Portland mayoral hopefuls, from left, Travis Curran, Kate Snyder, incumbent Ethan Strimling and Spencer Thibodeau participate in a candidates forum last month. The four are running for a job that still defies clear definition. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Being mayor in Portland is a job like no other.

It’s a full-time elected position with little authority and no agreed-upon job description. The occupant can at different times act as a chairman of the board, an ambassador or an agitator who shakes things up. The mayor gets an office at City Hall, but Portland’s government is run by the city manager, who has a bigger and busier office down the hall.

This fall, Portland residents will be voting in the third mayoral election since the position was created in 2011. And, depending on who wins, the job may well be redefined all over again.

The sitting mayor, Ethan Strimling, says he has leveraged the job successfully and made a difference in his first term, even if that has meant clashing with other city officials.

“The role of the mayor is to be the voice of the people and to achieve results on their behalf,” Strimling said, adding that the mayor is “the official head of the city who drives policy for the council to consider.”

Strimling’s challengers, on the other hand, say the job has much more potential to lift up the city if the person who holds it is more of a team player.

“There can’t be two city managers,” said former school board Chairwoman Kate Snyder. “It’s not working.”

A WORK IN PROGRESS

Portland’s mayor is paid $76,615  a year and has few official duties. These include working with city councilors and the city manager to establish and implement citywide goals, providing comments on city budgets, delivering an annual “State of the City” address and advocating for the city at the state and federal levels. The mayor has the power to veto any budget passed by the council, which in turn has the power to override it. All of the executive duties remain with the city manager.

While the full-time presence and city-wide constituency give the mayor the opportunity to develop policy and build support, the mayor is just one of nine votes on the City Council. And although most city councilors represent specific parts of the city, three of the eight councilors also are elected at-large and serve a citywide constituency.

One of reasons the candidates’ views vary on the mayor’s role is because the job appears to be a unique.

It’s neither a strong mayor, such as the leaders of Boston or New York, nor is it a totally ceremonial mayor, the way it used to be when Portland city councilors took turns holding the job every year. It’s a hybrid, designed to leave municipal operations to the experienced professionals but have the ability to provide leadership beyond speeches and ribbon-cuttings.

In 2017,  when the council reviewed the mayor’s salary at Strimling’s request, Human Resources Director Gina Tapp said she was unable to find another city that had a full-time mayor who did not also run day-to-day operations. There was no opportunity for comparison.

The job was the brainchild of a charter commission that proposed it to city voters as a way to provide more leadership and sense of direction for the city. In its final report, the commission said the mayor should be a “unifying figure” who speaks for residents and consolidates the disparate views on the council. But it also stressed the need to keep a professional manager to safeguard the city’s financial health.

Anna Trevorrow, who was on the charter commission and isn’t taking sides in the upcoming election, said in an email that the mayor was given tools to carry out a policy vision.

“However, the sentiment was that this was still largely a ceremonial mayor, and that the position of mayor already was a full-time job (though not compensated as such). I remember one commissioner describing it as an ‘uber councilor,’ ” said Trevorrow, who now serves on the city’s Board of Education.

“I think there are examples in the last eight years that could be cited as the position not working as envisioned as well as working exactly as envisioned,” she said. “At the end of the day, the disputes in City Hall are both ideological and personal, so the same old question remains whether the solution is in the structure or in the people.”

Perhaps no one in the race embodies the ambiguity of the mayor’s role more than the incumbent.

Strimling ran unsuccessfully in the city’s first mayoral contest in 2011, promising to be a strong, CEO-style mayor, even though those powers belong to the city manager. Four years later, he ran on a platform of collaboration, promising to unite a fractured council. He won that race, but soon pivoted into a more progressive, activist-style mayor who spent the early part of his term questioning the confines of his role and seemingly looking to broaden its power.

Strimling once suggested forming a task force to interpret the mayor’s powers outlined in the City Charter. The city at one point paid an outside attorney $21,000 to offer a legal opinion about the scope of the office’s power, which ultimately backed up the city attorney’s position that the manager, and not the mayor, holds all executive authority and is a gatekeeper for access to city staff.

