Kate Snyder didn’t just unseat Portland’s mayor and defeat a sitting city councilor on Tuesday.

The 49-year-old nonprofit executive ran away with the election.

Snyder carried every voting district in the city on her way to earning nearly 40 percent of the vote in the first round of the four-way race, sweeping both progressive neighborhoods on the peninsula and more conservative suburban districts to the west and north. She ultimately won 62 percent of the vote in an instant runoff against second-place finisher Councilor Spencer Thibodeau.

The victory seems to be based more on her life experience and leadership philosophy than on grand plans or big promises.

Snyder served two terms as an at-large member of the school board, including two years as chairwoman during the Great Recession. She is the director of  the Foundation for Portland Public Schools, a job she will give up to assume her full-time role at City Hall next month.

She put three kids through the city’s public schools. And she was the only homeowner in the race, helping her give voice to people’s concerns about city’s high property tax burden and how it was preventing young families from being able to buy a home in Portland. For the record, Snyder and her husband pay $6,785 a year in property taxes on their home in the Oakdale neighborhood.

Those connections helped her campaign to victory over two more heavily funded opponents.

Snyder was largely untouched by the negative campaign and fighting between opponents and supporters of Mayor Ethan Strimling. That allowed her to comfortably occupy a niche in the race as someone with experience in municipal government,  but also as someone from outside of the current political dynamic, making her more appealing to people disenchanted with the mayor, City Council, city manager or City Hall in general.

Snyder watched the returns come in Tuesday night inside Salvage BBQ on Congress Street surrounded by about 100 supporters and family members, including her parents and two of her children. The day after being elected, Snyder was at home catching up on chores, juggling media interviews and receiving congratulatory flower deliveries, two of which arrived during a 30-minute visit from the Press Herald. Below is a Q&A with Portland’s mayor-elect. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What’s it like to wake up as mayor-elect of Portland?

The word “surreal” is overused. I don’t think it’s totally settled in yet.

What was it like to be out with your supporters and watching the results come in last night?

I got there at about 20 minutes before 9 p.m. and there were a couple of precincts that had reported by 8:50/8:55 and I was there for only a few minutes. And somebody who worked on my campaign team (Em Burnett) and Colin (her husband) said, “There are already two places in and you’ve won both of them.” And I was just like, “OK. Nobody get too excited here.” And so, I started saying hello to people. Then 15-20 minutes later, Ethan called to concede. So that was about 9:15 and I couldn’t believe it. I called him back. We had a short but nice talk. I thanked him for his service to Portland. The believability factor there was like, “What? How is this happening so quickly?” We were watching the results come in and I was like, “Let’s take our time here. You know there’s ranked choice. We don’t have the complete picture yet.” And even when we have the complete picture, I haven’t won by 50 percent. And then Spencer reached out. That was probably an hour later.

You won across the board in all of the precincts. Were you surprised by that?

“There was equal measures of me that said, ‘I could win this thing’ and ‘There’s no way you’re going to win this thing.’” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Of course I was surprised. I had such conflicting feelings in the weeks leading up to yesterday and all throughout the day (Tuesday). There was equal measures of me that said, “I could win this thing” and “There’s no way you’re going to win this thing.” So, I was totally surprised. And, like I said, I don’t think it’s even really fully sunk in yet. I think what’s starting to sink in is I have a pretty big transition to manage over the next few weeks, so I’m going to have to get a little bit of rest and then put my mind on that. But, gosh, it was really something.

What part of your message resonated most with voters?

It’s funny because I feel like I get equal parts criticism and praise for saying that I focus on the role of the mayor and that adherence to the role as it’s written in the charter is so important. People say, “Yeah, well, talk about an issue. Talk about a policy statement.” And I will say the role of the mayor is to make sure the council is speaking about policy and that the council’s outcomes are good and solid and durable. I do believe that resonated with people.

What message were voters sending by electing you? Obviously, there was another candidate campaigning on the role of the mayor.

I think that the message of “a new voice and a fresh perspective,” which of course are just lines that we used, so they’re sort of markety, brandy lines, but they’re real. I think as I talked to people around the city, they really wanted a change. They really wanted a more inclusive City Hall. I think people really want more civility. I think there’s an appetite for people who can disagree and then be colleagues again. I think that’s really important and that’s certainly the work I intend to do.

