Portland’s mayoral candidates participate in a lightning round of questioning Wednesday night. From left, Travis Curran, Kate Snyder, Ethan Strimling and Spencer Thibodeau take part in the candidates forum at the Jewish Community Alliance. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Four candidates vying to become Portland’s next mayor squared off for the first time Wednesday night, sparring over a range of issues from a lack of affordable housing to homelessness to providing property tax relief to the role of the mayor.

Mayor Ethan Strimling portrayed himself at Wednesday’s forum as a voice for the people.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Mayor Ethan Strimling, 51, defended his first four-year term in office, which featured high-profile clashes with the city manager and his fellow councilors. He repeatedly portrayed himself as a fighter and voice of the people in City Hall.

“I’m not going to apologize for that because every minute I was there, I was fighting for the things I believed the people of this city wanted me to accomplish,” Strimling said. “Sometimes you have to ruffle feathers. Sometimes you don’t. Big change is hard but that is what this moment needs because we all feel it. We’re losing a little bit of our city.”

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau and former school board member Kate Snyder offered a different, more collaborative approach to the position.

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said that, as mayor, he would be an “honest broker.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Thibodeau suggested Strimling’s approach has led to distrust among his fellow councilors and a lack of faith in city government. On several occasions he vowed to be “an honest broker.”

“For the first time in 7 years you have the opportunity to elect someone with council experience and I am that person,” said Thibodeau, a 31-year-old real estate attorney. “We need real experience in this position. Someone who will do what they said they will do, which is work with the city manager and the City Council.”

Snyder, meanwhile, pointed to her six years of experience on the school board, highlighting that she was chosen twice by her peers to chair the board and twice to lead its finance committee. She served when the board was struggling with a $2 million deficit, which was followed by the Great Recession.

Former school board member Kate Snyder noted her experience on the board, and as its chair. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“When I see policies and activism that seems to divides us, that worries me,” said Snyder, a 49-year-old former executive director of an educational nonprofit. “I think compromise is the gold standard of public policy making.”

Travis Curran, a 33-year-old restaurant server, said he was best positioned to be voice of the people, saying he wants to end street harassment and protect the working waterfront. Curran acknowledged his lack of political experience, but said he is a fast learner and always willing to listen and build new relationships.

“I’m looking out for the little guy,” Curran said. “I am one of you and I promise to be your voice on the City Council.”

The event, organized and co-hosted by the Jewish Community Alliance in conjunction with the Nasons Corner Neighborhood Association, Libbytown Neighborhood Association, University Neighborhood Organization, residents from Stroudwater Village and Deering Center, was the first time all four candidates were on stage together.

Strimling did not attend a previous forum held by the Back Cove Neighborhood Association and sent school board member Emily Figdor as a stand-in for a Tuesday night forum hosted by Realtor Ed Gardner. And there will be a handful of additional forums in the coming weeks.

Travis Curran, a political newcomer, said, “I’m looking out for the little guy.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

One hot-button issue was the City Council’s decision to choose Riverside Street for a new homeless shelter, which is located in District 5. Thibodeau was the only candidate to support the decision and vow to fund it. He said it was the best of the two options presented to the council, with the other being Angelo’s Acre on Commercial Street.

He suggested the mayor could have done more to help facilitate that process.

“There should have been during that time a discussion with neighborhood associations to distribute information and get feedback,” he said. “The next mayor needs to be about outreach to those neighborhood associations.”

Strimling, meanwhile, said the issue was a clear example of the contrasts between himself and Thibodeau. He vowed to asked the council to reconsider its decision and instead begin planning for multiple shelters across the city, an approach that has been repeatedly shot down by the council.

Snyder criticized the council’s process, saying that in the end people felt like there were winners and losers.

“We have got to do better,” she said. “We’ll never get the buy-in from the community if we don’t create partners out of them.”

To address the affordable housing shortage, Strimling said he would continue to advocate for the council to pass a $10 million housing bond, ban unhosted short-term rentals and double the amount of affordable housing units developers build. He said he’d seek to make the city more affordable by expanding the senior property tax relief program to all residents.

Thibodeau said he doesn’t support any additional restrictions on short-term rentals, pointing out that unhosted ones are already capped at 400. Instead, he would like to take five city-owned parcels and work with developers to create housing that’s affordable for the “missing middle,” or people making between $30,000 and $70,000 a year. He also wants the city to explore housing co-ops.

While Strimling repeatedly railed against developers, Synder suggested that was counterproductive.

“We have to be careful not to vilify people,” she said. “There are people in our community that do good work to build housing.”

Curran said the city needs to add overnight bus routes for service works. He also supports ending unhosted short-term rentals, saying that his friends and coworkers have been kicked out of apartments so they can be converted to that use.

A lightning round of yes or no questions produced some interesting results. All four candidates supported overdose protection sites, needle exchanges, ranked-choice voting, clean elections, rent stabilization, voting rights for non-citizens and using city money to provide mainland parking for island residents.

Strimling and Curran supported a charter revision to eliminate the professional city manager position and give the mayor control over all city operations.

This will be the city’s third mayoral election since switching in 2011 from a ceremonial mayor appointed by fellow members of the council to a mayor elected by city voters.

Portland’s mayor is a full-time position that currently pays about $73,000 a year and carries a four-year term, which is one year longer than the terms of other councilors and one year longer than school board terms. However, the mayor has no executive control over city staffing or operations – those duties belong to the city manager.

The mayor’s duties include working with councilors to establish citywide goals and implementing those goals through the city manager. The mayor is also tasked with providing comments on city budgets, giving an annual “State of the City” address, and advocating for the city at the state and federal levels.


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