Ethan Strimling made his first foray into activism when he was a teenager growing up in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City in the 1980s.

Activists had mobilized to stop the demolition of two community theaters, including the Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th Street, near the High School for Performing Arts/Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, where he was a student. Strimling said he frequently joined protesters after school, but the theater was ultimately razed. Later, he stood with janitors as they demanded better pay and benefits in California, where he was visiting his mother.

Those experiences helped plant the seeds for how Strimling, a former nonprofit director and state legislator, carries himself as Portland’s second popularly elected mayor since the post was reinstated in 2011, after a nearly 90-year hiatus.

“It’s pretty clear that I have a very deep appreciation for people who are struggling,” Strimling said. “Sometimes you have to be an activist mayor and I am. You have to organize people on the streets to try to get those voices heard. And other times you’ve got to be quiet and behind the scenes.”

Strimling, 51, is seeking re-election to a second term and is being challenged by City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, a 31-year-old real estate attorney; former school board member Kate Snyder, the 49-year-old executive director of the Foundation for Portland Public Schools; and Travis Curran, a 33-year-old restaurant server. It’s the third mayoral election since the city switched from a ceremonial mayor serving a one-year term to a popularly elected, full-time mayor with a four-year term. The position pays $76,615 a year.

Strimling is campaigning as the most progressive candidate and the most willing to leverage community activism to push policies he thinks will benefit low- and middle-income families, including renters who are being pushed out of the city by gentrification. His campaign stands in stark contrast to the one he ran four years ago, when he vowed to bring together a fractured City Council and serve as its chairman of the board.

Through Sept. 17, Strimling had raised nearly $150,000 – almost as much as Thibodeau ($90,000) and Snyder ($70,000) combined. Though he is being targeted by Unite Portland, a political action committee that has raised about $19,000 to oppose his re-election, he is receiving fundraising support from Progressive Portland, a social welfare nonprofit.

After campaigning four years ago on a platform of uniting the council, Strimling has since tangled with his colleagues and city staff, especially City Manager Jon Jennings, who have largely resisted his efforts to pass rent control, a slate of labor union-backed reforms and a requirement that private employers in the city provide earned paid sick time. And he has been willing to continue those disputes outside of council chambers, during TV and radio appearances. At one point, he was appearing regularly on a TV news station and two radio stations.

Tensions emerged publicly after Strimling moved into a newly renovated and larger office, and then hired an assistant, who was laid off when the council cut the position from the budget after one year. But the breaking point came when he issued a strong rebuke of the city manager’s proposal to close the India Street health clinic as part of an effort to focus on essential services. Councilors said Strimling unfairly accused the manager of prioritizing pavement over people. Since then, Strimling’s relationships with the council and manager have been fractious. And they have resisted a host of policy proposals that he’s introduced.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, who is seeking a second term, campaigned four years ago on a platform of uniting the City Council. He has since clashed with councilors and City Manager Jon Jennings. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Outside of council chambers, Strimling has found support among activists. School board member Emily Figdor, who once led the Democratic City Committee, worked with Strimling to help pass a $64 million school bond and has served as a surrogate for the mayor on the campaign trail. Her husband, Steven Biel, also has been a strong supporter and leads Progressive Portland, which has helped mobilize support for Strimling on issues ranging from the mayor’s assistant to affordable housing. He’s also helping Strimling raise money for his re-election.

Strimling also has partnered with labor unions to advance policies to increase wages, and worked unsuccessfully to advance an ordinance to require Portland businesses to provide earned paid sick time to all workers. That proposal was defeated after a more flexible statewide paid time-off policy was enacted, although the state law doesn’t cover as many people. And when the council decided not to hold a citywide referendum on a citizen initiative calling for publicly funded city elections because of procedural concerns, Strimling sided with activists, urging councilors to ignore the legal opinion of the city attorney.

While his opponents point to his track record of conflict as a reason to choose someone else as mayor, Strimling says conflict is inherent in progress and points to his successes: Increased investments in education (the $64 million school renovation bond, the expanded pre-kindergarten program and the largest school budget increases in history, he says), requiring contractors to pay prevailing wages on construction projects that receive property tax breaks, passage of what advocates say is one of the strongest anti-pesticide ordinances in the country (which Thibodeau helped draft) and a property tax rebate program for low-income seniors.

Strimling says his policies reflect the will of the people in Portland, and not only the desires of progressive activists. The upcoming election will be a test of that support. Two at-large councilors who have resisted those policies were re-elected during Strimling’s first term. All but one of those councilors, Pious Ali, have endorsed his opponents. If re-elected to a second term, Strimling said he would consider campaigning against councilors he disagrees with.

“Maybe I need to lean a little harder on them, the way they’re leaning on me,” he said. “Who serves on the council matters.” 

In a second term, Strimling said he would continue to advocate for a $10 million bond to help build 200 affordable housing units a year and continue investing in the city’s pre-K program. And he also thinks that developers should be required to build more affordable units in market-rate developments. The city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance requires 10 percent of units in developments over nine units to be deed-restricted as affordable, and Strimling wants to double that.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling campaigns door-to-door last month at Munjoy South, one of the last low-income housing developments on the city’s peninsula. When it comes to taxes, he says, “My goal is to get the relief first to the people who need it most and then work my way up.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“When you build housing like that it’s deed-restricted – it’s rent control,” Strimling said.

In a second term, Strimling said he would look to expand the senior property tax and rent relief program. It is now expected to provide more than 100 people over the age of 62 with average rebates of nearly $600, and he would like to expand it to include people of all ages and possibly to households that make up to $80,000 a year. People qualify for the program if their property taxes or rent exceeds a certain percentage of their income.

He said his proposal is a more progressive way to assess property taxes because wealthier residents would subsidize the rebates for low- and middle-income families. He equated across-the-board property tax relief to trickle-down economics – a theory that tax cuts for the wealthy benefit low-income people through job creation.

“My goal is to get the relief first to the people who need it most and then work my way up,” Strimling said. “Let’s face it, I’m not interested in cutting taxes for the multimillion dollar hotels downtown. I’m not interested in cutting taxes for luxury condo owners. They should be paying their fair share.”

He’s also planning to reintroduce some policies that have been killed by the council. Those include requiring all renters be given one-year leases and requiring landlords to accept Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income tenants, rather than keeping it a voluntary program like the rest of the state. He wants landlords to provide 90 days’ notice when not renewing a lease.

His website also highlights plans to add solar panels to schools, bring passenger rail downtown, improve public bus service and address climate change.

Strimling’s focus on the plight of low-income residents was on display on a recent afternoon when he campaigned in Munjoy South, a low-income housing development at the base of Munjoy Hill. It’s one of the last bastions of low-income housing on the city’s urban peninsula and one increasingly encroached upon by shiny new office buildings and luxury condominiums near the eastern waterfront.

Strimling, who frequently portrays himself as a fighter, was wearing a Portland Boxing Club shirt as he spoke with 72-year-old Linda Dandrea, who had lost a son and whose developmentally disabled daughter lives with her.

Dandrea had recognized Strimling from his TV appearances and invited him into her home to view a puzzle she was working on. After he checks out the apartment stairs at her request, they move to her back deck, where the ocean view is gradually disappearing behind a new parking garage and office building rising at 100 Fore St.

“You had a million-dollar view,” he tells her.

Back inside, she showed him pictures of her son, who had died. And the two embraced.

“You’ve got my vote,” she tells him.


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