Voters in Portland’s northern and western neighborhoods will be choosing their third new city councilor in as many elections after a second incumbent has decided to step down after a single term.

The field of four candidates, however, includes names that are familiar to many residents of District 5, which includes the North Deering, Deering Center and Riverton neighborhoods.

John Coyne, who held the seat for two terms after also serving on the school board, is trying to regain the seat he left in 2014. He’s running against Mark Dion, a former Portland police officer, Cumberland County Sheriff, state legislator and one-time gubernatorial hopeful; Kathryn Sykes, a founding member of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America; and Kenneth Capron, a former Republican legislative candidate 10 years ago who made news when he proposed using a cruise ship to house the homeless.

The seat is currently held by Kimberly Cook, who is not seeking re-election.

As more people are taking to the streets to protest racial injustice, homelessness and other social grievances, Coyne and Dion say they would bring measured, thoughtful and professional leadership to the council and make decisions based on evidence rather than emotion. Sykes says she’s running an organizing campaign and will focus on issues important to people in her district, even as she helped draft and is advocating for five of the six referendum questions that also will be decided by voters in November. And Capron said he offers creative, out-of-the-box solutions to longstanding issues, such as homelessness and public transportation.

The candidates shared their priorities for the city and their views on the demands issued by Black Power, the group formerly known as Black Lives Matter Portland, such as firing City Manager Jon Jennings and defunding the police, and the demands issued by leaders of a two-week homeless protest at City Hall, such as defunding the police and decriminalizing camping in public parks.


The candidates also disclosed how they plan to vote on the six referendum questions that will be on the Portland ballot: increasing minimum wage to $15 an hour and requiring hazard pay during declared emergencies, such as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic; prohibiting non-owner-occupied short-term rentals and increasing registration fees; protecting tenants by limiting rent increases and creating a landlord-tenant board; banning facial recognition technology use by city workers; implementing a broad reform package called a Green New Deal for Portland; and eliminating the cap on recreational and medical marijuana shops.

Sykes supports all six referendums, while Capron supports the ban on facial recognition and additional short-term rental restrictions. Coyne said he supports the facial recognition ban, tenant protections and the Green New Deal for Portland. Dion supports the ban on facial recognition and short-term rental restrictions and opposes the Green New Deal for Portland and tenant protections, which he says should be considered in parts, and opposes the minimum wage proposal because of the emergency payments provision.

So far, Sykes has the fundraising advantage. According to 42-day pre-election reports, she has raised $3,775, while Dion and Coyne, who have greater name recognition, have raised only $600 and $50 respectively. Dion, however, has nearly $3,000 in unpaid debt. Capron, meanwhile, has raised $33.

This is the first time that council and school board races will be decided by ranked-choice voting, which has been used in the mayoral race since 2011. Voters in March extended ranked choice voting to all local races.


Ken Capron Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Capron is someone who thinks outside the box. Back when the city was debating where to build a new homeless shelter, he floated the idea of using an old cruise ship, anchoring it in Portland Harbor and offering housing and services to the city’s homeless community. The idea garnered international headlines, but Capron said he was unable to secure a grant to conduct a feasibility study.


Capron, a 69-year-old accountant, is now advocating for a new mode of public transportation: micro rail. The system would consist of small pods that would run on an elevated system of 2-foot-wide tracks positioned at least 14 feet above the ground throughout the city. He said it would be powered by magnetic levitation technology. And it’s a project that he is working on with the University of Southern Maine. 

Capron said it’s that type of thinking that makes him a stronger candidate than the more well-known names in the race.

“The question for voters is do you want to continue with the same set of seat-warmers you have had in the past?” Capron said.

Capron said, if elected, he would proactively meet with neighborhood organizations and leaders. He said the annual district meetings, organized by city staff, don’t give residents adequate time and space to express concerns about city services and quality of life. And he would also like the council to change its rules to allow people to speak for more than three minutes about agenda items.

Capron said he “100 percent” supports firing City Manager Jon Jennings, which is a demand of Black Power. “I’ve had more rejection from Jon Jennings than I have my ex-wife,” he joked.

Although he doesn’t support defunding the police, Capron said he’d like to see fewer patrolmen carrying firearms. Those officers could be backed by armed officers in certain situations. And he supports school resource officers, but thinks they should dress in a suit and tie, rather than uniform.