What was the thing that set you apart most from the other candidates?

Being a council outsider didn’t hurt. Having experience in Portland where I did have leadership roles, I think helped. I do think that – right, wrong or indifferent – being a homeowner, being a parent, these things resonate with people. I think we all kind of look around and say, “What can I relate to?” And people can relate to those things. Not everyone, but some people.

I noticed you didn’t mention anything about being a woman. You don’t think that gender had anything to do with it?

It is an obvious differentiating factor, because it was me and three men, so there’s that. … There’s certainly something that feels special to me about being a woman in this race and being able to connect with girls and women in the community. As I said before, people like to have a relatability factor. And you don’t always get that as a woman. I think there’s something there that’s meaningful and I intend to use it in a positive way.

Did anything about the campaign, either the messaging of your opponents or just how the campaign played out, other than the fact that you won in the way you did, that you found surprising, or disappointing, or that you hadn’t anticipated?

“I think that Travis Curran’s voice was a really good and important one in the campaign. He got 7 percent of the vote and I think people were paying attention and that was kind of cool. I mention Travis because I want to make sure he does get noticed, and the role he played, I think it was meaningful. For the most part, people are so nice. And then there’s another element that’s a little more challenging and, um, I guess I will leave it at that.”

Would you like to characterize any of the conversations you have had with city councilors since the election?

Very positive. Very encouraging. Spencer couldn’t be more gracious. He and I talked last night and we talked this morning and he offered help with the transition and anything he can do to help. He made it really, really clear that he wants to work together and so do I.

What about City Manager John Jennings? Have you talked to him?

Yep. He reached out with an email. I called him today. And I will sit down with him also over the next few weeks.

Do you care to characterize your conversations with him?

Also very positive.

Have you given any more thought about how you approach that relationship?

Right now, I try to think about it through the lens of: I’m paid professional staff to a board and every couple of years the board votes on a new president. I know it’s a simplified view – it’s a nonprofit governance structure. I’m thinking about it through that lens, which is when organizations are successful, it’s typically because the staff and the governing body can achieve a balance and they can execute their roles effectively. I know it sounds wonky. Again, it’s not because I don’t think people disagree or come to things with different frames of reference. But if we can keep in mind that we’re on the same team, I think we can usually do good work.

What will you do between now and inauguration day? 

I will meet with each one of the councilors. And I will get some sleep. And I will spend Thanksgiving with my family. And I will work on what are the pieces that need to be done at the inauguration. What’s my role there.

What is your top priority as you take office?

I’m going to be talking to the councilors and the city manager about the priority setting workshop that is articulated in the city’s charter. To me, it’s so important to do the work to get agreement on the big issues and make sure the committee work is supporting the council’s priorities.

You just talked to voters throughout the city and you know the major players on the council. Do you have any ideas about what could be one of those priorities?

Affordable housing. How do we create an environment that lends itself toward the creation of more affordable housing? This is not a one answer kind of question. What are the myriad levers that we have that we can pull to create a climate and an environment for the creation of more affordable housing? It might be zoning. It might be permitting in terms of what people can do on their properties. Tax credits for sure – apparently there’s more money from the Maine State Housing Authority. I won’t go through the various considerations or options that I think about, but I think that’s certainly one of them.

You were the only homeowner in the race and I think you talked the most about the property tax burden, How will you tackle that? Is there anything in the budget that’s ripe to cut? 

It’s not going into existing budgets and cutting necessarily as the first swipe. It’s keeping check on the increases that happen year-over-year. It’s also looking at ways to generate additional new revenues for the city of Portland. There are several options there: hotel room fees, meal fees, the local option sales tax. I think it has to be both additional revenues and discipline when it comes to spending.

You get the last word. Is there anything you’d like to say to voters, supporters or opponents?

I want to thank Mayor Strimling for his service to Portland. I think that’s really important and it’s genuine. Honestly, having gone through this process, anyone who raises their hand for public service is doing a lot. They’re doing a lot for their community, but they’re doing a lot for democracy, so I really think that matters. I will thank Spencer Thibodeau for his service as the District 2 councilor and say that I really look forward to working with him. And I’d like to thank Travis for being in the race.

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