Portland City Councilor Jill Duson poses outside City Hall on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In some ways, Jill Duson’s sixth and final term on the City Council was an act of defiance.

She had planned to step down from the council when she retired as director of compliance at the Maine Human Rights Commission in 2016. She hoped to transition to the state Legislature, but ended up losing the race. She almost decided to retire from the council anyway – until she learned that certain progressive activists were recruiting opponents to run against her and offering to help fund their campaigns.

“It was just astounding to me,” Duson said during a socially distanced interview outside of her Pennell Avenue home. “After all of my years of community service, I wasn’t going to let someone else determine how and when I passed the baton.”

She was also concerned that if she left, Nicholas Mavodones would be the only councilor with a full term under his belt at a time when the political temperature in the city was blazing hot, especially between the mayor, council and city manager. So she decided to seek one more term and prevailed in an expensive, three-way race.

That time has now come. The 67-year-old decided earlier this year not to seek a seventh term on the council.

Those who served or worked with Duson over the years – ranging from business to progressive groups – lauded her service to Maine’s largest city, even though they disagreed with her at times. A common theme is Duson’s desire to hear all sides of an argument before taking a position and then trying to articulate her rationale before she votes.

“I’m very grateful for the dedication Jill has shown to public service, and have appreciated Jill’s thoughtfulness and ability to consider every angle of an issue before making up her mind,” said Anna Kellar, executive director of the League of Women Voters and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. “She has also been a generous mentor to women and (people of color) looking to get involved in government.”

Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, described Duson’s service as “extraordinary” and credits her for making progress on housing-related issues in the city.

“She has a true love for the city and the people who live here – it shows every day in her work and how she carries out her role as city councilor,” Hentzel said. “As the CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, I have always found her approach to be fair and balanced. We haven’t always agreed, and she hasn’t always voted the way I would hope, but she always makes herself available to hear from different constituencies. She listens and wants to ensure she knows all sides of an issue.”

Cheryl Leeman, who served nearly 30 years on the council, including 13 years alongside Duson, said she could usually find common ground with Duson, despite their different political beliefs. Leeman is a Republican who worked for U.S. Olympia Snowe and Duson is a loyal Democrat who was a presidential elector in 2004 and 2008 and president of the Maine Electoral College in 2008.

Leeman said Duson had the ability not only to consider the points of view of the people who filled the council chambers, but also those unable to attend meetings.

“Jill has the uncanny ability to be able to balance the community interests that come forward on an issue and find a place with a policy change or a response to the issue with a lot of common sense and respect for the broader representation of the city,” she said. “She will be missed.”

Duson was elected to the City Council in 2001, after serving one term on the school committee. She said it’s been gratifying to watch Portland and the council become more ethnically and culturally diverse and help the city’s economy – especially its renowned restaurant scene – take off. She said her favorite part has been building relationships with people in the community, whether it’s in council chambers or the supermarket produce aisle – something that’s not easy for the self-described introvert.

In the last decade, politics in Portland has become more of a blood sport, where compromise is considered inaction and the values and motivations of individual councilors are questioned if they disagree with a particular policy proposal. Duson said she has prided herself on listening through the anger to hear what brings people to the council chambers, but that has gotten more difficult lately, with more people showing up and using talking points drafted by lobbyists or activists.

Duson has been particularly interested in housing issues, economic and environmental sustainability, and education. She said the city has made progress on all of those fronts, though the city faces continued and passionate criticism for not taking more aggressive action on housing issues. She noted that in recent years the council has increased funding streams for workforce housing, improved housing safety and increased the diversity of housing projects, ranging from housing-first complexes for the chronically homeless to a recent recommendation to sell city land to a housing co-op.

“I’m never going to say we’ve done everything, but we have made progress,” she said.

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who identifies as biracial and Black, said he has considered Duson a mentor since joining the council five years ago. Thibodeau said he’s also felt like he’s had a front seat to witnessing history by serving with the first Black woman elected to the council. He will miss her quick wit and sense of humor, especially during long council meetings.

And he will always honor the so-called Duson Rule, which encourages councilors to seek additional information when postponing votes on tricky issues.

“If there’s a tough question before the council, one of my first calls is to Jill because she’s our moral compass,” he said. “I think her departure from the council is a huge loss for us and the community more broadly.”

Duson came of age during the the civil rights struggle. She was one of the first groups of kids to attend desegregated elementary and middle schools in Chester, Pennsylvania. She and her four siblings were raised by their divorced mother, who relied on welfare to support her family even though she was employed. She remembers kneading the dough made from government flour and lard for her mother, who was disabled because of polio.

She was exposed to activism early when her mom and other tenants began withholding their rent until their landlord addressed substandard living conditions. She went on to earn a law degree and spent her early career working on elder issues in both Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

She moved to Maine in 1983 and continued working on elder issues until taking a job with Central Maine Power Co., where she served in a variety of roles, including government relations, for 10 years. She moved to Portland after taking a government and community relations job at Northern Utilities natural gas in 1997.

After a two-year stint as president and principal at Perkins Thomson Consulting, she began a 12-year career working for the state — first as director of the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services and later as compliance director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

Duson acknowledges the significance of being the first Black woman elected to the Portland City Council and the state’s second Black mayor, which at the time was a one-year appointment by her fellow councilors.

“I don’t want to be the last,” she said.

She is encouraged by the passion, energy and determination of millennials, Duson said. She recalled helping lead protests as a high school student, after the school board began censoring messages on the student bulletin board. She was also concerned that Black students who got in trouble seemed to be the ones who received draft notices from the government.

As vice president of her high school student union, she helped lead sit-ins that shut down the school for two weeks.

“I was doing what these kids today are doing,” she said with a smile.

Her advice to young activists is to “get mad, yell but follow through” and run for office, especially women and people of color, because that’s how to make meaningful and lasting change.

“It’s not over when the demonstration is over. Coming to the council and yelling at me doesn’t solve anything,” she said. “The energy you use on a particular issue that awakens you is the same energy I hope people will use to engage in the long term.”

She also encourages them to be authentic, rather than repeat talking points drafted by lobbyists and activists.

“Just tell your story – that’s the most impactful thing you can do,” she said. “Just make me understand what’s going on and why it matters so much to you.”

As for her future, Duson, who has two adult children, said she’s open to possibilities, though elected office is not among them. She’d like to find a way to serve on the board of one or two local organizations. She’d also like to volunteer as an English language teacher for immigrants and help them start businesses.

But for now, she plans to spend time hiking this fall and then “hibernate” over the winter. She plans to continue making colorful dinosaur and lobster snow sculptures in her front yard for her two grandsons and neighborhood children and spend as much time as possible in the kitchen cooking meals for her family and friends, especially her signature soul food family buffets on New Year’s Day and Juneteeth.

But she remains concerned about the impact that rising property tax bills have on older Portland residents’ ability to stay in their homes. She said older residents have already trimmed unnecessary expenses and face difficult decisions about which bills to pay so they can remain in their homes. She hopes that future councils remain attuned to those residents.

“I’m GiGi now and I want my grandkids to play in my yard,” she said. “I hear and feel for any of the older Portland residents whose property taxes go up every year, because it’s hard to find that extra $100 to $200.”

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