Five candidates vying to become Portland’s next mayor sparred Tuesday over the city’s top challenges, including homeless encampments, housing, immigration and climate change, during a 90-minute debated hosted by the Portland Press Herald and the University of New England.

Much of the focus on the debate, which drew about 260 people to UNE’s Innovation Hall, was on the efforts to deal with homeless encampments throughout the city.

City Councilor Mark Dion, a former sheriff, said city sweeps of encampments, which have been decried by advocates as harmful to people living there, would continue if he’s elected mayor. Too much focus has been put on the impacts to people living in the encampment, he said, while the needs of neighbors and businesses are being overlooked.

“The sweeps will continue,” Dion said, emphasizing the need to focus on public safety as well as public health. “We have to encourage them to make the right decision. We can’t hope they make the right decision.”

Mark Dion, left, answers a question during a mayoral debate that also included Dylan Pugh, right, and Andrew Zarro, Justin Costa and Pious Ali at the University of New England in Portland on Tuesday. Emphasizing the need to focus on public safety, Dion, a city councilor and former sheriff, said city sweeps of homeless encampments will continue if he’s elected. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Former city councilor Justin Costa, who is positioning himself as a change agent despite his prior service on the council, repeatedly criticized current councilors for a lack of action, whether it was implementing zoning reforms to encourage affordable housing, addressing the encampments sooner, or failing to approve an emergency declaration to expand capacity at the city’s homeless services center.


Last night, the council voted down the only proposal that has been concrete and drafted to deal with the immediate issue people are dealing with,” Costa said.”That is something that has to stop.”

City Councilor Pious Ali voted to add 50 beds to the $25 million shelter that opened in the spring and has been full ever since, while Dion and City Councilor Andrew Zarro opposed it.


Candidates also addressed the growing number of asylum seekers coming to the city. Asylum seekers cannot apply for a work permit until at least six months after they have filed their applications.

The candidates stressed the need for more help from the state, but Zarro and political newcomer Dylan Pugh said they would look for ways around that federal prohibition on working by allowing asylum seekers to work anyway.

Justin Costa, a former city councilor, criticized the current city council for a lack of action over issues ranging from the homelessness crisis to affordable housing during the debate Tuesday night. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“We have to get creative here, and we need to lead the way and say you can work here regardless of what the federal government might say,” Pugh said.


Zarro said asylum seekers should partner with community organizations to “W-4 them,” which would allow them to work.

“You don’t need a Social Security number. It’s a work around. Sure, there’s the chance we’re skirting the edge of that,” Zarro said. “We need to be creative. This is not going away. With climate migration it’s going to get worse. Let’s embrace this as an opportunity and swing big.”

Regarding housing, Ali also said he would pursue a $50 million bond to build affordable housing in Portland. Zarro said he would open up industrial zones for housing. And Costa said he would concentrate housing efforts on corridors like Brighton and Forest avenues and offer density bonuses to affordable housing developers.

Zarro, meanwhile, embraced the issue of climate change, saying that he has been working with Central Maine Power Co. and Sen. Angus King’s office on a proposal to upgrade the city’s electrical grid and triple its capacity to accommodate its goal of switching from fossil fuels to electricity generated by renewable resources.

Andrew Zarro, center, and Dylan Pugh, second from left, said they would look for ways around the federal prohibition that keeps asylum seekers from applying for a work permit until at least 6 months after they have filed their applications for asylum. We need to be creative,” said Zarro, a current city councilor. “This is not going away. With climate migration, it’s going to get worse.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I’m very proud of this work and I have every intention of seeing it through,” said Zarro, observing that this was the first time candidates had been asked about climate change, producing the only applause line of the night.



Ali floated several ambitious proposals – creating a municipal, consumer-owned utility company, adopting a carbon impact fee and strengthening the Green New Deal approved by voters, though he didn’t mention specifics.

Dion, meanwhile, said he would start smaller in terms of climate change by planting trees and looking for ways to protect Commercial Street and the Back Cove from the impacts of rising sea levels.

Pugh, who works at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said he would commission a vulnerability study so the city can mitigate the near-certain impacts of climate change, making it a priority to protect the working waterfront.

Pious Ali, a current city councilor, floated several ambitious proposals that included pursuing a $50 million bond to build affordable housing; creating a municipal, consumer-owned utility company; and adopting a carbon impact fee, though he didn’t offer specifics at the debate Tuesday night. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Costa said he would continue efforts to expand electric vehicle charging stations – possibly into neighborhoods.

The candidates also denounced the rise of white nationalism, which has manifested itself on the streets and during public comments offered on Zoom during City Council meetings, condemning hate language and reaffirming Portland as a welcoming city.

Dion, however, took it a step further, saying that he would work with the city manager and police chief to fully investigate these episodes and seek prosecution for any civil or criminal offenses committed, “rather than sit back and figure out a way to tolerate it.”

“Let us call them for who they are – as bigots,” he said. “These are acts of community terrorism.”

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