Strimling is now seeking re-election as the most progressive candidate on the ballot. He’s looking to harness community activism to enact policies he thinks will benefit low-income and middle class families, including renters, who are being pushed out of the city by gentrification. He has tangled with his council colleagues and city staff, especially City Manager Jon Jennings, who have resisted his efforts to pass rent control, earned-paid sick time and a slate of labor-union backed reforms. But along the way, he has notched victories, including significant increases in education funding and property tax and rent relief for seniors.

THE CHALLENGERS

Strimling’s challengers include City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, a 31-year-real estate attorney, and Snyder, a 49-year-old executive director of an educational nonprofit and former school board member, both of whom say they would operate within the confines of the office and increase collaboration between the mayor, council and city manager. It’s something, they say, Strimling vowed to do in 2015 when he unseated incumbent Michael Brennan, but has failed to deliver on.

“This moment calls for a working mayor who is ready, willing and able to work with councilors, but also ready, willing and able to work with the manager to make Portland the place we want it to be,” said Thibodeau, who is one year into his second three-year council term. He points to endorsements from five sitting councilors as evidence of his ability to collaborate.

Snyder is also running on a platform of collaboration. She’s positioned as one of two outsiders in the race, but she also points to her six years on the school board during the Great Recession to show that she has experience in city government.

“There has to be a teamwork component,” Snyder said. “When there isn’t a consensus around priorities, I don’t see the council following. (The mayor) has to reflect their colleague’s priorities in the work or else there is no trust.”

A third challenger is Travis Curran, a 33-year-old restaurant server and political newcomer who said he wants to define the job as being the voice of underrepresented people, especially those working in the service industry and artists. Curran said he senses unhappiness with Strimling’s performance in the community and wants to give people an alternative choice. At candidate forums, he tells people he can understand the struggles of artists and people in the service industry, because he is one of them.

“It breaks my heart to hear people say the don’t feel like they’re being represented,” Curran said. “I want to represent the service industry.”

The debate over the mayor’s role didn’t start with Strimling.

Michael Brennan, the first person elected to the post in 2011, focused much of his effort on representing the city in Augusta, including pushing back against Gov. Paul LePage’s welfare rollbacks. But he fell out of favor with councilors in part because he was pursuing initiatives outside the council framework. He surprised councilors, for example, when he announced a plan to establish a citywide minimum wage. And several councilors rebelled against Brennan when he tried to control access to the council’s agenda, calling it a “pocket veto” that could prevent councilors from addressing issues in their districts.

Strimling ousted Brennan, helped in part by endorsements from city councilors and school board members who said the next mayor needed to take a new approach to the job.

Now, Strimling is being criticized for mishandling the job by a majority of the council, including some councilors who backed him in 2015. After Thibodeau received endorsements from five fellow city councilors, Strimling said that council simply wants “a puppet.”

Thibodeau, who would be the first full-time mayor to have experience as a city councilor, said the conflicts between Strimling and the council and manager have been a distraction from efforts to increase affordable housing, improve public transportation and provide basic municipal services to residents.

“I’m the only person in this race that has successfully worked for four years with the City Council, city manager and city staff,” he said.

Snyder said the full-time position should add value, not conflict, to policy-making and that can be done by helping the council develop a set of shared priorities in line with those of the community.

Snyder and Thibodeau say they plan to spend their days meeting with district councilors and their constituents, doing background work for council committees, as well as working with officials in surrounding communities and advocating for the city at the state and federal levels.

“There’s a real opportunity for the mayor as a full-time elected person to help thread some of the issues that are common in all of the districts,” Snyder said. “Not everybody on the council has the ability to do that work.”

Strimling, however, is pushing back, saying that conflict is inherent in progress. He points to successes, such as increased investments in education, requiring contractors to pay prevailing wages on construction projects that receive property tax breaks, a property tax rebate program for low-income seniors and one of the strongest anti-pesticide ordinances in the country, an ordinance Thibodeau helped draft.

“When you are trying to achieve significant change for a city that’s at its crossroads, it’s going to be hard and there’s going to be conflict,” Strimling said. “You don’t achieve things in politics without it and anybody who promises they’re going achieve stuff without conflict means they’re not going to achieve anything at all.”

Strimling agrees that the mayoral position has not yet achieved its potential. But he thinks it’s because no one has been re-elected yet to a second term. That continuity is needed, he said.

“If we have our third elected mayor in a third term, it just weakens the position even further, and a newcomer in this seat will go through the same thing, and the position will become weaker and weaker,” he said. 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.