“I wouldn’t defund the police,” he said. “I would tone them down.”

Capron said one way to reduce the property tax burden is to make the homestead exemption automatic for homeowners, rather than having them sign up. But he noted that statewide bills to accomplish this have failed to advance in the Legislature. And if people are having trouble paying their taxes, they should be able to defer those payments until they sell their homes, at which point the back tax could be collected.

He also would like to require insurance companies to reimburse the city for the cost of its response to house fires and other insurable events. “It has huge potential, but I can’t get people to analyze it at the state level,” he said.

He does not support a new shelter on Riverside Street. Instead, he would like the city to construct yurts in places like Deering Oaks Park for people who may only need emergency shelter for a short period. Those who struggle with chronic homelessness, complicated with other factors such as mental illness and substance use disorder, should remain at a city-run shelter in downtown.


John Coyne Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Coyne, a Maine Department of Corrections regional juvenile corrections administrator for Cumberland and York Counties, said he is looking to return to the council after six years off to help guide the city through its current challenges, including homelessness and gentrification. He believes his experience as a former school board member, two-term councilor and native Portlander will add a valuable perspective to the council.


“I’m a lifelong Portland boy. There are some things that just aren’t what it used to be,” he said. “I would like to bring my voice back to it as a common everyday guy who has grown up here.”

Coyne, 52, said he disagrees with the council’s decision to build a new homeless shelter on Riverside Street. If elected, he would seek to reopen a conversation about the location and the size of the facility – expected to be roughly 150 beds – because the pandemic has highlighted the risk of congregate housing.

“The process was flawed. They pitted one neighborhood against another,” Coyne said. “I’d like to have a more robust discussion at the get-go. It seemed like the fight came first.”

He said the city needs to be more aggressive in getting surrounding towns and the state to help serve the homeless community, since only a third of those in Portland shelters were living in the city when they became homeless. The rest come from other Maine communities and out of state.

Coyne said he’s concerned about property taxes in the city, which are making it difficult for older residents to stay here and younger families to purchase homes. He said that any new spending in the city budget should be offset by spending decreases to minimize property tax increases, though he had no specific suggestions on where those cuts would come from.

He said he supports the Black Lives Matter movement, but does not support Black Power’s demand to fire City Manager Jon Jennings, who he applauded, along with the council, for producing a budget that does not increases taxes. Nor does he support defunding the police.


“I think health and human services can and should be funded at a higher level, but not at the risk of taking away or defunding first responders,” he said.

Coyne said he’s concerned that Portland is catering too much to tourists and believes the waterfront is beginning to look and feel like Boston.

Ultimately, Coyne hopes to take emotion out of policy debates.

“It’s not a time to be emotional now,” he said. “It’s time to be professional and figure out what’s needed to run the city the best.”


Mark Dion Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Serving as a district city councilor could be viewed as a step down for someone who has been an elected county sheriff, state senator and one-time gubernatorial hopeful. But Dion, a 65-year-old attorney, said being elected to the council would make a great capstone to his 40 years of service to the city, which began when he was a Portland police officer.


“The meat and potatoes of government that really touches you is municipal government,” he said. “I think there should be a real conversation, not just emotion. I have demonstrated in my career I make decisions based on the evidence before me.”

Dion grew up in a blue-collar family in Lewiston and came to Portland to study criminology at the University of Southern Maine. His time as a police officer helped him get to know the city’s many neighborhoods. His career in law enforcement, including as deputy chief of the Portland Police Department and as an elected Cumberland County sheriff, has given him experience dealing with the pressing issues of the day, from mental illness, to substance use and incarceration.

He’s learned from experience that issues are not black and white and that the people – and their challenges – are complex and not easily defined.

“Government loves categories because it makes the math easier,” he said. “What I have learned over the years is people don’t live in neat little boxes. Their challenges don’t fit in categories. People are complex. Solutions are complicated. An overnight success takes five years.”

Dion doesn’t support defunding the police, but said he appreciates the sentiment that funding for mental illness, addiction and other social services is inadequate. That has only increased the complexity of police work. He was disappointed to see school resource officers removed from the high schools, since the officers will not be able to build relationships with students who they may later encounter on the streets. He thought a compromise would have been to have school officers dress in plain clothes, rather than uniforms.

