Andrew Zarro, 35, with his dog Albus at home in Back Cove. He is finishing his first term on the City Council and is hoping to help people find a good life in Portland if elected mayor. Photo by Mary Gelman

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

Andrew Zarro walks through his airy Back Cove home with a large glass jar cradled in the crook of his arm.

He’s had the jar – filled with a rainbow of index cards – since February, but he has yet to open it.

“I think I might do it on election night when I’m waiting,” he says, smiling.

The cards are messages from customers of Little Woodfords, his former coffee shop – each a tiny tribute to the business, written just before it closed.

Zarro knows firsthand that neighborhood spots can be a lot more than just places to stop for coffee or a beer.


“It’s a third place,” he said, using a term coined by an urban sociologist for public spaces where people come together and connect. “When you’re not at home and you’re not at work, you’re in a coffee shop or a bar.”

Throughout his life, Zarro said, he was buoyed by people who gave his family a chance when they thought nobody would. The family often met those people in third places.

As mayor, Zarro says he would stick his neck out to give Portlanders a chance, too.


Zarro, who recently turned 35, was born in Danbury, Connecticut, to Frank and Helaine Zarro. His parents grew up in big Italian families in the Bronx. His father, who became an attorney, was the first in his family to graduate from college. His mother went from high school to a typing job at IBM to help pay for her husband to go to college.

Andrew Zarro describes his parents as “the kindest human beings.” They valued education immensely and his dad would often emphasize the importance of pursuing it by any avenue possible.


“Think about it like you’re playing Scrabble,” Frank Zarro would say. “If you don’t have education behind you, it’s almost as if your opponent has 10 more tiles than you.”

When Zarro was 4, his family of six moved to Stanfordville, New York, a small town, quiet and picturesque, in the Hudson Valley. When he was 11, the family moved north again, to Dorset, Vermont.

Two years later, his life changed radically.

His father was convicted on fraud charges and would spend more than a decade in prison. His mom, who hadn’t worked in nearly 20 years, suddenly was a struggling single parent.

“Overnight, we went from having a normal life to electricity being turned off, no house,” said Zarro. “We got a 1991 two-door red Cherokee that we were living in, on and off.”

The family would pile into that Cherokee and drive hours to spend a holiday or weekend afternoon with Frank Zarro. When other kids were opening presents on Christmas, Andrew Zarro was being patted down at a correctional facility.


“I hated those places,” he said. The only things he liked were the vending machines.

“There were these little cappuccino, hot-chocolate machines, and they were so expensive. It was terrible hot chocolate. But it was such a big deal, especially on Christmas, to be able to have a hot chocolate with my dad,” he said.

As a teenager, Zarro always had a full-time job. He worked as a dishwasher and later in retail stores.

“I didn’t want to be perceived as this extremely poor kid,” said Zarro. “That’s why I worked at Brooks Brothers – because I had to wear a suit every day, so I didn’t look poor there. … That wasn’t a random choice.”

It’s where he learned to tie a double-Windsor knot. “It’s the only acceptable knot a gentleman will wear,” a co-worker told him, and it’s the knot he ties for every City Council meeting.

When he was a couple of years into high school, his mom and Zarro’s younger sister moved to New Jersey to stay with family because Vermont was too expensive. Zarro didn’t want to leave, and his parents encouraged him to stay put to finish high school. His mom temporarily signed away her parental rights so that a teacher could step in as his guardian.


When he was a senior and his mom and sister were about to lose their housing in New Jersey, he urged them to come back to Vermont, where he’d saved enough money to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the attic of an old building. Zarro’s godfather had to co-sign the lease.

“Based on what I went through, every indicator said that I should have failed. I should have become addicted to drugs. I should have not gone to college. I should have not been able to hold a job. I should have had a hard time accessing housing,” said Zarro. “Because our system exists for certain people to win and others to lose – and I had the variables to lose.”

His tumultuous childhood did often leave him feeling unmoored and unstable. He feels constantly and profoundly lucky, he said, to have made it through and to have found a home in Portland with his husband, TJ, a product manager at a software company, and their dogs Gene, Albus and Bruno. He is acutely aware that many people aren’t so lucky in finding such safety and security.

He chalks up his success to the people who saw his family’s struggles and offered them a lifeline.

“Our society does everything in its power to keep people from having a shot, like businesses do, government does, the judiciary does,” he said. “So when people see humanity like that it actually changes entire families.”

As mayor, Zarro said, he wants to take luck out of the equation,  to write policy that extends a steady hand to the people who are suffering most.


“The truth is, even if I don’t win this election, I’m always going to take care of my community,” he said. “That’s just who I am.”


Zarro was introduced to public policy in college. When he started at the University of Vermont, his mom handed him a flyer for a work-study job at the public administration school. He worked there for two years.

He majored in economics, was a resident adviser and a fraternity president, ran for student senate – he lost by two votes – and worked at coffee shops to pay his way through school. Zarro loves to learn, “I could probably be a student forever,” he said.

Matt Trollinger, Zarro’s college best friend and roommate, said Zarro has an “infectious passion” and puts his all into everything he tries.

“He wanted to be the manager of the coffee shop he was working at. He wanted to be president of the fraternity the moment he stepped in there. When we did theater in college, he wanted to be the best actor on stage,” said Trollinger.


After graduation, Zarro moved to Boston to get a master’s degree in public administration at Northeastern – and finally got to learn the policies attached to the social issues he cared about: criminal justice reform and housing.

His father was released from prison during this time. That first Thanksgiving was overwhelming.

“We just made all this food, and we didn’t eat anything because we just sat and just were like, ‘What is happening?’ It was the first time we’d had a holiday at home together in more than 10 years,” he said.

Frank Zarro went on to start In Our Name, a nonprofit advocating for a more humane justice system. The organization later morphed into When People Work, which focuses on helping formerly incarcerated people reenter society. Andrew Zarro has been involved in both organizations.


Zarro has a sharp memory for dates. May 14 is the day he found out that he couldn’t renew the lease for Little Woodfords’ original location. Dec. 17 is the day he moved to Maine. Nov. 5 is the day he and TJ had their first date – at The Publick House, an Irish pub in Boston.


The Zarros call each other Teej and Andy. They laugh about Albus’ love of crab apples, which carpet the backyard in autumn.

They are strikingly attuned to each other. When Andrew Zarro’s eyes start to well as he talks about his mother, his husband is by his side with a glass of water in seconds. When Andrew Zarro describes all the work they put in to start the coffee shop, TJ Zarro – who spent weekends there for months – insists his part was small: “It was his,” he says smiling at his husband.

When the Zarros moved to Maine in 2014, Andrew Zarro took a job with Grow Smart Maine. He opened the coffee shop in 2017.

Zarro’s mother, Helaine, died suddenly during the shop’s first year.

“That was the most traumatic week of my life,” said Zarro, tearing up. “She was such a wonderful woman, she was such a good person and she was really modest.”

The couple may not be from Maine originally, but they say Portland is the first place they really felt home.


“We both for a long time craved stability and calm, and we found that here,” said TJ Zarro. “We were able to come here and really ground ourselves.”

They say Portland is a city with everything. Their favorite restaurant is Maize, in Woodfords Corner. They like to hike with their dogs and take the ferry to the islands on weekends.

“I like to bike around. I love a good drink outside. Really, I just like enjoying our city,” said Zarro. His sister Katie and father also now live in Maine, and family is everything to him. People often mistake Zarro and his sister for twins; they finish each other’s sentences and make each other laugh uncontrollably. Zarro and his father have an office downtown where they still work on criminal-justice reform.

A few years after Little Woodfords opened, Zarro’s neighbor came bursting into the shop to say that their city councilor was not seeking reelection and that Zarro should run.

“I was literally making a breakfast sandwich and was like, ‘Not gonna happen,'” Zarro said.

Obviously, he came around.


“I was super upset with the council,” he said. At the time, small businesses were struggling and an encampment had popped up in front of City Hall. “The council at the time was extremely tone-deaf and not listening to people,” he said, “so that was enough for me to feel like it was time for some new perspective.”

He thought he could make things better.

Zarro said he’s enjoyed his work on the council and, as always, has stayed busy. At first, he continued to run Little Woodfords. For the past year and a half, he has worked at StartOut, a national nonprofit that helps LGBTQ+ business owners connect with investors to fund their projects.

Zarro says there were a few reasons why Little Woodfords had to close. For one, costs were going up. Then, too, he knew he wanted to run for mayor. He felt the city’s problems couldn’t wait.

“I think I really knew I wanted to run once I saw how effective I was as a councilor,” he said. “I know how to get things done and that’s who you need as the mayor. You can’t have someone who is just going to sit up there and shrug.”

Next up: Pious Ali

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