District 3 voters Sam Lowry and Tess Jacquez mark their choices for nine members of the Portland Charter Commission and weigh in on the $125.2 million Portland school budget Tuesday morning at the Italian Heritage Center. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Portland residents on Tuesday elected a decidedly progressive slate of members to a new Charter Commission that could recommend changes to the basic form and power structure of city government.

Based on unofficial results, five progressive candidates emerged as winners in the first round of counting by collecting more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes. Portland’s ranked-choice voting process requires instant runoffs if no candidate exceeds 50 percent of the vote in the initial count.

However, the four at-large races were decided by four separate ranked-choice runoffs that completely upended preliminary totals and knocked more moderate and conservative candidates out of the running. The most surprising result was the election of Pat Washburn, who got only 4 percent of the vote heading into the runoffs but ended up defeating Steve DiMillo, who had the second-most votes out of the nine candidates in the initial count. 

Shay Stewart-Bouley easily won the three-way race for District 1 outright, with 64.9 percent of the vote. Karen Snyder placed second with 19.7 percent and David Cowie has 14.5 percent.

In District 2, Robert O’Brien earned 81 percent of the vote after his only opponent dropped out.

Zachary Barowitz won the three-way race in District 3 outright, earning nearly 51.2 percent of the votes over former City Councilor Brian Batson (37 percent) and political newcomer Charles Bryon (11.8 percent).

Marcques Houston edged out a 46-vote win over former City Councilor Cheryl Leeman with 54 percent of the vote in a two-way race for District 4.

And Ryan Lizanecz won with a 136-vote margin over Mony Hang, earning 54.1 percent of the vote in a two-way race for District 5.

The at-large races featured 11 candidates seeking four seats.

Heading into the instant runoff, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, a progressive Democrat, led with 22.4 percent of the vote, followed by Steven Dimillo, a Republican businessman who had 21.1 percent. They were followed by Marpheen Chann (17 percent), Benjamin Grant (12.4 percent) and Catherine Buxton (11.2 percent).

But, after a series of runoffs in which a computer redistributed votes based on voters’ rankings, City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said that final winners were Chann, Sheikh-Yousef, Buxton and Washburn. Washburn had only 4.2 percent, or 367, first-place votes heading into the runoff, but ended up beating DiMillo, who had 1,873 first-place votes. Washburn ended up receiving 3,478 votes to DiMillo’s 2,276.

City Clerk Kathy Jones said activity at polling locations was slow Tuesday afternoon. And, she said, just 2,536 absentee ballots had been returned to City Hall, a small fraction of Portland’s 63,059 registered voters.

All told, 8,884 voters cast ballots, a 14 percent turnout. While low compared with previous elections, the turnout was nearly twice as high as the 2009 charter commission election, when 3,519 voters cast ballots, a 7.7 percent turnout.

Off-year elections to approve school budgets have historically drawn just a couple thousand voters, although 19,579 Portlanders voted in last June’s election, which included the state legislative primaries.

The Charter Commission was originally established to consider a public financing program for municipal candidates, something supported by a citizens petition. But the commission will not be limited to that subject and can recommend any number of changes to the charter. Any recommended changes, however, will need approval from voters to take effect.

Much of the focus of the commission’s review over the next year is expected to be on the balance of power between the elected mayor, a post created by the last charter commission a decade ago, and the city manager, who runs the daily operations and is hired and fired by the City Council. The elected mayor works full-time and serves a four-year term, but is still a member of the council and does not have a staff or any executive authority.

Several candidates for the charter commission expressed interest in increasing the number of councilors representing specific districts, raising councilors’ pay (currently $6,811 a year) and possibly eliminating the council’s oversight and approval of the school budget. And others said they would focus on addressing racial inequities and increasing police oversight – and even defunding police – through changes in the charter.

The winners, as of Tuesday night, have called for shifting more power over to the elected mayor and away form the city manager, while advocating for expanding the City Council.

Some voters outside polling places at Merrill Auditorium and Grace Baptist Church on Summit Street said they want to see a diversity of voices on the Charter Commission and would like to see the group make changes to increase equity, accountability and efficiency in city government.

Ben Rosenbloom, a teacher at King Middle School, said he feels that, in general, city government has been “resistant to enacting the will of the people,” pointing to the city’s legal opinion, which was upheld in Superior Court, that the hazard wage provision in the minimum wage ordinance enacted last fall doesn’t take effect until next year.

