Portland voters strongly favor minimum wage hike, Strimling for mayor, new poll says

Former fellow state lawmakers and mayoral candidates Ethan Strimling and Michael Brennan, right, talk as they await the results of the 2011 mayoral race. Brennan would go on to win, with Strimling finishing as the runner-up. (BDN file photo by Joel Page)

Former fellow state lawmakers and mayoral candidates Ethan Strimling and Michael Brennan, right, talk as they await the results of the 2011 mayoral race. Brennan would go on to win, with Strimling finishing as the runner-up. (BDN file photo by Joel Page)

According to a poll of likely Portland voters, people in Maine’s largest city strongly favor a minimum wage increase and challenger Ethan Strimling to unseat incumbent Michael Brennan as mayor.

The poll was commissioned by the left-leaning Maine People’s Alliance and conducted by its sister organization, the Maine People’s Resource Center. While it’s always worth mentioning who is behind a given poll, in this case, it’s particularly important because the Maine People’s Alliance is pushing for a statewide minimum wage increase.

The success — and popularity — of a high-profile minimum wage hike in Portland would likely benefit that push.

That having been said, a Maine People’s Resource Center poll done in advance of the 2011 mayoral election in Portland was remarkably accurate. That poll, which was admittedly conducted much closer to the actual election, predicted within a percentage point what the top two finishers actually received in first-place votes.

Out of 15 candidates in 2011, it also correctly placed the top five finishers, and was within a percentage point of accuracy on four of them.

So what does the MPRC poll say about the mayoral race four years later?

Ethan Strimling

Ethan Strimling

This time, it has former state lawmaker and current education nonprofit head Strimling with a sizable lead over Brennan, although many voters claimed to be undecided.

The survey asked 452 respondents which of four candidates would be their first choice at the polls, and Strimling received 46 percent of the hypothetical votes. Brennan came in second with 21.4 percent, followed by well-known Green Party candidate Tom MacMillan at 4 percent and firefighter Chris Vail — who also ran in 2011 — at 2.2 percent.

Another 26.4 percent of the respondents said they remained undecided on which candidate to vote for. That’s a big chunk of voters still in play, but if the poll is actually reflective of where Portlanders stand on the race, Brennan would need to pick up nearly all of those undecided voters to overcome Strimling.

With ranked choice voting being used in Portland, second- and third-choice votes could also tip the scales one way or another (more about how that process works here), but it’s rare for someone to make up a double-digit gap on second-choice votes. And second-choice votes would only come into play if the first place finisher doesn’t claim a majority on Election Day, and Strimling wouldn’t need to get many of those undecided voters to cross that 50 percent threshold, based on these poll numbers.

But keep in mind the November election is a long way out, still, and that this poll breaks pretty significantly with the findings of other polls done on the mayoral race.

Just a month ago, a Public Policy Polling survey, commissioned by past Strimling ally Baldacci Communications, found the top two candidates in a dead heat, with Strimling’s slim advantage within the poll’s margin of error.

At the time, however, Strimling had yet to officially enter the race. Since he made that announcement less than two weeks ago, a cadre of Portland officials came out publicly in support of the challenger, directly and indirectly blasting the leadership of the incumbent Brennan along the way.

Could that amount of activity have pushed popular support so dramatically behind Strimling in just a few weeks’ time?

Hard to say.

The MPRC poll also indicated Portland voters lean heavily in favor of a minimum wage increase, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given the city’s track record as a liberal stronghold.

Michael Brennan (BDN file photo by John Clarke Russ)

Michael Brennan (BDN file photo by John Clarke Russ)

Seventy-five percent of respondents said they supported the City Council’s recently approved ordinance to establish a higher minimum wage in Portland — from the statewide $7.50 per hour to $10.10 per hour starting in 2016, and then up to $10.68 per hour a year later.

A Green Party-backed citywide referendum to ultimately establish a $15 per hour minimum wage also saw support, although less decisively, with 48 percent of poll takers behind it (compared to about 40 percent opposed to it).

At a 60 percent clip, respondents also told the pollsters they’d be more likely to support a candidate who supports increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers, which wasn’t intended to be part of Brennan’s minimum wage ordinance recently approved by the council.

(Note: The mayor’s minimum wage proposal, which was effectively the one the council went with, was a compromise plan that considered restaurant owners’ pleas to exclude the wages of tipped workers from the mix. Restaurant owners argued that their waiters make much more than the half-minimum wage they’re legally allowed under state law, because tips are so significant in the city’s hot culinary scene. The debate is still being played out, with the Maine People’s Alliance, among others, arguing tipped workers in Portland only make on average $8.77 per hour including tips, and that tipped employees are three times more likely to live in poverty statewide than non-tipped workers.)

The poll indicates that Brennan should be able to campaign on his ability to bring a higher minimum wage to Portland, a feat none of the other candidates can claim, but that he could be attacked from the left by candidates who believe he should’ve fought harder to extend those wage benefits to tipped workers.

That said, the ordinance currently on the books does extend those benefits to tipped workers, even though the City Council plans to reconsider that aspect of it. It could be interesting to see how Strimling’s vocal supporters on the council — Nick Mavodones, Ed Suslovic, Jill Duson and Kevin Donoghue — vote on that issue if it reaches their desks.

Brennan’s campaign spokesman, Marc Malon, issued the following statement soon after the release of the poll results Thursday morning:

“Michael Brennan has provided strong leadership for the city of Portland as its first elected Mayor. He has laid out a vision for the city and backed up those promises with results. As more people begin to pay attention to the the election after Labor Day, support for the mayor will grow. There’s no question this will be a close election and ultimately the mayor’s impressive record of achievement, which includes raising the minimum wage, will carry the day.”

View the MPRC poll results in the organization document below:

MPRC Portland Poll Results, Aug. 27, 2015

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.