In 2015, the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce was one of the many groups to endorse Ethan Strimling’s bid to unseat Mayor Michael Brennan, whose signature policy achievement was enacting a local minimum wage ordinance.

But now, Strimling and the chamber are engaged in a war of words triggered by a proposal to make Portland the first municipality in the state to require businesses to provide earned paid sick time to all employees, including part time and seasonal. Yet it’s clear their differences are much deeper than one policy disagreement and stretch into the mayor’s leadership style, which has also frustrated city councilors and the manager.

Last week, chamber CEO Quincy Hentzel wrote an Op-Ed column in the Press Herald, attacking the mayor for “waging a war of division” between workers and employers and having “little respect for the critical role our businesses play in the growth and prosperity of our city.” She expressed concern that a speaker at a rally promoted by the mayor and organized by his allies, the Maine Women’s Lobby and the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, called on residents to boycott any business that opposed the sick leave proposal.

Adding fuel to the fire was Strimling’s budget proposal to hit businesses with $1.6 million in fee increases for licenses and building permits, as well as increasing registration fees for both long-term and short-term rental units. His proposal was a way to prevent education cuts and shift more of the tax burden from residents to businesses.

The public spat marks a complete turnaround for the chamber, which despite its endorsement of Strimling never publicly called out Brennan like it has the current mayor.

“From the very beginning of his tenure as mayor, Strimling has been involved in conflict after conflict. At the center of most of the divisiveness at City Hall, Strimling is the common denominator,” Hentzel said in an interview. “He’s initiated conflict with the city manager. He’s initiated conflict with the City Council. And now he’s trying to pick a fight with the business community at large.”


Strimling responded to the chamber’s Op-Ed column the next day by arguing that the chamber is “out of touch” with Portland residents by failing to embrace his key policy issues, including paid sick time, a $64 million bond to renovate four elementary schools, and policies that protect renters from rising rents and evictions. He also mentioned the chamber’s previous opposition to Brennan’s minimum wage increase and support for selling Congress Square Park.

“When will the Portland Chamber get on the right side of history?” the mayor wrote on Facebook. “The Chamber has either opposed or remained silent on some of the most important needs for our community in the past five years. It is time to stop obstructing progress.”

Strimling also upped the rhetoric in an interview, describing the chamber as a “special interest representing a thin slice” of the city’s 4,600 or so businesses. He said the chamber wants the city to ignore the voice of workers in the city.

Strimling used the chamber’s opposition to paid sick leave in a fundraising email for Betsy Sweet, who is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. That email promotes a $15-an-hour minimum wage and calls out the chamber and its “corporate lobbyists” for “doing whatever they can” to oppose a policy that helps low-income people.

“This is about a power struggle and it’s ideological,” Strimling said in the interview. “They are out of step. They seem to be thinking that I’m going to do their bidding. They don’t have the ability to say to me what I’m going to put in and what I’m not going to put in” a policy.

For the chamber, Strimling’s proposals and leadership style have betrayed one of the central tenets of his campaign, which received significant financial support from real estate developers and a collection of endorsements from a diverse range of groups and individuals: that he would be a listener-in-chief and unifying force in Portland.


“We thought we were getting someone who was listening and would be a better leader and that’s not what we have seen,” said longtime chamber board member Michael Bourque. “Communication is a two-way thing. It really is about listening and talking. It has seemed certainly in the more recent times there is a lot of talking and not a lot of listening.”

City councilors and City Manager Jon Jennings have expressed similar frustrations with Strimling, who repeatedly said during his campaign that the mayor should be the chairman of the council. It all came to a head during a four-hour public meeting last summer, when Jennings questioned the mayor’s trustworthiness and City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau asked the mayor to “get it together” and begin working collaboratively with the council.

Strimling said he’s been keeping up his end of the bargain with businesses, some of which support paid sick leave. He said the chamber no longer attends his monthly meetings with the business community and did not respond to his outreach prior to unveiling his sick leave proposal. Conversely, Hentzel and chamber board President Jack Lufkin said the chamber was not invited to help draft the policy.

And when Strimling tried to attend a chamber meeting in April about the sick leave proposal, he said he was “kicked out.” But Hentzel pushed back on the mayor’s characterizations, saying the chamber allowed him to stay for a half-hour, even though he wasn’t invited to the private board meeting.

“He did not seem to appreciate the ardent opposition to his proposal, and he struggled to answer many of the questions and concerns posed to him,” she said. “After roughly a half-hour, we wrapped up the discussion with the mayor, thanked him for coming, and let him know we were going to proceed with our meeting as planned.”

Strimling is now questioning the city’s decision to partner with the chamber on a survey about whether businesses provide paid sick leave and how a requirement for them to do so would impact their business. The city appears to have worked with the chamber to draft the questions and distribute the survey.


Strimling is upset because he knew nothing about the survey, which also includes a question about whether business would be willing to “share your thoughts” with the council. And the survey incorrectly says that it was being done at the request of a council committee, but no formal votes were made to partner with the group, he said.

“This is just another example of (the chamber) trying to flex their muscles, and to have the city of Portland collaborate with them is problematic,” the mayor said. “It was asking for opinions and asking people to lobby their council. It’s completely tainted any results we get from the survey.”

A similar survey by Portland Buy Local, a group of about 400 local independent business owners and 30 individual members, showed that a majority of businesses do not provide earned paid sick days to employees and even more oppose a requirement to do so.

A little more than half of the 61 business owners who responded said they do not currently provide paid sick time and 69 percent opposed the new ordinance. However, once additional input from managers and other Buy Local contacts was added, support for the ordinance rose slightly to 58 percent. Participants were also allowed to provide anonymous written comments, many of which were critical of the proposal.

Hentzel said the survey seeks to accomplish what the mayor failed to do before drafting the proposal.

“The mayor feels like we are encouraging businesses to reach out to the council and oppose the ordinance. That is not what is asked in the survey,” Hentzel said. “It simply asks businesses to reach out to the council to let them know how this ordinance might impact them.”

She added, “I feel it (is) critically important to encourage businesses (and people) to engage in and be a part of civil discourse and the democratic process regarding issues in our city.”

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