It’s election time in Portland, which means it’s time to roll out a new version of Ethan Strimling.

If you’ve been watching, you’ve already seen the 2011 candidate to be Portland’s “CEO,” the one who promised he would “find a way to say ‘yes’ ” to developers like the group that wanted to build on the city-owned Maine State Pier.

Then we saw the consensus-builder candidate in 2015, where Strimling won the race promising to be the city’s “listener in chief,” who would put an end to the divisiveness on the City Council. 

This year’s model is a fire-breathing progressive populist, who rails about the class war with “monied interests” that control City Hall.

Running for office is always a kind of performance, and Strimling is not the first candidate to tailor his message to the times.

But few can match his flexibility when it comes to the quick change. In fact, you could run a pretty lively campaign with only these three Ethans on the ballot.

Imagine this debate: On one side of the stage you have 2011 Ethan – the one who announced his candidacy on the Maine State Pier. He demanded to know why there was no big office building and luxury hotel on top of the public’s best place to fish or watch the activity in the harbor.

“There’s nothing out there, why?” Strimling asked while standing on the pier. “They wanted to make a $100 million investment, and we couldn’t find a way to say ‘yes.’ We couldn’t find a way to say ‘thank you.’ ”

Strimling declared that the people did not want a mayor, they wanted a “CEO” who would run City Hall like a business. All that sounded good to a number of Portland-area business leaders, who rewarded Strimling with campaign donations.

But he came in second in the 15-way race, pushing him to the sidelines while Michael Brennan served as the city’s first elected mayor in almost a century. Almost immediately, Brennan found himself in conflict with city councilors who were not willing to hand over their power in the new political system.

Which brings us our next candidate on the debate stage, 2015’s earnest, problem-solver Ethan. He said that Brennan had to go because he created too much conflict with fellow councilors and city staff. Although the two candidates agreed on most policy matters, Strimling said Brennan’s brusque leadership style was stifling progress.

“Your own policies are only as strong as your ability to bring people together and join you in that,” he explained. “Every word that comes out of your mouth, you’re speaking for the city. Your job is to carry the emotional weight of the city. Every day you’re carrying its joy, its fear, its sadness, and its hope.”

This time, Strimling got the endorsement of the Portland Chamber of Commerce and four members of the City Council. He also got the endorsement of this newspaper, which called Strimling the “best communicator in the race.” The editorial observed: “Over his career … Strimling has shown his ability to think on his feet and adapt to changing circumstances.”

(Sometimes you are more right than you know.)

Strimling’s first year in office was a disaster. He immediately started a power struggle with City Manager Jon Jennings, only to discover that his fellow members of the City Council supported Jennings, not him.

Strimling demanded a legal opinion that would have given him more direct power and called for a task force to interpret the charter his way.

Every time he lost, he further alienated himself from the council. Since the mayor of Portland can’t do anything without a council majority, Strimling had to find new ways to stay relevant.

And that gives us the latest Ethan, a working-class hero with a booming voice ready to stick it to “the man.”

This one is running to because “the monied interests in this city, the developers, the multimillion-dollar hotels and million-dollar condos that are going up on every corner, run too much at City Hall,” he told voters in Libbytown last week. “My job is to be your voice.”

Those inclined toward charity will look at this as growth. No matter what he said in the past, you could argue that Strimling is moving in the right direction.

But the progressives who think that that they’ve seen the real Strimling should talk to the fans of the 2011 Ethan – who wanted to teach us how to say “yes please” and “thank you” to developers – or the “Kumbaya” candidate of 2015.

There’s a reason he needs to change costume so often. These acts have a way of getting old, fast.

 


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