After months of speculation, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan finally announced Wednesday morning he does indeed plan to run for re-election this fall.
Despite springtime polls and insider surveys driving up public interest in the position, declared candidates had been non-existent prior to the incumbent’s announcement today.
That’s not as surprising as it may seem for Portlanders anxious to know who their choices will be in November. After all, candidates can’t even pick up nomination papers or begin collecting signatures to appear on the ballot until June 30.
Four years ago, during the city’s first voter-decided mayoral race since 1923, excitement built up and many of the 15 candidates who ultimately appeared on the ballot declared early. That perhaps created an expectation around Portland that mayoral races would be prematurely crowded.
The conservative message board As Maine Goes carries a somewhat regular survey of political insiders — a panel purportedly consisting of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats — and last month showed 14 out of the 20 respondents considered Brennan either “somewhat” or “very” vulnerable.
Worth noting here is the oft-referenced fact that Portland is a Democratic stronghold, considered one of the most politically liberal places in Maine, if not the country. The city’s mayorship would be difficult for a Republican to win, and Brennan’s biggest threats could come from the left of him.
Even though nobody other than Brennan has officially declared interest in the race, it may be worth looking at the next five top finishers in the 2011 race — all of whom are still active in Portland in one way or another — and a few potential challengers who weren’t on the mayoral ballot four years ago.
Strimling, the runner-up in 2011 and a former state lawmaker, is the name that keeps coming up.
A privately commissioned poll conducted in April by the national firm Public Policy Polling reportedly showed that Strimling would beat Brennan in a head-to-head race by 8 percentage points in a 2015 rematch of top finishers, and the political insiders who responded to the aforementioned As Maine Goes survey called Strimling by far the most likely candidate to unseat the incumbent.
Fourteen of the 19 who answered — 74 percent — called Strimling the top threat to Brennan. Among Democratic respondents the percentage was lower — 67 percent — but still significant.
The PPP poll also reportedly showed Strimling with a 59 percent favorability rating among its 507 respondents. But as I cautioned in a past analysis of those poll results, that was only slightly higher than Brennan’s 55 percent favorability, despite the fact that Brennan has had to dirty his hands with the everyday business of city government and Strimling hasn’t.
Brennan gained ground on Strimling in the PPP poll when the survey ran through a scenario in which hypothetical Republican candidate Cheryl Leeman’s second-choice votes were reallocated among the two Democrats.
That could be seen as a sign voters consider Strimling more liberal than the incumbent, which could play in his favor in a city where Brennan’s efforts to push up the minimum wage have been decried as not aggressive enough by the sizable Green Party contingent.
Strimling, who heads a local education nonprofit and stays in the public eye as a political analyst for the Portland Press Herald and WCSH television, seems like everyone’s best bet to challenge the current mayor.
The only hitch in that narrative is that Strimling has consistently maintained he’s not planning to run. As recently as today, he reiterated: “As I said earlier, I’ll keep listening, but still no plans to run.”
Could that change? Sure it could, especially if he continues to get pressure from supporters. But running for a major office is a lot of work, and it’s also possible that Strimling is satisfied with his current job and role as an outside analyst.
From 1923 until 2011, the Portland mayors were the City Council chairmen, appointed each year by a vote of the councilors to preside over regular meetings and carry out otherwise largely ceremonial duties.
Mavodones was the last one to serve as the city’s mayor in that previous capacity, and came in third among the 15 candidates in 2011’s publicly decided race.
Still a city councilor who stands in for Brennan when the elected mayor is absent, Mavodones has worked his way up through the ranks to become a top official with the Casco Bay Lines ferry service, and has built up credentials among the city’s business community without sacrificing much in the way of his Democratic party bona fides.
Mavodones also chairs the council’s powerful finance committee, which found a compromise on Brennan’s citywide minimum wage proposal by lowering the initial figure from $9.50 per hour to $8.75 — a move that likely endeared him to the business leaders irked by the plan, but may have cost him points in the aforementioned Green corner.
The As Maine Goes survey ostensibly considered Mavodones a potential challenger, putting the former mayor in parentheses as its choice for “other,” although the political insiders who answered the questionnaire didn’t give him strong odds for success — only 5 percent said he was the candidate most likely to beat Brennan.
Would Mavodones consider another try? I haven’t seen anything definitive from his camp on the subject. I called him today to check in, and if I hear back, I’ll update this post with his thoughts.
City Councilor Marshall finished fourth in the mayoral race in 2011, and as one of the vocal Greens still on the council today, could perhaps rally the most support to challenge Brennan from the left.
Marshall hasn’t been afraid to buck the mayor on votes with major development implications in the city, voting against the rezone of the Portland Company Complex this week and against the proposed sale of Congress Square to private hoteliers two years ago — the latter sale was approved by the larger council, but ultimately overturned by a citywide referendum, in a sign that Marshall was on the side of the majority of voters on the issue.
Marshall serves as chairman of the council’s influential transportation, sustainability and energy committee, which carries a high-profile role in a city seeking to establish itself as a sustainability leader and northeastern transportation hub.
But Marshall has made it clear he’s not running for mayor this year. He told me today he won’t enter the race, and was more concrete about it than Strimling.
“I think it’s great that Mike’s running again,” he said. “If somebody wants to challenge him, I think that’d be great, too.”
