Portland’s business community flexed its financial and organizational might Tuesday to defeat two citizens initiatives that would have strengthened the bargaining positions of tenants and residents who oppose developments in their neighborhoods.

The full scope of spending this election cycle will not be known until Dec. 19, when the final finance reports are due. But based on reports already filed at City Hall, the campaign to defeat Portland’s Question 1, which would have brought a form of rent control to Maine’s largest city, raised nearly $305,000, while the campaign against Question 2, which would have allowed residents to block zone changes, raised over $100,000.

In both cases, opponents brandished way more firepower in the electoral battlefield than proponents.

Fair Rent Portland, which pushed Question 1, raised less than 5 percent of the money raised by the Say No To Rent Control group. And Give Neighborhoods a Voice, the group behind Question 2, which would have changed the city’s zoning process, has yet to reach the $5,000 mark that would require it to formally register as a ballot question committee.

Question 1 on rents was defeated 64 percent to 36 percent, while Question 2 about rezoning went down by a closer margin of 53 percent to 47 percent.

Munjoy Hill resident Joey Brunelle, who placed second in a three-way race for the at-large seat on the City Council, made campaign finance a central theme in his campaign. Vowing not to accept money from real estate developers or out-of-state sources, Brunelle returned a $20 check to a Massachusetts woman after the donation was reported by the Press Herald.

A proponent of rent control, Brunelle described the amount of money in this year’s citywide campaigns as “mind-blowing” and said he planned to continue his push for a municipal clean elections program, as well as push for changes that would require campaigns to disclose donors who contribute less than $50.

“I am blown away they raised over a quarter of a million dollars to fight Question 1,” he said. “Regardless of where people fall on the rent control issue, we should all be horrified that kind of money is being raised for a municipal ballot campaign.”

He added: “This is a problem that’s getting worse, not better. It’s something we need to get ahead of to make sure our democratic process remains democratic.”

The opposition to Question 2 included Maine Medical Center, which is currently planning a $512 million expansion that hinges on a zoning change that is going before the City Council sometime this month.

Not only did the hospital’s parent company, MaineHealth, donate $5,000 to One Portland, the ballot question committee opposing the measure, but it formed its own committee a week before the election, infusing it with nearly $10,000.

That money was used for a full-page ad in the Press Herald that was undersigned by Avesta Housing and the AARP and staff time. The committee also invested in other social media and communications efforts to staff that will be reported in December, according to John Porter, spokesman for MaineHealth.

“Institutionally, our leadership felt like it was a fundamentally flawed proposal that would be bad for the community,” Porter said. “And it could have threatened our project.”

It’s not the first time Maine Med has engaged on local issues. When a citizens initiative was proposed in 2015 to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, MaineHealth donated $15,000 to the group looking to defeat it. Another big player that year was the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, which donated $32,000 and was the public face of the campaign.

This year the chamber gave opponents a forum to discuss their concerns at their Eggs & Issues series and donated $10,000 to One Portland, whose campaign also got a boost from the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, which contributed $14,400 in cash and in-kind staff time to the effort. The campaign was also supported by those in the engineering, architectural and construction fields, including $9,000 from three limited liability companies controlled by local developer Jonathan Cohen.

Chamber CEO Quincy Hentzel said too much was at stake for the growth of the city’s economy and housing market for the chamber to sit on the sidelines.

“Portland Question 2 was a critical one for our membership,” Hentzel said in an email. “The passage of this ordinance was such a losing proposition for Portland, we felt our involvement was imperative as one of many voices in a coalition, working together in opposition.”

Heather Sanborn, a spokeswoman for One Portland, highlighted support from other groups like Preble Street, Avesta and commercial fishermen, whose word-of-mouth campaign was key to defeating Question 2.

“There was just this really broad and unrelated set of folks who were all unified in their opposition to this,” Sanborn said.

But some of the most eye-popping financial activity occurred against Portland’s Question 1, which would have limited rent increases to the rate of inflation, make it more difficult to evict tenants and establish a rent board to oversee the city’s rental market, which makes up nearly 60 percent of the city’s housing stock.

Say No To Rent Control raised a staggering $303,000 to defeat the proposal to vastly overpower Fair Rent Portland, the group that authored the ordinance and collected signatures to get it on the ballot. Fair Rent Portland so far has reported raising only $13,535.

Opponents of rent control received a lot of support from outside Maine. More than $125,000 was raised from out-of-state sources, which accounted for 41 percent of the contributions reported.

The biggest out-of-state donor was the National Association of Realtors Fund, which accounted for 61 percent of the out-of-state total. The Chicago-based NAR Fund donated $24,500 in in-kind polling services, in addition to donating more than $51,000 in cash, including a nearly $22,000 donation on Oct. 28.

The funding allowed Say No to Rent Control to invest heavily in the final few days of the campaign, including a $93,900 ad-buy on Oct. 31 on radio and television, as well as $5,000 on targeted phone calls on Nov. 6 – the day before the election.

filed under: