Dylan Pugh, 34, has never run for public office before but believes believes that empathetic, compassionate conversation has a place in politics. Photo by Mary Gelman

The third of five profiles on Portland’s mayoral candidates.

Mugs hang in a row on the exposed brick wall in Dylan Pugh’s kitchen, each painted with a different bird.

On this sunny Wednesday morning in Back Cove, he takes a moment to choose between a pheasant and a blue jay – and picks the pheasant – before pouring his coffee.

He only buys beans that are “bird safe,” since he learned that many songbirds are poisoned by coffee grounds.

As he takes his first sip, his cat Moth hops onto the windowsill and bats at the pane. “Hi, dummy,” Dylan coos, petting her smooth coat. Moth and her sister, Mystic, are indoor cats. Another effort to protect the birds, he says.

While Pugh admits that he could easily be classified as a “bird guy,” birds are not his greatest passion, he says. He simply does what he can to help those in need, whether they be songbirds, friends or a city. He says he doesn’t like to make a fuss, just to take quiet, decisive action to protect what he feels needs protecting.


He says that’s what motivated him to run for mayor.


Pugh, who is 34, was born in Seattle to David and Jeanne Pugh, defectors from Scientology who struggled to make ends meet. David Pugh had polio and wore leg braces all his life. He tried and failed to start multiple businesses throughout Dylan Pugh’s childhood.

“He was always sort of wheeling and dealing, but never achieved any level of financial stability,” said Pugh.

Jeanne Pugh took odd jobs and worked as a receptionist to keep the family afloat.

The family of four – completed by Pugh’s younger sister, Aidan – moved all over Washington state in search of stable work for his mom. It wasn’t always easy to find. Sometimes, they had to pawn belongings to keep from getting evicted. Once, they had to sell his mom’s car.


When he was 12, his father died of esophageal cancer and the family settled in Spokane, Washington, where Pugh found a tightknit group. Five boys became inseparable. He and Josh Acker were best friends.

They all had one thing in common: Their fathers were not in their lives. Pugh said the boys got from each other the support and stability their families lacked: “We jokingly called ourselves the Coalition of the Fatherless.”

By high school, Pugh knew he wanted to get out of a city where he saw generations of families suffer in poverty.

“I knew where the pathway of living in Spokane would lead,” he said.

In the school library, Pugh took an online quiz about where to go to college. On his list: the College of the Atlantic, on Mount Desert Island, an attractive 3,000 miles away. The school let students design their own majors. Pugh applied, got in with financial aid and headed east on his 18th birthday.

In college he studied creative writing as well as business, which he added as “a fail safe,” aware that living off poetry wouldn’t be easy. He ran with a crowd of  activists who held campus climate protests and went to New York City to join in Occupy Wall Street.


Just before graduation, he was hanging out with his friend Arwyn Sherman when Sherman joked that they could start a walking tour company together. Pugh emailed Sherman the next day with a business plan.

Bar Harbor Tour Company broke even within a month. Pugh and Sherman did the research to be historically accurate and created literary, historical and ghost tours of Bar Harbor. Sherman shaped the tours while Pugh handled business administration, marketing and hiring.

After a few years, the two were ready to move on from the company and from Bar Harbor. Pugh moved on to a high-level marketing position in New York City, where he stayed for two years before leaving to help Acker, his best friend, take care of his two young daughters while Acker’s wife was deployed in the Coast Guard and Acker had knee surgery. Pugh spent six months back in Oregon lending a hand before he decided to move back to Maine.

“Maine has a sense of community I really love, and I wanted that again,” he said. “Portland always seemed like the ideal fusion of what was going on in a bigger city, but still had that close-knit feeling.”

When he got to Portland, he stayed on a friend’s couch and worked at a biodiesel manufacturing plant. He’d bike home through the city at night, his clothes slick with oil.

He eventually got his own place on Pleasant Avenue, though it wasn’t in very good shape. The hot-water heater was turned up so high he couldn’t shower without risking a burn. His landlord, who had a Ferrari, lived below him.


“That was the first taste I got of the housing situation here. My landlord couldn’t turn down the hot-water heater, which would have cost him nothing, but he had this nice car in perfect condition downstairs,” Pugh said, shaking his head.

Eventually, Pugh opted to go back to school for computer science. He enrolled in an associate program at Southern Maine Community College and worked the late shift at Trader Joe’s. In 2018, he got his first software job at a startup, Vivid Cloud. The next year, his world turned upside-down.


Pugh had a mental health crisis.

“I think of my life as my ‘old life’ and what I’m doing now, and it really was punctuated by that crisis,” he said.

“A lot of stuff from my childhood caught up with me all of sudden, and I was not OK,” he said. He wasn’t sure he would survive.


Sherman helped Pugh adopt his cats in New Hampshire during this time, when he was severely depressed and sometimes having suicidal thoughts. Sherman thought having companions to care for would be good for him. Plus, Pugh smiled when he talked about Eleanor, the “grumpy old black cat” he’d grown up with.

Pugh didn’t have the energy to look for cats himself at the time, but he told Sherman he wanted a black one. The friends sat talking at his sunny kitchen table while Sherman scrolled through photos on Petfinder. Pugh was sold when Sherman showed him the black kittens and told him they were sisters.

Friends like Sherman were there for Pugh, but he also connected with therapy groups in Portland and found an organization that facilitated psychedelic-assisted therapy, an experience he says was “transformative.”

“This city gave me a framework that I had never had before. It proved to me that people could show up for me,” he said. “Most of my life before, people didn’t show up.

Pugh’s family had moved around all his life, and his therapist urged him now to stay put. “Breaking that pattern of moving has changed my life more than any other decision I’ve ever made,” he said. He used to try to escape the hardships of his past. But when he chose to stay in Portland, he stopped running.

“Portland allowed me to see the rest of my life and when I was really deep in the crisis, I didn’t think I was going to have a rest of my life,” he said.


As Pugh was coming out of his struggle, he started to research his ancestry. He discovered Ellis Pugh, a direct ancestor from the 1600s, who was an early Pennsylvania Quaker.

“Finding Ellis was like this light,” said Pugh. He began exploring and practicing Quakerism, and it’s now a big part of his life.

“It’s really influenced my politics, the core idea in Quakerism is that there is light in everyone regardless of what’s going on with them and regardless of their political position,” he said. The congregation he’s part of doesn’t gather to listen to a sermon. They sit in silence together for an hour every Sunday.

Around the same time Pugh became a Quaker, Acker died by suicide. Acker’s daughters, whom Pugh refers to as his nieces, were around the same age as he was when his father died.

He remains a big part of their lives and has visited them several times. “I just want them to know I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

Pugh said he again felt held by the Portland community as he navigated this loss.


“I feel like more than once the lifeblood of this community has saved me, and now I see that slipping away,” he said.

Pugh wants Portland to continue to be a place that can support people through crisis.

“You know if I survived this, I can probably survive politics,” he said with a laugh. “Let me give back after receiving so much from this city.”


Portland is home for Pugh now.

He volunteers with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, frequents Sticky Sweet for what he calls “the best ice cream in the world,” and goes to Nura for falafel, which are among his favorite foods.


Pugh said he has been disheartened as he’s watched friends get priced out of Portland. He sees global problems like climate change and homelessness converging on a city that he says “is not equipped” to deal with them.

He said he has lived through the same mental health and financial struggles that many Portlanders grapple with. He is preoccupied with approaching all of the city’s residents with empathy.

“I’m someone who’s not going to forget what it’s like to not know where your next meal is coming from or to not know where you’re sleeping at night. That is in my cell structure,” he said.

Pugh believes that empathetic, compassionate conversation has a place in politics. Beneath the sometimes clashing political identities and ideas for addressing the city’s issues, he thinks that the people of Portland want the same things.

“We all want a city that’s safe and accessible and secure,” he said. “My process is to go deep enough with people to find the common desires behind all these different ideas.”

He opted not to run for the council or school board because he thinks this approach needs to come from the city’s leader.


“I don’t think the systems we have right now make any sense, so I’m very receptive to large-scale change of these systems,” said Pugh.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Pugh is that he doesn’t do anything halfway, said his friend Sherman. He dives in: “When he sees things he wants to achieve, he is going to commit to it with everything he has.”

Not long after Pugh moved to Portland, he and Sherman went swimming at the Eastern Promenade. Pugh was nervous as he waded into the water.

“Are you OK?” Sherman asked. That’s when Pugh said that he didn’t know how to swim.

In that moment, Pugh said, “I was very happy to just jump in and see what happened.”

Next up: Andrew Zarro

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