped to stand up to the governor.

Strimling criticized Brennan for not doing more to prevent people from being harassed when they enter the Planned Parenthood clinic on Congress Street.

The council tried to create a buffer zone in 2013, but repealed it in 2014 after a similar zone was ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

Strimling noted that other communities have acted quickly to create legally defensible buffer zones.

“I find it particularly frustrating that we haven’t done anything,” he said. “We see this escalating violence around the country and we have done nothing. It won’t take six months, when I’m mayor, to get something through.”

The forum was sponsored by the Maine Women’s Policy Center, the Maine People’s Alliance, the NAACP and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, among others. Nicole Clegg, Planned Parenthood’s vice president of public policy and former Portland City Hall communications director, moderated.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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