In a highly contested political race, it’s easy to lose track of endorsements, which start to be announced in rapid succession and blur together.
The Portland mayoral race is now down to its final month. Incumbent Michael Brennan is facing a serious threat to his re-election bid in the form of 2011 runner-up and fellow former state lawmaker Ethan Strimling.
Energetic Green Party candidate Tom MacMillan is also on the ballot, and is casting the two establishment Democrats as ‘six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other’ status quo choices, while he represents a true agent of change.
The most recent poll results we’ve seen — while not terribly recent, admittedly — indicate there could be a decent chunk of Portland voters who remain undecided.
And those endorsements may be what tilts the balance for those voters.
While endorsements on the national or even the state-level stage are fairly dismissed as inconsequential, endorsements in a contest like the Portland mayoral race are considered more influential.
Why? Well, when a conservative and liberal are battling for the White House or Blaine House, it’s routine business for all the conservative groups to line up behind the conservative candidate, and for all the liberal groups to line up behind the liberal candidate. There are almost never any surprises, and research has indicated these endorsements have minimal impact on voter opinion
But down here at the local level, things are a bit different. The New York Times and Sienna College found last year that when the ideological differences are less pronounced — as they are between Brennan and Strimling — voters look to endorsers for guidance on who to support.
As many as 6 out of 10 voters in the district the Times researched said endorsements help them decide who to support at the polls.
“Without issues distinguishing the candidates, voters presumably need something to help them decide whom to support, and many are turning to endorsements,” the Times reported.
The influence of endorsements may be exacerbated in a much smaller city like Portland, where voters are perhaps more likely to personally know the people making the endorsements.
So let’s look at the endorsements that have been made in the mayoral race in recent weeks and what they might mean for the candidates — and undecided voters.
Local public officials
Strimling’s campaign made waves when, shortly after he announced he was running, an army of City Council and school board members held a news conference to publicly endorse the challenger and criticize Brennan’s leadership over four years as mayor.
Four city councilors — including three former mayors — and seven school board members lined up behind Strimling. The list included councilors Nick Mavodones, Ed Suslovic, Jill Duson and Kevin Donoghue, as well as school board members Sarah Thompson, Pious Ali, John Eder, Anna Trevorrow, Holly Seeliger, Stephanie Hatzenbuehler and Marnie Morrione.
Why these endorsements matter:
City councilors deal with the mayor in close quarters and likely have a better idea than the average man-on-the-street whether the mayor is good at building consensus and generating support for his vision for the city.
And if half of the City Council lines up and says Brennan has “failed” as a leader, that’s a significant indictment. It gives some credence to lingering criticisms that Brennan’s partly to blame for high and arguably disruptive turnover among department heads at City Hall.
Education often comes up as an important issue for voters, especially in a left-leaning city like Portland, so the voices of all but two of the school board members are impactful in a different way.
Strimling’s background as head of the education nonprofit LearningWorks, paired with such lopsided support on the Board of Public Education, likely makes him the favorite among voters for whom schools are the top issue, even if Brennan can fairly argue the city’s school system has made some progress under his watch.
That several of the endorsers here are Greens — Eder and Seeliger, for instance — is noteworthy as well, considering there’s a Green Party candidate they could have endorsed instead.
Another important aspect of these endorsements: These locally elected officials represent Portland neighborhoods and likely have sway at the micro level.
In an “all politics is local” way, the woman from three houses down you just elected to the school board is going to be someone you’ll probably listen to.
The incumbent Brennan has secured a major bloc of state lawmakers to support him in his re-election bid Tuesday. Former Senate President Justin Alfond endorsed Brennan, as did state representatives Richard Farnsworth, Denise Harlow, Erik Jorgensen and Peter Stuckey, a group that makes up half of the city’s legislative delegation.
Also throwing his weight behind Brennan for good measure was Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook. It perhaps goes without saying all of the lawmakers in question are Democrats.
But Strimling has some legislators on his side as well. Sen. Anne Haskell and Rep. Diane Russell have penned letters to the editor of the Portland Press Herald signaling their support for the challenger.
Why these endorsements matter:
Portland is well-known as one of the most liberal cities in Maine, if not all of America, and conservative Republican Gov. Paul LePage is a foil for many of the progressive policies and practices the city supports.
For Portland, getting things done isn’t just about earning public support on Congress Street — most people agree locally that the minimum wage should be higher and that General Assistance aid should be more greatly dispersed, for instance — it’s about fighting for the cause in Augusta.
These legislators are effectively saying their chosen candidate, both former state senators, would be an effective ally representing Portland in the capital.
Brennan’s supporters suggested he’s been vital in standing up on behalf of Portland against the LePage administration, and that message could resonate with voters.