Rosenbloom, 29, said he would like to see a new charter that does away with a city manager or allows for more accountability to voters.

“I’m torn on, for example, where I’d come down between a really strong council and a really strong mayor,” he said. “I don’t know that I love the idea of a mayor that can do whatever they want regardless of what the council says, but I do definitely think (there should be) a stronger mayor than a city manager.”

Fran Seeley, who is retired, said diversity was important as she weighed candidates for the Charter Commission. “I would just like them to look over the way things are being done and make the appropriate changes to make our city more efficient and citizen-friendly,” said Seeley, 80.

“I’d like to see a more open-door policy for people to put their two cents in,” said Seeley, citing concerns about a recent proposal to build a 200-bed homeless shelter on Riverside Street. “I would hope they could at least address what people’s concerns are,” she said of the commission.

Racial equity was the top issue in the Charter Commission race for Sue Lippert, 73, a retired school counselor. “I’m looking for people to make changes and it’s systemic change, so that’s hard,” Lippert said. “I was looking for people I thought would not just put forward their thinking in support of that, but who could actually work with people to make it happen.”

Others, like Pete Swegart, a 31-year-old musician, wants the commission to include policy initiatives, such as defunding the police and addressing the housing shortage, in the charter, which is essentially the city’s constitution since it outlines basic governmental structure.

“I definitely voted in favor of people who were explicitly talking about having people oversee the police force and cutting as much funding to them as possible,” said Swegart, who declined to say which candidates he specifically picked. “Another big concern of mine, living in Portland, is housing costs. It’s really expensive to live here so people who are in favor of rent caps and holding back on rent increases and more affordable housing opportunities (were candidates I voted for.)”

Twenty one candidates ran for nine spots on the commission, which includes three members already appointed by the council: Efficiency Maine Deputy Director and former school board member Peter Eglinton, ACLU of Maine Policy Counsel Michael Kebede, and former City Councilor Dory Waxman, who also is founder of Community Threads and owner of Old Port Wool and Textile Co.

Three other candidates – Em Burnett, Twain Braden and Hope Rovelto – qualified to run and had their names listed on the ballot, but dropped out.

Chann, who ran at-large, led all of the candidates in fundraising, hauling in nearly $12,400. He was followed by Barowitz, in District 3, who raised nearly $11,100, a sum that included a $5,000 loan to his own campaign. And Grant, an at-large candidate, nearly broke the five-figure mark, raising nearly $9,500.

Two outside groups – the Democratic Socialists of America for A People First Charter and the Portland Democratic City Committee – tried to sway voters with independent expenditures.

People First Charter, a political action committee linked to former Mayor Ethan Strimling, backed Stewart-Bouley in District 1, Barowitz in District 3 and Houston in District 4 and at-large candidates Washburn, Sheikh-Yousef, Anthony Emerson and Buxton.

The PAC angered several of the seven candidates it endorsed by sending a mailer opposing other candidates and for misstating their candidates’ positions.

People First raised and spent over $15,500 in support of its seven candidates and opposing four others (Leeman in District 4, DiMillo for at large, Batson in District 3 and Chann). That spending included $3,355 in the final days on Facebook ads, which included ads for candidates such as Barowitz and Stewart-Bouley, who publicly denounced the group and asked to be removed from its campaign materials.

Meanwhile, four candidates – Stewart-Bouley, Sheikh-Yousef, Buxton and Washburn – banded together to form the Rose Slate, which they described as a multiracial and multigenerational slate of first-time, feminist candidates.

The Portland Democratic City Committee spent at least $310 in support of Democratic candidates. One independent expenditure shows the group spent $310 on campaign literature in support of Houston. However, the group also posted photos online in support of Lizanecz. Both pieces also listed the names and party affiliations of the remaining candidates.

PDCC Chairman Charles Skold said the flyer in support of Lizanecz did not reach the $250 threshold requiring an independent expenditure.

The Portland Community Chamber of Commerce also sent questionnaires to candidates and published the results, indicating how each candidate’s views aligned with that of its membership, but did not formally endorse to invest money into the campaign.

Staff Writer Rachel Ohm contributed to this report.

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