SOUTH PORTLAND — City Councilor Kate Lewis graduated from the University of Vermont with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, political science and French, and a powerful drive to make a difference.

It’s the same spirit that prompted Lewis to seek the District 2 council seat two years ago, and it still propels her efforts to represent constituents across the city.

“I wanted to do something that helped the world,” said Lewis, 43, who will be sworn in Monday as council leader and mayor for 2019. “I wanted to do something that wouldn’t be part of the problem.”

From 1998 to 2000, Lewis had a fellowship with the Public Interest Research Group, fighting for clean air and water, consumer rights and campaign finance reform across New England. She learned how to lobby state and federal officials, battling the so-called Filthy Five power plants that were located in Massachusetts and were exempt from Clean Air Act regulations because they opened before 1977.

More than 20 years later, Lewis finds herself taking the helm of a city that’s leading the fight for clean air in Maine and beyond.

Since February 2015, South Portland has been defending its possibly precedent-setting Clear Skies Ordinance in a federal lawsuit. The Portland Pipe Line Corp. is challenging the city’s effort to block the company from reversing its defunct oil pipeline to bring crude from Canada to its terminals on South Portland’s waterfront. A federal district judge sided with the city, giving a municipality unique control over interstate trade, and the company has appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

And last week Lewis and her fellow city councilors learned that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is expanding its first community air quality monitoring program to pinpoint pollution sources in South Portland. The DEP launched the program after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit in March charging Global Partners LP with violating the Clean Air Act at its petroleum tank farm in South Portland. Such a focused study could yield results unlike any previous research, DEP scientists said.

“Here we are again, dealing with air quality,” Lewis said last week. “It’s striking to me that after all these years, we’re just now doing the research to find out what’s in our air.”

Today, Lewis is director of development for Maine Audubon, having held similar positions with Greater Portland Landmarks, the Environmental Health Strategy Center and Demont Associates, a Portland firm that assists nonprofits in fundraising and advancement. Before that, in 2000, she was a volunteer coordinator for the Yes On 6 referendum campaign to ban discrimination in Maine based on sexual orientation. The act failed by a vote of 318,846 to 314,012.

“It was devastating,” Lewis said. “We’ve come a long way since then. Same-sex couples can now marry, but many in the LBGTQ community still face discrimination.”

Lewis said her work with nonprofits continues to teach her about people and how they get along – especially what it takes to move people away from long-held ideas and toward potentially life-changing solutions.

“It’s a lot about building relationships and making connections,” Lewis said. “I think people are inherently good, and unfortunately, money, convenience and other issues often get in the way. Getting to know people can bridge differences and lead to solutions.”

Raised Episcopalian, Lewis said she’s prone to an egalitarian, yet independent, perspective. “I don’t believe in voting as a block or an us-versus-them approach,” she said. “I’ve heard some in South Portland refer to people ‘on the other side,’ and I just can’t think that way. We’re one community. We’re all have to be on the same side.”

Lewis grew up in Newport and Kingston, Rhode Island, where her mother was a university administrator and her father, a former naval officer, was an accountant for government contractors. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her mother was busy with both professional and volunteer work. As the oldest child, Lewis picked up the slack at home, often taking care of herself and her younger siblings.

“My mom was into everything, so there was a pretty high demand for responsibility early on,” Lewis said. “I was in charge of getting myself out the door in the morning and back home in the afternoon and babysitting my siblings.”

Coming of age in affluent, well-educated towns instilled Lewis and her siblings with high expectations to achieve academically, professionally and in service to community, including the military, Lewis said. One brother is a naval officer stationed in Japan, and another brother served three tours in Iraq between the ages of 18 and 25.

Her stepfather, an engineer who put himself through college working as an auto mechanic, also was a big influence. Whenever he worked on Lewis’ car, he didn’t just change the oil or fix the flat.

“He would make sure I did the work with him,” Lewis said. “So I knew what was going on with my car, and I would know how to take care of it on my own.”

Lewis said she hopes to be a similar role model for her daughter, Alethea, now in middle school, and she credits her husband, Greg, an accounting manager, with supporting her work on the council.

“I’m trying to have a better balance, and there’s no way I could do what I do without Greg,” Lewis said. “We talk about big issues of the day all the time at home, so Alethea knows what I do and what’s going on. But there’s so much bad going on in the world, the only way I can handle it is to do what I can do locally.”

Under her leadership, Lewis anticipates that South Portland will continue to face issues that challenge communities around the globe, including air and water quality, solid waste reduction, biodiversity preservation, climate change and sea level rise, racial and immigration tensions, an aging population and economic development that reflects community values.

Lewis said she believes the City Council is prepared to deal with those issues and establish additional model policies like the pesticide ban, the municipal solar array and the climate initiative with the city of Portland. She plans to promote continued cooperation with neighboring communities and stronger relationships with legislative and congressional representatives.

“We’re all pulling on the same oars,” Lewis said. “There’s more than one answer to some of these questions, but we’re all heading in the same general direction.”


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