Consultant, Realtor, activist and general jack-of-all-trades Jed Rathband came from political obscurity in 2011 to leapfrog a field of largely better-known candidates and finish fifth out of 15 in the mayoral race.
Rathband shook up the Portland political landscape and earned the powerful Portland Community Chamber’s endorsement along the way.
He’s remained in the public as a consultant or partner involved with a number of high visibility projects, such as the proposed reuse of the former Williston-West Church as a software business and the East Cove Townhomes plotted for Washington Avenue.
Like Mavodones, Rathband could like carry support among the business community without appearing too conservative in the liberal stronghold. But like Marshall, he’s clear about his intentions, and he’s not running.
“I’m going to sit this one out,” he said today.
City Councilor Jill Duson was the fifth runner up in the 2011 mayoral race, and has been a stable figure in Portland politics for years, regularly and easily winning re-election. As an at-large councilor, she has the important experience winning those races citywide, as well.
Another Democrat who has sought middle ground compromises on many of the controversial issues facing the city over the years, Duson could be looked at a safe choice for voters who generally like the direction of the city and don’t want to rock the boat.
That said, if voters like the direction of the city, they could just vote to re-elect Brennan, and Duson herself said as much, telling the Press Herald in April she wouldn’t oppose an incumbent fellow Democrat like Brennan.
“I hope he’s considering running again, and if he is, I would support him,” she told the Press Herald at the time.
So that wraps up the top five finishers behind Brennan in 2011. It’s entirely likely — if not probable — that Brennan will face a challenge this year from someone who wasn’t on the mayoral ballot four years ago. Let’s take a look at some of those possibilities:
The only other person to publicly declare his candidacy is upstart independent Michael Anthony, a longtime homeless man who announced his campaign in a largely overlooked nine-minute YouTube video in February.
The video had been viewed less than 100 times as of this writing, but that may pick up with more public interest in the race.
Anthony admits he’s a longshot candidate, calling himself a “revolutionary” who wants to run just to generate public debate over issues important to him, such as housing the homeless, local control and raising the minimum wage.
To that end, though, if he follows through with an active campaign, he could find success. In his video, he discusses urban re-housing strategies and campaigns to gather support for a higher minimum wage.
“If we stop arresting the homeless for camping and drinking in public, we’ll have more than enough money to house the homeless,” he said.
The respected Leeman served on the City Council for three decades and is a former chair/mayor. She’s a Republican in a Democratically controlled city, but as a longtime staffer of popular former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, she’s the sort of moderate Republican who fares well at the polls in Maine.
And indeed, Leeman was re-elected comfortably in an otherwise Democratic district every three years from the mid-1980s until she decided not to seek re-election last fall.
Leeman is one of the more intriguing possible candidates because she at one point stated publicly she was strongly considering a run, which until recently, made her the surest thing in the race.
Chris Busby — publisher of The Bollard, a veteran Portland columnist and a friend of Leeman — wrote last summer that he’d be surprised if she didn’t enter the race, and she’s consistently named among the potential challengers.
For what they’re worth — some say not much — the two polls available on the subject haven’t been kind to Leeman. The aforementioned PPP poll showed Brennan beating Leeman by 14 percentage points, head-to-head, while only about four of the 19 political insiders to take the As Maine Goes survey considered her a top threat to the incumbent.
Importantly, Leeman wasn’t swayed by those numbers. She dismissed the PPP poll as “political shenanigans” in an email to the Press Herald and argued — as I did in my analysis of it — that the source of the survey (previous Strimling ally Bob Baldacci was among those who commissioned it) is cause to view the results skeptically.
Still, despite her previous comments, Leeman has appeared to have stepped back from any intention to run. She told the Press Herald yesterday that she’s “humbled and overwhelmed” by constituents urging her to run, but that she’s not going to do it after all.
Another interesting name to consider is that of City Councilor Jon Hinck, another Democratic former state lawmaker who threw his hat in the ring in the 2012 U.S. Senate race.
With an at-large seat, Hinck also has experience winning a citywide race, beating energetic activist Wells Lyons in a 2013 contest.
The former Greenpeace activist and Natural Resources Council of Maine attorney has been a vocal supporter of a higher minimum wage than the one the council’s finance committee ultimately agreed to. At the same time, he’s been vocal about trying to avoid city spending and tax increases — building a reputation as socially liberal and fiscally moderate.
He hasn’t been afraid to clash with Brennan, but hasn’t declared any intentions to run against him either. Hinck didn’t immediately return a call today seeking comment on the upcoming race, but he told the Press Herald in April he believes Brennan “is helping move the city of Portland forward.”
Another current city councilor and former Democratic state lawmaker who could be an interesting name to follow is District 3’s Ed Suslovic.
On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine Suslovic challenging Brennan, a friend for whom he has occasionally stood in during ceremonial affairs over the years.
On the other, Suslovic was among the first on the council to say that the mayor’s role isn’t working, calling for the publicly-elected mayor position to either be strengthened or scrapped altogether.
Even if Suslovic’s criticism isn’t one of Brennan personally, it feeds into larger discontent over the ambiguity surrounding the new mayor position and amplifies complaints that Brennan’s activism has stepped on the toes of the city manager and other top administrators.
Founded or not, those complaints are fueled by the fact that two city managers have left Portland within the last year — Mark Rees and his replacement, popular acting city manager Sheila Hill-Christian — and that the city has been nearly constantly replacing department heads since 2011.