“Today, Portland is stronger because of Michael Brennan,” Alfond said. “He has built broad coalitions with the business community, educators, non-profit organizations, and legislators to grow our economy, improve our schools, improve the way the city does business, and strengthen our city’s voice in Augusta.
“Mayor Brennan has also stood up for Portland and it’s people when they have been under attack from Gov. Paul LePage,” the senator continued. “When the governor proposed a massive tax shift to Portland homeowners, Mayor Brennan organized mayors from across the state against it. When the governor attacked our schools with a faulty grading system, Mayor Brennan corrected the record. And when the governor’s actions would have forced hundreds of families and children into homelessness, Mayor Brennan had the courage to step in and prevent that from happening.”
In their prepared statements, the lawmakers who lined up behind Brennan also repeatedly touted the mayor’s leadership addressing homelessness, substance abuse, rights of asylum seekers and the economy. Those are hot button issues voters have said they care about, and which Brennan has been active on during his time in office.
The incumbent is looking for these endorsements of his leadership ability to drown out — or at least offset — the leadership critiques levied by city councilors and school board members.
Haskell and Russell wrote about Strimling’s work with disadvantaged youth, again racking up points in his education tally.
Haskell went so far as to cast Strimling not as a noble opponent for LePage, but a potential peacemaker.
“[Strimling’s] leadership has not gone unnoticed, even by our governor, who’s visited LearningWorks a number of times and has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to help them do their work,” she wrote in her letter to the Press Herald. “Ethan has shown an ability to help the governor see some of the good work we do in Portland with at-risk youth and the immigrant community. Imagine if Ethan could do the same in regard to our economic development and education funding needs?”
Strimling has been racking up labor union endorsements lately, although Brennan’s cupboard isn’t completely empty in this regard.
The United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, UA Local 716, and the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association Local Union No 17 today announced they’ve joined the Portland firefighters’ union (photo below), Professional Firefighters of Maine and the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council in their support of Strimling.
“We’re supporting Ethan because he’s standing with labor, working families and he has a working family agenda,” said John Napolitano of UA Local 716 in a statement.
“The middle class is getting squeezed right now and these workers are the backbone of our economy,” said Strimling.
Brennan has claimed the endorsement of the Portland Longshoremen’s Benevolent Association, ILA Local 861, which credits the mayor with reviving a once dormant city waterfront by helping attract international shipping company Eimskip and encouraging the state to build a much-needed cold storage facility nearby.
“Mayor Brennan demonstrated the necessary leadership to bring people together to support Portland’s working waterfront” said Mike Fox, president of ILA Local 861, at the time. “He stood with us to support good paying jobs on our waterfront, and we are proud to stand with him and support him for re-election.”
Why these endorsements matter:
In a generally pro-labor city like Portland, it’s expected that anyone who becomes mayor will be an advocate for unions and pursue policies intended to benefit the working class.
When the city firefighters’ union announced its endorsement of Strimling Monday, President John Brooks even went so far as to tell the Portland Press Herald and others the move shouldn’t be taken as a “negative” commentary on Brennan’s work with unions.
So outside voters don’t have to worry about any of the candidates being anti-labor, no matter which unions endorsed which candidates.
The value of these endorsements is primarily in the sheer mass of people that these organizations represent, and unions are often enthusiastic about get-out-the-vote efforts. If all the unions that endorsed Strimling can convince all their Portland resident members and their families to vote for Strimling, that’s likely a big deal.
If the longshoremen come out in force to vote for Brennan and the incumbent gets another union or two in his corner as well, that’ll help balance out that equation.
While these groups haven’t publicized official endorsements like those listed above, it’s maybe worth mentioning that Tom MacMillan is elbow deep in a number of active grassroots groups in the city.
MacMillan was one the primary local players behind the effort to legalize marijuana possession in Portland two years ago, was a founding board member of Friends of Congress Square Park and is now chairman of the coalition backing a $15-per-hour minimum wage referendum.
While the little poll data we have shows MacMillan running a distant third in this race, he was successful leading the effort to legalize pot and prevent the sale of Congress Square to private hotel developers — in the latter case, MacMillan’s side had to battle through a protracted legal battle and then claim a majority at the polls in order to succeed.
Again, these may not be what we’d conventionally call endorsements, but if the grassroots infrastructures behind those efforts can be rallied behind MacMillan, he may be able to make things interesting. Something like a local version of how Bernie Sanders is rocking the apple cart in the Democratic presidential primary race.
Who is MacMillan a greater threat to? It’s tough to say.
Looking at early poll numbers and the presence of Greens in his corner, it’s reasonable to conclude many voters consider Strimling to be politically on the left of Brennan. From that perspective, a candidate who is contending for votes on the left of Brennan would be a greater threat to Strimling.
(Note: Originally, I’d listed Donoghue among the Green Party members supporting Strimling, but although Donoghue was a Green when he was first elected to the council, he has reportedly since unenrolled.)