Families are comparison machines. One kid gets known as the pretty one, one is the smart one, one is the funny one. But to the rest of the world, they all seem more alike than they are different.

Think of Portland’s mayoral race as a family squabble.

If you listen to incumbent Mayor Ethan Strimling, it’s a battle between good and evil. A fight between progressive reformers and the status quo.

But take a step back and the contrast is not so sharp.

Strimling is facing three opponents Nov. 5: City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, former school board Chair Kate Snyder and restaurant worker Travis Curran. (Disclosure: My adult daughter did some paid work for Thibodeau’s campaign in the early part of 2019.)

All of them agree that Strimling shouldn’t be mayor anymore, but it’s hard to find the kind of ideological battleground Strimling keeps talking about.


All of the candidates value education. All of them say there is a housing affordability crisis. None of them is opposed to housing the homeless or responding to the opioid crisis.

They may have different ideas about how to go about it, but they are basically on the same page, especially when compared with the kind of political division you commonly see elsewhere.

In Washington, climate change legislation can’t be passed without the approval of coal-state lawmakers who swear that the whole thing is a hoax. In Augusta, abortion rights supporters do daily battle with people who call abortion murder.

In Portland the big difference is, what exactly? How fast you want to phase out plastic straws?

Elections in the city are officially nonpartisan, but it’s pretty clear that all of the candidates in the race are Democrats or fellow travelers. The urge to dump Strimling has more to do with his leadership style than with any fundamental principle.

That’s not true in every Maine city. Waterville makes the news periodically when its mayor, state Republican Party Vice Chair Nick Isgro, wades into hot-button social issues, like his defiance of the state’s Indigenous Peoples Day, proclaiming that Oct. 14 would still be Columbus Day in his city.


Lewiston, home to about 7,000 immigrants from Africa, has elected a series of hostile-to-immigrants mayors, including Robert Macdonald, who told the BBC that anyone coming to his city better “leave their culture at the door,” and Shane Bouchard, who had to resign this year after his racist text messages were made public.

There is no anti-immigrant party in Portland, at least not one represented in any of the city races this year. No matter who is elected mayor, Portland will remain a welcoming city that accepts a moral obligation and economic imperative to settle immigrants.

Portland’s politics does not mirror the extreme polarization of Washington, but it does follow another national model: the all-Democrat family feud on display in the presidential primary process.

There are legitimate policy differences between the candidates, but the divide between center left and actual left gets blown out of proportion in the microbiome of intra-partisan warfare.

A gradual transition to universal health coverage through a voluntary public option gets called “sucking up to the insurance lobby and Big Pharma.” Meanwhile, a single-payer system, like the one that works just fine in Canada, becomes “kicking 150 million people off the insurance that they love.”

It makes you want to pull over the car and yell, “Stop fighting or walk home!”


Four years of Ethan Strimling as mayor ought to have taught us something: It doesn’t matter if you have the best ideas if you can’t get other people to work with you. It’s only “vision” if other people can see it too.

Whoever wins the race will face a series of thorny problems and not enough money to fix them all at once.

But they will also have a tool that just doesn’t exist most places – a consensus on what the big problems are, if not total agreement on how to solve them. Anyone willing to back out of the comparison machine can see how much the opposing sides have in common.


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