For the second time in as many opportunities, Portland voters on Tuesday said “no” to a mayor seeking re-election.

Ethan Strimling, left, and Michael Brennan, the two mayors elected by Portland voters since 2011, both failed to win re-election.

Incumbent Ethan Strimling finished third in a four-way race that saw Kate Snyder, a former chairwoman of the Portland school board, win the city’s top elected post.

Strimling frequently butted heads with the City Council and City Manager Jon Jennings during his first term and promised to remain an activist mayor, calling for a higher minimum wage in the city, more protections for tenants and a local bond to pay for construction of affordable housing. Snyder emphasized during the campaign that she would maintain a good working relationship with the council and  Jennings, in contrast to Strimling.

Before becoming mayor, Strimling represented Portland in the Maine Senate for six years and led LearningWorks, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps low-income families, immigrants and at-risk youth.

What’s next for Strimling isn’t clear.

“I haven’t though too much about it,” Strimling told a reporter after conceding the race Tuesday night. But, he added, he’s spent much of his life in public service and said he’s not ready to give that up.

He declined a request for an interview Wednesday, saying he wanted to take a few days off after the campaign.

Michael Brennan was the first popularly elected mayor in a century when he was voted into office in 2011, after a charter change created the elected post. Prior to the charter change, mayors were selected by fellow councilors, but it was a mostly ceremonial position. The current mayor’s position is considered a full-time job and pays more than $76,000 a year, but the manager is still expected to handle day-to-day operations.

Brennan sought re-election in 2015 but was defeated by Strimling. Brennan, who returned to public service and is now a state representative, said Strimling might have been undone by his “less than positive” relationship with Jennings and the council.

He said the mayor’s role is difficult, because the post isn’t very strong. Although the mayor is elected citywide, the office has no special inherent powers beyond the ability to name the committees on which councilors will serve and appoint those who will chair those committees. The mayor also has the ability to veto a council-approved budget, but the action can be easily overridden.

In his campaign, Strimling didn’t indicate he would change his approach in a second term, Brennan said, and voters rejected that.

“People were, I think, not interested” in four more years of confrontations, Brennan said. Snyder served on the charter commission that created the popularly elected mayor’s post and may have a better understanding of what was intended and be better able to work with the council and city officials, he said.

Former Gov. John Baldacci, who endorsed Strimling during the campaign, said Portland mayors need to recognize the limits of their jobs.

When Baldacci was elected to the Bangor City Council, the city manager would call in the councilors regularly and remind them of their roles and of his role and let them know to stick to their jobs. Elected officials, he said, often feel under pressure to get results for constituents, but they need to focus on creating policies, not running city departments, Baldacci said.

“It’s a tough job as the mayor of a city or a councilor; people are in front of you 24/7,” said Baldacci, who contributed money to the campaigns of both Strimling and Snyder. “But sometimes the snowplow doesn’t move that fast.”

Some of Strimling’s supporters said the incumbent gets the blame if the city isn’t acting fast enough.

“When progress isn’t made, people are blaming the mayor,” said Mike Tipping, communications director  of the Maine Peoples Alliance, which backed Strimling.

Tipping thinks most Portlanders agreed with Strimling on the issues, but that put him in a difficult spot when opposition on the council blocked action.

“The mayor is put in this position with not the kind of power that people expect him to have,” Tipping said. “It’s a very weird situation and system.”

Jason Shedlock, who was Strimling’s assistant during his first year as mayor, agrees.

“We’re seeing how this charter is manifesting itself in the real world,” said Shedlock, now executive director of the Maine Building and Construction Trades Council. “I hope we don’t continue to see a constant churning at City Hall.”

Shedlock said Strimling gave him no clue as to what he plans next when they spoke briefly after the concession speech Tuesday night.

Phil Harriman, a former Republican state senator, said he and Strimling already have a couple of job offers.

The two did political analysis for WCSH-TV and wrote columns for the Maine Sunday Telegram and Bangor Daily News prior to Strimling’s election as mayor. Harriman said there are proposals for them to reprise their roles.

Harriman said in the hours after Strimling’s defeat, a representative of an Augusta radio station and another media outlet contacted him about teaming up again on commentary with Strimling. He declined to identify the stations and said he doesn’t know if Strimling has been contacted, but Harrriman said he’s open to the offer.

 


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