He doesn’t support firing City Manager Jon Jennings because the council has oversight over the manager and must approve any significant budget or policy recommendations.


Dion said he plans to try to stop the city from building a new homeless shelter on Riverside Street. He said it’s “inexcusable” for other metro areas to not have homeless shelters and that he would travel to Augusta and leverage the relationships he built as a state representative and senator to push for more statewide solutions. If the city does build a new shelter, he thinks it should be down by the Cumberland County Jail, because it will be closer to the downtown-area services.

In terms of the budget, he would prioritize basic city services, such as cleaning parks, sweeping streets, garbage collection, police, fire and EMS. He would like to see the city make greater use of fiscal notes, so councilors know upfront how much a new policy is going to cost. “That was a wonderful gatekeeper for legislative activity,” he said. 

Dion believes the city should be open to the idea of creating a safe injection site as a way to save lives and create another access point for treatment.

“I don’t think we can Narcan our way out of this,” he said, referring to an overdose reversal drug. “As important a tool as that is, that can’t be our primary strategy.”


Kathryn Sykes Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Sykes said elected office is the next step of her political activism, which started when she returned to Maine four years ago.


After working in the health care field in Seattle during the dot com boom of the 1990s, she felt compelled to fight against gentrification here in Portland. Since her return, she helped co-found the Maine Democratic Socialists of America and worked on campaigns in support of a public financing for municipal candidates, expansion of ranked-choice voting and paid sick leave, among others.

Sykes, a 51-year-old writer, says she’s running a “organizing campaign.”

“I don’t run on issues,” she said. “I run on what the community tells me they want and give power to those issues.”

That statement, however, belies her well-formed views and advocacy on many issues affecting Portland.

Sykes helped draft and is campaigning for the DSA’s five referendum questions on the city ballot.

Additionally, she generally opposes tax breaks – or tax increment financing – for businesses and developers, which the city largely uses to make new housing more affordable. She said diverting money from the general fund means fewer services for underserved communities.


And she previously urged the city to inject itself into a private land sale to prevent the loss of affordable housing at Bayside Village.

She said the city is limited in the ways it can generate revenue. But she would like the city to rollout a program to convince nonprofits to make voluntary payments in lieu of property taxes, from which they are exempt.

Portland has had an informal payment in lieu of taxes program for years, bringing in about a half a million dollars a year, but the council has not formalized it, or directed staff to actively solicit payments.

Sykes said 25 percent of the property in Portland is owned by nonprofits, which rely on city infrastructure and services without chipping in on the costs. She said the city should be sending those nonprofits letters, outlining what their property taxes would be, if they were required to pay them.

“That tab is being picked up by the middle class,” she said. 

Sykes would push the council to reconsider its plan to build a homeless shelter near the Westbrook line on Riverside Street. Instead, the city should build smaller shelters scattered throughout the city. And she also wants the city to move forward with its property revaluation, which was put on hold due to the pandemic, because it will shift the tax burden to more wealthy residents, living in new condominiums and waterfront homes.


Sykes warned against “disaster capitalism” in the wake of the pandemic. She wants the city to borrow money to purchase vacant commercial spaces throughout the city and make them available for community groups to meet and organize.

Sykes has already publicly called for City Manager Jon Jennings to resign. Prior to Black Power’s demand calling for the dismissal of the city manager, she accused Jennings of interfering in the mayoral election last year. When asked how she would navigate that relationship if elected, she said, “politics is an elaborate theater. None of this is personal and work needs to get done.”

Sykes has been equally critical of sitting councilors. As co-chair of the DSA, Sykes lashed out on social media against councilors after they voted against a local paid sick leave requirement when passage of a state level policy was all but certain and would have nullified the city policy. Sykes wrote a May 7, 2019, post on the DSA’s Facebook page giving the dissenting councilors nicknames: “Crooked (Kim) Cook, Baby Vampire (Justin) Costa, Word Salad Spencer (Thibodeau), Deferential (Jill) Duson, and Whitey (Nicholas) Mavodones.”

When asked if she had time to reflect on that tactic, she replied, “I only punch up.”

Note: This article was updated Tuesday Oct. 6 to clarify Mark Dion’s position on the minimum wage referendum.

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