Torsch challenges Thibodeau for Portland City Council

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PORTLAND — No matter who wins the City Council District 2 seat, it will remain in youthful hands.

Incumbent Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, 69 Pitt St., is seeking his second, three-year term in the district, which covers the city’s West End and extends beyond the University of Southern Maine campus.

Thibodeau is opposed by Jon Torsch, 461 Cumberland Ave., who is making his first run for public office.

Both men are 30 years old.

They differ, however, on how they are financing their campaigns. Finance reports filed July 16 showed Thibodeau led all candidates, having raised more than $8,100.

Torsch had yet to enter the race, but has said he will not accept contributions from out-of-state political action committees, real estate developers, companies or corporations.

City elections are nonpartisan. Election Day is Nov. 6.

Spencer Thibodeau

An attorney at Verrill Dana specializing in real estate law, Thibodeau said he identifies with younger city residents struggling with student debt and housing costs, but added his outlook spans his entire constituency.

“Dedication of time to this job is something I have tried to maintain, I treat it like a day job,” he said.

Thibodeau first won his seat in 2015, replacing former Councilor David Marshall, who stepped aside after three terms.

Improved infrastructure and effective city services were and are priorities for Thibodeau. With the separated bike lanes on Park Avenue completed, Thibodeau said he would like to see more of them in the city.

Thibodeau would also consider some street closures to allow businesses more room to operate while enhancing pedestrian access.

While supporting the principle of allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections, Thibodeau was not comfortable with the proposed ordinance.

“I just didn’t think the proposal was ready for prime time,” he said. “If you had a committee look at it, we would have come forward with a better proposal that I would have been comfortable sending to the voters.”

Thibodeau’s thoughts on a new emergency homeless shelter are tempered by cost.

“If cost was not an issue, I would say models of 24-hour shelters with housing first above them are really good models,” he said. 

When envisioning the single shelter model put forth by City Manager Jon Jennings Thibodeau said the situation in Bayside may be distorting perceptions.

“I think the issue is, it is so hard to see beyond what exists there now to see what can work,” he said.

The larger question remaining is finding stable housing, Thibodeau added. He said he would like to look into public/private partnerships to develop affordable housing, maybe on city-owned land, but has not done a cost analysis on the concept.

Thibodeau called the first proposal for paid time off “flawed,” but again supports the principle of requiring paid and private businesses to guarantee some time off for their staff.

While saying he is even more energized to take on a second term than when he ran three years ago, Thibodeau added what he has learned is the value of collaboration with colleagues and that ideas take time to become actions.

“The bike lane took three years,” he said. “Anyone who thinks your initial proposal is going to go in does not understand the job.”

Jon Torsch

Now the executive secretary for the state Democratic Socialists of America, Torsch is making his first run for elected office.

“It was kind of the perfect timing, we in DSA have been looking at issues impacting the city’s working class and realized there was not a voice on the council,” Torsch said.

An electrical engineer, Torsch said he has been living in Portland for almost four years and has seen the city becoming less accessible, affordable and open to its working residents.

“I began with a three-bedroom apartment for $1,200 and now in a one-bedroom for the same cost,” he said.

Torsch said he supports extending the vote in local elections to nonresident citizens and was disappointed councilors did not move to put the referendum question on the ballot for Nov. 6.

“We seek to break those barriers down,” he said. “As a neighborhood to neighborhood issue, we are leaving people out.”

While the Maine ACLU and Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project cautioned the voting ordinance and procedures needed strict privacy protections and had potential risks for noncitizens voting illegally, Torsch said the safeguards could have been written in after a successful referendum and before elections.

Torsch said the city should consider smaller scattered shelters to serve its homeless instead of the proposed 200-bed shelter adjacent to the Barron Center on Brighton Avenue.

“I believe in all the benefits, you can serve the individual groups, the homeless are not a monolith,” he said. “The scattered shelters show a shared load.”

The city now estimates a “scattered shelter” model could cost as much as $10.2 annually, more than double the Brighton Avenue proposal.

“Nothing the city does will not have a price tag,” Torsch said. “For me, putting cost first is a really damaging way to look at your city’s policy.”

Housing first and more affordable housing are critical factors, and stagnant wages and a lack of benefits for workers should also be considered in the housing discussions, he said.

Torsch said he fully supports an ordinance mandating paid time off for public and private sector workers.

“It is not that it is nice, it really is an empowerment issue,” he said. “The decision- making powers for financial security and taking care of yourself and family have been whittled away.”

Torsch said the city’s past should be part of its future.

“Look at the roots we have; we have a huge working class history … it is rapidly changing to people who can afford condos and $1,500 rents.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Age: 30

Residence: 69 Pitt St.

Family: Single, no children.

Occupation: Attorney at Verrill Dana.

Education: Fairfield University, Northeastern Law.

Experience: First-term District 2 city councilor.

Website, social media: www.spencerforcouncil.com@Spencer4Council

Age: 30

Residence: 461 Cumberland Ave.

Family: Single, no children.

Occupation: Electrical engineer.

Education: Eastern Maine Community College, University of Maine.

Experience: Executive board of Democratic Socialists of America. 

Website, social media: www.jontorschforportland.mefacebook.com/JT4D2twitter.com/JonTorsch

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.