When I was a little boy, some of the neighborhood kids called me “Rubber Legs.” I’m not sure why, but I could tell that it wasn’t a compliment, and it made me cry.

Now I get called names all the time, but I’m more used to it.

One of the most common these days is “progressive,” which I can tell is supposed to hurt my feelings, but like “Rubber Legs,” I’m not really sure why. Is a “progressive” someone who supports gradual social change? Or is it a big-government statist who prefers diktat to personal freedom?

It all depends on who’s talking. That’s the problem with these labels. They don’t tell you much.

Last week, a group calling itself Progressive Portland jumped into the label war with some name-calling of its own. Only this time, as its name would suggest, “progressive” is not meant to be an insult. The group rated all the city councilors on their progressivity and issued a report card. You may be surprised to learn that by this measure, most of the elected officials in Maine’s most liberal city are failing badly.

Progressive Portland members say they are trying to make city government more accountable, but they’ll end up doing more harm than good if people take these ratings too seriously. The report card stirs up division inside a group of people who agree on almost everything almost all the time, and who need to cooperate to do their jobs.

You won’t get people to work together by calling them names.

To do its ratings, Progressive Portland’s steering committee picked 19 votes that they found to be indicative of a progressive political orientation. Then they scored each of last year’s City Council members based on what the group considered the “right” choice.

All nine councilors average a score of 56 percent collectively. Individually, Mayor Ethan Strimling led the class with 83 percent and former District 3 Councilor Ed Suslovic came in dead last with a score of 37 percent.

Pretty dismal for what’s supposed to be the most progressive town in Maine. But how seriously can you take these numbers?

For starters, progressiveness is not really a thing that you can objectively measure. It’s one thing for the National Rifle Association to say that “Congressman Jones has never voted for a bill we told him to oppose, so he gets an A.” It’s quite another to say that District 1 Councilor Belinda Ray (47 percent) is more progressive than District 5 Councilor David Brennerman (44 percent) because he voted to let the Elks Club property by the airport be developed as an office park and she voted to keep it zoned residential.

Close votes are not always revealing. Controversial issues are often controversial because there are good arguments for both sides or, perhaps more commonly, because all the available options suck.

What is the progressive agenda on a local level, anyway? Are water and sewer upgrades progressive? Could a progressive support a school renovation bond that results in tax hikes and rent increases?

What about supporting an industrial building on the waterfront that would create jobs but may block some views?

I think you can make a progressive argument for all of those things, but what do I know? When I ran down the list of Progressive Portland’s issues and asked myself how I might have voted, I got a 68 – much like my final grade in Algebra II. Needless to say, no one is asking me to do any engineering work for them.

But the worst thing about reducing a year of a city councilor’s work to a single number or a one-word label has to do with the nature of that work, especially in a small city like Portland.

Municipal government is not like Washington or Augusta. The elections are nonpartisan and, for the most part, so are the issues. Making the sewers flow in the right direction is not a philosophical debate. City government is usually more a matter of figuring out what you can afford to do on the list of things that absolutely have to get done.

Unlike the representatives on the state and federal level, city officials are right here. They have listed phone numbers and email addresses. If they don’t get back to us, we know where to find them every other Tuesday night.

Portland’s problem isn’t that it’s a city of progressives with a conservative government. It’s that the city is a complicated mix of people with different needs and expectations who all want to live in the same place.

You would need cooperation to take on a real “progressive” agenda. You won’t get anywhere by calling people names.

Take it from Rubber Legs.

Listen to Press Herald podcasts at www.pressherald.com/podcast.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @gregkesich

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