Spencer Thibodeau remembers the day he brought home a sub-par report card from King Middle School and his father asked him to get in the car.

Thibodeau, who identifies as both biracial and black, was born to teenage parents in Cincinnati and adopted as a baby by white parents in Portland. He said he was just beginning to become aware of his “otherness” in middle school and was falling behind.

Thibodeau said at first he was worried he was being sent back to where he came from, but his father instead drove him to the top of Munjoy Hill to make a point.

“We started at the top and he made me run down the hill and he said, ‘It’s really easy to get down to the bottom of the hill,'” Thibodeau said. “Then he made me run up the hill. And when we got to the top, he said, ‘It’s so much harder to pull yourself out … you have some decisions to make, but it’s going to be a hard road to get you back to the top of the hill.’ And I think he was right.”

Thibodeau said that lesson – as well as his parents’ willingness to find him a black mentor who also was adopted by white parents – helped him turn his life around. After graduating high school and leaving the state, he returned to Portland with a law degree and is now seeking the city’s highest elected office.

He’s one of three people looking to unseat Ethan Strimling as Portland’s mayor. It’s the third election since voters changed the position from a ceremonial mayor chosen by city councilors each year to a full-time position, with an annual salary of $76,615 and a four-year term. Former school board chair Kate Snyder and waiter Travis Curran also are running.

Thibodeau was first elected to the District 2 seat on the council in 2015, winning more than 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race. He was re-elected last year with nearly 68 percent of the vote in a two-way race. He said endorsements from five sitting councilors show that he already has strong working relationships with his colleagues, including the city manager. And he points to his experience on Gov. Janet Mills’ transition team as proof that he has good relationships at the state level, too.

He repeatedly vows to be “an honest broker” during conversations about his goal of restoring trust between the city’s leaders.

Thibodeau’s candidacy is facing criticism because of his work as a real estate lawyer and the support he has received from the development community. A construction boom of luxury condominiums and downtown hotels is feeding anxiety about gentrification and affordability among lifelong Portlanders, as well as service workers and artists who fear they’re being priced out of the city. Strimling and his supporters are using Thibodeau’s profession against him. The mayor recently said that Thibodeau would be “a mouthpiece” for real estate interests and “a puppet” for the council.

Spencer Thibodeau poses for a photo Wednesday in front of the house on Bradley Street where he grew up. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Thibodeau brushes off the theory that, at the age of 31, he’s part of some “corporate cabal” that will develop every square inch of the city.

“I just think it’s a lazy insult,” he said, adding that his law job largely entails organizing and facilitating real estate closings. “I think people are seeking an easy answer to the issues they see around them. To the extent that insult is the best they can do, well, that doesn’t look at the whole person and who I am.”

Like many millennials, he’s buried in student loan debt. And he points to his mixed voting record on development-related issues as evidence of his independence. He has supported three development-related moratoriums, supported increases in development fees and supports creating a historic district on Munjoy Hill to preserve older buildings and relatively affordable housing. And he proposed a “leeway” program that would require landlords to give tenants 90-days notice when not renewing a lease, or else provide the tenants with financial assistance when moving.

Thibodeau said his parents – a self-employed carpenter and a nurse – worked extra to hire him a tutor so he could get caught up. That, coupled with help from his grandparents, allowed him to enroll in Cheverus High School. He said his parents aren’t religious, but thought he needed the additional structure offered at the Jesuit school.

He remembers rubbing scuff marks off the school floor with an old tennis ball as part of a high school work study program. He worked summers doing concessions at the Portland Sea Dogs, working as a camp counselor and doing landscaping. He went on to graduate college and eventually law school, and returned home to work as a real estate attorney at Verrill Dana in Portland.

He acknowledges that, unlike at least some of his opponents, he does not support an immediate crackdown on unhosted short-term rentals in Portland. But, he said, that’s because the council recently changed the rules for short-term rentals and he wants to assess the impact before changing them again.

LOOKING AHEAD

If elected, Thibodeau said he wants to form working groups and begin community conversations about future growth in the city. With limited land to develop, the city needs to begin building taller housing projects with more units, he said, but communities, especially off-peninsula, need to be involved before plans are submitted. As a model, he points to a community group formed to provide input into Maine Medical Center’s expansion in his West End district.

Spencer Thibodeau talks with Scott Vonnegut, 68, about growing up in Rosemont while campaigning in the neighborhood last month. He says his mixed voting record on development-related issues show his independence. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I understand the comfortableness on Munjoy Hill and we have to recognize that those changes scare people,” he said. “We can either allow that fear to fester and we can play off that fear, or we can get people engaged early on (about the) difficult choices that are before them.”

To help address the city’s housing shortage, Thibodeau said he’d work with the council’s Housing Committee to identify five parcels of city-owned land that could be offered for development into housing. He will ask the council to provide the land at a discounted rate, in exchange for a deed covenant ensuring affordability, ideally for people earning between $30,000 to $75,000, which he calls “the missing middle.” He would aim to request and receive development proposals within his first year.

Thibodeau said he will use his full-time position at City Hall to do background research for councilors, who serve part-time and have full-time day jobs, to support their committee work. He also plans to maintain good relationships in each district, especially with the district councilors, by attending neighborhood association meetings to keep a pulse on issues important to the community.

Like the other three candidates in the race, Thibodeau supports a change in state law to allow municipalities to assess a local option sales tax to help offset costs associated with tourism. He would also like the city to begin charging cruise ships an additional per-person fee for every passenger that comes ashore and then use that money to make improvements in off-peninsula neighborhoods.

“I don’t think it’s fair that we ask Portlanders to essentially subsidize the tourism industry when I think it should be the tourism industry that subsidizes the infrastructure improvements we need to make,” Thibodeau said.

He’s been interested in politics since college, when he says he lost a race for class president because he was outworked. He vowed never to let that happen again. Since then, he has volunteered for several campaigns, including Strimling’s failed bid for a U.S. House seat and Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. He worked as an intern for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.

But he credits New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who was mayor of Newark and is now running for president, for encouraging him to return home and run for local office to make a difference in his community.

Now, he’s home running as the local kid in the mayoral race.

While canvassing in Libbytown on a recent afternoon, he easily reconnected with adults he knew from childhood and talked to new residents about how he used to play manhunt with other neighborhood kids and run through neighborhood yards. He talks about worrying that young families aren’t able to buy a home in the neighborhood, or that his parents might get priced out.

“I like the things you stand for,” said 67-year-old Kathy McVane, who admits she’s known Thibodeau since he was a kid. “I don’t think Ethan (Strimling) has done that great a job. He’s too liberal.”

One young couple out for a walk with their baby in a stroller asked Thibodeau about environmental issues. It gives him an opportunity to talk about his experience leading the council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee, where he helped craft the city’s ban on synthetic pesticides. He talks about his support for solar energy, how he helped secure funding for a climate action plan with South Portland and how the city is taking steps to monitor energy use in large commercial buildings.

“We can do more and I am absolutely committed to doing that,” he said.

 


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