SOUTH PORTLAND — City Council races are ramping up to be a referendum on South Portland’s increasingly progressive political agenda, with two longtime city leaders stepping in to offer what they say is a more moderate approach.

Incumbent District 3 Councilor Misha Pride, who is serving as mayor this year, is being challenged in his bid for a second three-year term by longtime school board Chairman Richard Matthews, a self-described “common sense moderate” who defended the board last March when it was accused of being racist.

Seeking the District 4 seat are Linda Cohen, another self-described moderate who is a former councilor and mayor; and Margaret Brownlee, an advocate for and vice chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission that the council formed last year. Brownlee also is one of the people who said school board members were racist.

District 4 Councilor April Caricchio isn’t seeking re-election because she plans to run for an at-large seat next year, she said. Caricchio is completing a three-year term after Cohen – who had served six years on the council, two as mayor – gave up the District 4 seat in 2018.

While district councilors must live in the districts they represent, they are elected by residents citywide. South Portland has five district and two at-large councilors. Only districts 3 and 4 are up for election Nov. 2.

Top issues in the campaigns include a proposed tree protection ordinance that’s been pitched as the most restrictive in Maine and a $4.5 million bond referendum on the November ballot that would infuse the city’s land bank with cash to buy open space. Also in the mix are the council’s recent efforts to promote environmental sustainability, encourage affordable housing development and address systemic racism.

Cohen and Matthews are campaigning together on Facebook and elsewhere, both hoping their track records will attract voters who aren’t happy with what they see as the council’s lock-step, left-leaning trajectory in recent years.

Richard Matthews

Richard Matthews

“I’m in the public a lot and people keep telling me they feel they aren’t being heard or represented,” Matthews said. “South Portland is a traditional-type city. I’m not saying all traditions need to stand, but I believe in making wise decisions about important things. I’m not a rubber-stamper. I want South Portland to move forward, but I don’t want to forget where we come from.”

Matthews, 55, is wrapping up his 11th year on the school board, including several years as chairman. He has curtailed his council campaign in recent days after undergoing surgery for colon cancer. He said the prognosis is good and he’s looking forward to continued public service.

“I’m in no way backing down from the City Council race,” said the former business owner. “I want to open up the lines of communication again. I feel like the city is divided and I want to bring us back together. We don’t have to always agree, but we can compromise to find solutions.”

Matthews said he doesn’t support the land bank bond referendum or the tree ordinance as it’s currently proposed. He believes the city has more pressing challenges, such as keeping taxes down, promoting business interests and encouraging affordable housing development. He doesn’t think it makes sense to buy more open space when the city already has so many parks and there’s little undeveloped land left for new housing.

“They say they want South Portland to be a diverse and inclusive place – but if only wealthy people from out of state can afford to live here, it’s not going to be very diverse or inclusive,” said Matthews, who is married and has three adult children.

Misha Pride

Misha Pride

Pride, Matthews’ opponent, bristles at the notion that the council doesn’t listen to diverse opinions or interest groups, including business owners. He said he has overseen numerous late-night council meetings in the last year, when citizens were given five minutes each to speak on everything from the proposed tree ordinance to dogs running off leash at Willard Beach.

“The idea that the council doesn’t listen is just false,” said Pride, 39, a lawyer who specializes in elder issues. “Come to one of our dog debates and you’ll know that’s not true. People berate us and we still listen and sometimes use their ideas.”

Married with two children, Pride said he wants to stay on the council because “I want my daughters to grow up in a city that is sustainably minded, espouses diversity, and fosters a sense of community. … I believe that city government should serve residents with compassion, diplomacy and justice.”

If re-elected, Pride said he would continue to advocate for affordable housing, programs for homeless residents and elder services; work to increase state revenue sharing and keep property taxes down; encourage economic development such as the city’s pandemic business loan program; and fight to protect the environment as outlined in the city’s One Climate Future partnership with Portland.

Pride said he supports updating zoning ordinances to promote more multifamily housing development, reduce suburban sprawl and respond to the impending effects of rising sea level on the city’s waterfront. He supports the land bank bond referendum, but he has reservations about the scope of the proposed tree protection ordinance.

“We need to protect our trees, but I don’t know if I’m in favor of having (among the most restrictive tree ordinances) in the United States,” Pride said. “I’m in favor of incremental change.”

