Portland City Council race pits longtime councilor against 'fresh blood'
PORTLAND — Political neophyte Ezekiel Callanan is challenging longtime incumbent City Councilor Cheryl Leeman for the District 4 seat on the City Council.
It's only the second time in the last five elections Leeman has faced a challenge in the district, which is roughly bounded by Veranda Street, Woodford Street, Stevens Avenue, Allen Avenue and the Falmouth town line.
In District 5, incumbent Councilor John Coyne is running uncontested.
Callanan is a 30-year-old Democrat, who is married and has lived in the district for three of the six years he has been in Portland. He has never run for elected office, but said he has "the heart of a public servant."
Leeman is a 63-year-old Republican, who has lived in the district for about 30 years and raised two children there. She is finishing her 27th year on the council. Prior to that, she served a three-year term on the School Board.
Callanan said he would bring a fresh and progressive perspective to the council, while Leeman said she would continue to serve the district much the way she has for nearly 30 years.
Callanan graduated from the University of Maine School of Law in 2008 and holds an undergraduate degree in psychology. He founded Maine Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in 2008 and works as a business consultant.
Callanan said his strengths are being a good listener, a creative thinker and reflecting honestly. "My style is to be very transparent and upfront with people," he said.
Callanan is a former executive director of Heart of Biddeford, which focused on downtown development, but was removed from the post due to differences of opinion with the board of directors. He said the group was also struggling with funding.
When it comes to the city budget, Callanan said he would work to ensure departments and programs are running efficiently by listening to "the people who know," while also doing his own research. He'd look at cities similar to Portland to find new ways of doing business.
In the long term, the city needs to generate more revenue by attracting more businesses, Callanan said. But in the short term, he said, property tax increases may be needed to balance the budget.
"Both sides are going to have to give," he said. "You cross that road when you get there."
Callanan said he believes local education would be improved by increasing the focus on mentors and apprenticeships, both of which should be aligned with the jobs available in Portland.
A popularly elected mayor creates an opportunity for the City Council, he said, because it has the potential to increase community engagement in local government.
"I think it's an opportunity to get more stuff done," he said. "That's what fresh blood does."
Callanan said he appreciates and respects the work of city councilors, including his opponent. But he said the council could benefit from a fresh perspective.
"I don't see any political aspirations beyond the City Council," he said. "Local government is extremely important ... (and) really needs to be run by people, not politics. Therefore I think it's important everyday people are given a chance to represent their constituency."
Callanan can be found online at ZekeCallanan.com.
In addition to her 27 years on the City Council, Leeman has been a regional representative for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snow, R-Maine, for the last 17 years.
Leeman said she has "unbridled passion" for the city, especially the "phenomenal" transformation of the downtown area.
When she first started on the council, the Old Port was a "bowery," or a district known for cheap bars and derelicts. But through the leadership of city administrators and city councilors, she said, the Old Port has become acclaimed as a tourist destination for its art galleries and restaurants.
"It has been fun to be a part of that," she said.
Leeman said people in District 4 are concerned about property taxes, education and the economy. She served through two previous recessions and said she is confident the area will recover. But until that happens, Leeman said, the city needs to maintain safety nets and security for needy residents.
When it comes to the budget, Leeman said the city has done "a pretty good job" of balancing spending cuts and property tax increases. Vital services like police, fire, plowing and trash collection have been maintained, she said.
She said she believes money can be saved by finding more efficiencies.
"We can always do a better job," Leeman said. "We can't be all things to all people."
Leeman opposed the switch to a popularly elected mayor. She called the more than $65,000 annual salary and other expenses a "gross waste of taxpayer money."
But Leeman, who twice served as the council-appointed mayor, said she looks forward to working with – and keeping an eye on – the elected mayor.
"That will be one area I will make sure the taxpayers get their money's worth," she said. "I've worked with many (mayors) over the years, and do not see where much should change as the position's responsibilities really haven't changed – unless someone tries to make it something it isn't."
Leeman, a breast cancer survivor, said she will continue to use her experience to address constituent issues – both large and small, whether it's advocating for a stop sign or traffic light, protecting open space or advocating for the neighborhood school and library.
"I love cutting through the bureaucratic red tape," she said. "That's the value of experience. I like to see results. And I get results."