A small business owner and a union organizer are vying for the Portland City Council District 4 seat representing East Deering, most of the Back Cove and parts of the Deering Center and North Deering neighborhoods.

The seat is being vacated after two terms by Justin Costa, who is running for the at-large council seat currently held by Jill Duson, who is retiring.

Andrew Zarro, a 32-year-old Back Cove resident who owns Little Woodfords coffee, said the council would benefit from his perspective as a small businesses owner and a gay man – points of view currently not represented among the nine councilors.

But Rosemary Mahoney, a 55-year-old East Deering resident who has spent much of her life in Portland, said she would be able to use her experience as a longtime resident and union negotiator to “deal with the big issues and ask the hard questions.”

Both support the Black Lives Matter movement, including calls to defund the police and address systemic racism. Both believe that local police forces should be demilitarized and more funding and attention should be used to address underlying issues such as homelessness, substance use disorder and mental illness.

The candidates stopped short of endorsing a demand by Black Power, the group formerly known as Black Lives Matter Portland, to fire City Manager Jon Jennings.

Mahoney said any issues with the manager, whom she described as a “controversial guy,” should be taken up as part of the performance review process and Jennings should be placed on an improvement plan if he’s operating outside his authority.

Zarro said Jennings “needs to do a better job.” He criticized Jennings for not following BLM Portland’s demand to reduce police spending in the current budget. “I feel like that was a missed opportunity,” he said.

The candidates also disclosed how they plan to vote on the six referendum questions 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; 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.

Mahoney originally said she will be voting “yes” on all six questions, but changed her mind after doing more research. The only questions she firmly supported were short-term rental restrictions, removing the cap on marijuana stores and enacting tenant protections, including rent control. She said she opposes “this Green New Deal” because it does too much. She’s leaning against the facial recognition ban because the council has already voted to ban it. And she’s leaning against the minimum wage, because of the hazard pay requirement.

Zarro said he supported all the initiatives except tenant protections. After originally expressing support for the measure, he amended his response to say he was undecided.

Zarro has a significant fundraising advantage in the race. According to 42-day pre-election finance reports, Mahoney has raised $920 for her campaign, while Zarro has raised $2,842.

ROSEMARY MAHONEY

Rosemary Mahoney

Mahoney said she doesn’t have any set agenda for her campaign. Instead, she thinks the council would benefit from her personal experience, including past struggles with poverty as a single mother, and her professional background as a union official, which has given her insight into how government and other systems interact.

“I’m not a single-minded or single-issue person,” said Mahoney, a 55-year-old UniServ director for the Maine Education Association who advises local school unions on how to organize and operate. “I definitely don’t have all of the answers, but I’m definitely good at getting them.”

Mahoney said she supports a $15 an hour minimum wage, which she said is still not livable. She recounted how she struggled to make ends meet as a single mother following her divorce, at times having to hold down two or three jobs to keep a roof over her family’s head and food on the table.

“There was no way up and out (while) relying on public assistance,” she said. “It served a purpose for a period of time, but I realized quickly I needed a second income to make it all work.”

However, she’s not sure she could support the minimum wage referendum initiative because of the requirement that businesses pay time and a half to employees during a declared emergency. She’d rather see an incentive for businesses to pay a hazard wage, but did not offer specifics.

Mahoney doesn’t support building a new homeless shelter on Riverside Street and would instead push for the city to find a location closer to downtown. She equated the city’s effort to move the shelter to the Westbrook town line to former Gov. Paul LePage’s relocation of the Department of Health and Human Services office from downtown to a location by the airport.

She also supports eliminating non-owner occupied short-term rentals, which could return hundreds of units back to the long-term rental market, and raising the registration fee from $100 to $1,000. She said short term rentals are becoming more corporate and that some properties are being operated like unlicensed hotels. And she’s leaning towards a “yes” vote on the tenant protections ordinance, which would among other things implement rent control.

Mahoney said the city should focus more attention on affordable housing for families. She believes that more housing should be restricted with income caps to ensure that low-income families – not investors – have more housing options.

