About 100 of us stood outside Portland  City Hall in the cold November sunlight Thursday to witness something big.

After two instant runoffs, the ranked-choice election for an at-large City Council seat between Planning Board Chairman Brandon Mazer and former Board of Education Chairman Roberto Rodriguez ended in an actual tie – 8,529 votes each.

According to the city charter, the winner would be decided “by lot,” which turned out to be a drawing by City Clerk Kathy Jones of folded index cards from an impressive looking wooden bowl.

When Jones read Mazer’s name, a buzz went through the crowd, and we all went back to work, knowing which direction our city government would be heading for the next three years.

But we don’t really know, any more than those people in Pennsylvania know how long winter will last after watching the groundhog come out of his hole – the civic ritual that Portland’s drawing most reminded me of.

First of all, with an election this close, there’s going to be a recount, and with 21,000 ballots that will be reviewed by hand, it’s highly likely that at least one vote moves into the column of one of the candidates giving Mazer or Rodriguez the seat. But there’s no recount until there’s a winner, and no winner without a drawing. Spectacle aside, this election will be decided by the voters, not by chance.

Everyone will have to wait to see who wins what is widely seen as the latest chapter in Portland’s ongoing contest for influence between progressive activists and more the moderate liberal faction, a race that has been going the progressives’ way as of late.

Mazer was the favorite of the city’s establishment, endorsed by business community leaders and Mayor Kate Snyder. Rodriguez has the support in the city’s progressive movement. But I don’t think that this election was the ideological showdown that a lot of people seem to think.

I was part of the editorial board process that interviewed all the candidates for City Council, progressives, moderates and one conservative, and was struck by how little difference there was between them on the issues.

All eight candidates, four for the at-large seat and two each for Districts 1 and 2, said that affordability was the No. 1 problem facing the city, and there was no extreme difference in the solutions that they offered to address it. You would have had a hard time knowing who to vote for on the issues alone.

That doesn’t mean that the candidates are all the same. Voters could tell the difference based on their experience and the groups that backed them. But if there was an ideological debate in this election, I missed it. It wasn’t in anything I heard the candidates say, just in what I heard others say about them.

And that makes sense, because so little of what goes on in city government is ideological.

Most of what municipalities do is provide services, whether that’s picking up the trash or housing someone who has no place to go, and they pay for the services by collecting taxes. Balancing needs against resources is a constant struggle.

Whoever ultimately wins the election will spend most of their time dealing with problems that weren’t on their palm card when they ran for office. No one ran for the council in 2019 with a pandemic plan, but that’s what consumed them in office. It’s safe to bet that a new crisis will present itself and the councilors will be forced to vote when they don’t like any of the options.

If there is a difference between progressives and moderates in Portland, it may be a sense of urgency rather than priorities. Housing affordability has been a problem for years, but no matter who’s in office, it just keeps getting worse. The progressives say they represent the voices of the people who can’t wait any longer.

But big changes, like building housing, take time, longer than the term of a city councilor. To carry out those projects you have to build on the work that has already been done, even if it’s not what you would have done had you been there.

When Mazer’s name was drawn from the bowl, it was touching to see he and Rodriguez hug each other.

We saw two candidates who have worked hard for months believing that they were the best person for the job and, at least in that moment, appreciating what the other must be feeling.

It was a nice break from the shrill politics of social media. It showed something about the sacrifices people make to run for local office and the desire to serve their communities.

We might not know the winner of this race yet, but standing out in the cold, we did witness something big after all.

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