In the District 4 race, Brownlee said she believes her experience and professionalism would benefit the council. She described herself as a passionate and analytical person who enjoys studying issues deeply and collaborating with others to solve problems. She said she senses a political division in the city, but she believes the council may be perceived as more progressive because the city has grown more progressive and the council is addressing residents’ needs.

According to her campaign materials, Brownlee supports the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities, affordable housing, clean air and water, working-class families, inclusive classrooms, education and the people of South Portland. She’d also like to tackle workforce labor shortages, regional transportation issues and the impacts of climate change. She said she wasn’t sure how she would vote on the land bank bond referendum or the proposed tree ordinance.

Margaret Brownlee

Margaret Brownlee

Brownlee, 40, said she would bring new energy to the council’s goals to make city government more inclusive and to diversify committee appointments. Married with one child, she noted her experience as a Black woman, lesbian and mother, and as the diversity, equity and inclusion officer at the Maine College of Art & Design.

Last March, during a Zoom meeting of the Human Rights Commission, Brownlee raised concerns about the handling of race-related issues in the city’s public schools. The council formed the commission by unanimous vote in late 2020, following Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in Maine and across the nation after George Floyd was killed.

During the meeting, Brownlee said the school board was racist. Matthews, as board chairman, wrote a letter in response, saying the board was shocked and saddened by that charge. “The allegation that the school board is racist is categorically false,” the letter stated. “(The board is) fully committed to the school department’s mission of maintaining a workplace and learning environment that is free from illegal discrimination and harassment.”

Brownlee said last week that the school board declined the commission’s request to meet and discuss the matter, even after a report released in April identified widespread concerns about racial inequity in South Portland schools. The report was produced by an outside firm that conducted focus group meetings with students, parents and teachers in March 2020.

“The school board still has not addressed (the commission’s concerns),” Brownlee said.

Brownlee said the district has made some strides toward racial equity; it has provided several opportunities for professional development in all schools, offered anti-racism resources for families and staff, and supported the formation of a Black Student Union at the high school. And the school superintendent is an ex officio member of the Human Rights Commission.

In her opening statement at a candidates’ forum last week, Brownlee said she believes South Portland “is an inclusive and forward-thinking city. I have lived here for five years and met some incredibly amazing people who have encouraged me, supported me and lifted me up. As a (member of the) Human Rights Commission, I have seen people who are kind, welcoming and engaged in our community.”

Still, she said, “I know that I can offer a fresh perspective that has not been offered before. … I am ready to roll up my sleeves, get things done, and collaborate with boards and committees, parents and businesses.”

Matthews declined to discuss the events of last March. “The Human Rights Commission was set up to do important work,” he said. “I look forward to seeing what they accomplish in the future.”

Linda Cohen

Linda Cohen

Cohen, Brownlee’s opponent, said she didn’t know enough about the commission to comment on it, but added, “I would want to ensure there was a need to form any new committee, especially where there are so many vacancies on existing municipal boards.”

Cohen, who is single with one adult daughter, is Monmouth’s town manager, as well as its town clerk, treasurer, tax collector, road commissioner, health officer and General Assistance administrator. Previously she worked as the city clerk in Portland and South Portland.

Cohen’s campaign mailer says she doesn’t have a “personal agenda” and doesn’t want to “change everything about our great city.”

“I do not make up my mind before I have done my homework and listened to those who speak on an issue,” her mailer states. “I want to hear from everyone, not just a few.”

Cohen, 66, said she believes in taking care of the basics before spending money on a “wish list.” Before borrowing $4.5 million for the land bank, she said, the city should focus on renovating the Central Fire Station and Police Department headquarters. And it has to figure out what to do about cramped City Hall offices and the future use of Mahoney Middle School after the new consolidated middle school opens.

“I would like the city to pay more attention to what we need than what we want,” Cohen said. “I love open space, but we have over 11 parks, the Greenbelt Walkway and more. We’ve got some big expenses coming up. We can’t afford to be buying open space.”

Cohen said she supports the city’s sustainability goals overall, but she is concerned that the proposed tree ordinance would overly restrict property rights when the city needs more affordable housing and wants people to install solar panels that might require tree removal.

“We’re sending mixed messages,” Cohen said.


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