She’s leaning against voting to ban using facial recognition software, since the council has already done that. She’s also leaning against the Green New Deal for Portland because it involves too many changes that “would be held captive for five years,” referring to the period in which a council can’t amend an ordinance passed by referendum.

Mahoney said the city has changed a lot since she ran unsuccessfully for the District 4 seat in 2014. She wants the council to focus more on the needs of existing residents, rather than cater to larger developers. One issue important to her neighborhood is reducing cut-through traffic in neighborhoods with children, which could be done with traditional traffic calming measures such as speed bumps or by working with GPS map makers to avoid routing vehicles through neighborhoods. The city should also make it easier for homeowners to get building permits, so they can replace decks and improve their properties.

“It seems like it’s quite easy for commercial developers to come up with a multi-floor condo or office building, yet you talk to someone who wants to put a porch on their house and it feels like an act of Congress to get it done,” she said. “I don’t know what the solution is but it needs to be looked at.”

She doesn’t necessarily think property taxes are high, but she would continue to look for efficiencies to reduce costs to the city, beginning with any contracted work that could instead be done by regular employees, ranging from custodial work to legal services.

“Employing a person to do a job is always more cost effective than subcontracting it out because you can simply eliminate the profit margin for someone in that equation,” she said.

ANDREW ZARRO

Zarro said he would make kindness and compassion a centerpiece of his work as a councilor, saying that Portland and Maine are too small for the scorched-earth politics that have been creeping into local policy debates.

“I feel like I’m bringing some new ideas and perspective,” Zarro said, adding “and just a little kindness and compassion, which is heavily in need at the moment and meeting people where they’re at and saying at the end of the day, ‘We can disagree, but we’re still going to bump into each other at Hannaford and we need to be nice to each other.’ ”

A former Main Street director in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston, Zarro helped develop and implement an economic development strategy originally designed for more rural towns. That model has since been adopted in Woodfords Corner.

After coming to Portland in 2014, Zarro worked for GrowSmart Maine, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable development and growth that respects a community’s history, culture and natural resources. He has served on several boards, including those focusing on criminal justice reform. He said the current criminal justice system makes it difficult for people to find work and housing, especially people of color.

He opened Little Woodfords in 2017, just as the state was embarking on a year-long road project that included place-making amenities such as wider sidewalks, a plaza and public art to make Woodfords Corner more enticing to pedestrians. After surviving the construction, however, Zarro said he was forced to close in March when the pandemic hit because his landlord increased the rent. He has since re-opened his modest coffee shop on Congress Street.

Zarro said many locally owned businesses are similarly in peril and the council needs to find creative ways to support them through the current economic uncertainty. Closing streets to help restaurants is not enough, he said, especially with winter approaching. He wants the council to use federal CARES Act funding, meant to offer a wide range of aid during the pandemic, for prepaid gift cards for city residents to spend at locally-owned small businesses. The city could also relax permitting and licensing fees.

“We need to dare to try something that helps specifically small and local businesses,” Zarro said. “It’s an immediate way to invest in your community and keep us afloat.”

Zarro supports all of the referendums with the exception of the tenant protections, which he is still undecided about.

Zarro said he currently pays his three employees – one full time and two part-time – $15 an hour and offers them paid health insurance and 48 hours of personal sick time, which he doubled during the pandemic. And he kept his coffee priced at $2.75 a cup.

“If we can do this, I guarantee you any business can do this,” he said. 

Zarro said he would like the city to roll out a municipal composting program. He said the prices of compostable food containers and utensils are in line with plastic, so local restaurants should be able to make the switch and reduce the amount of trash going into the city’s waste system. He said composting is “low hanging fruit” that could help the city and state meet environmental sustainability goals.

Zarro said he would support efforts to build a new homeless shelter on Riverside Street. Though not ideal, he said, he doesn’t see any benefit to reopening that discussion.

“At this point we have to get to work,” he said. “We have people who are in need.” 

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