PORTLAND — More than 24 hours after the polls closed, former state Sen. Michael Brennan was proclaimed the unofficial winner Wednesday of the city’s first mayoral election in 88 years.
Brennan received 55 percent of the vote in the “instant” runoff, while former state Sen. Ethan Strimling was second with 45 percent.
Brennan, who had an 850-vote lead heading into the runoff, promised to make a difference during his four-year term of office.
“I will do everything I can over the next four years to work with all these other people who were part of the process to fulfill the dream and to fulfill the intent of the (City Charter),” Brennan said.
It was the first time ranked-choice voting has been employed in Maine.
It took 14 rounds to eliminate the lowest vote-getters and redistribute the votes for the highest-ranked candidates remaining on each ballot before Brennan was declared the winner.
At around 7:15 p.m., candidates were called to City Hall’s State of Maine room. At 8 p.m., representatives of TrueBallot, the Washington, D.C.-based firm that received a $20,000 contract to conduct the runoff, began running through the process. Brennan was declared the winner shortly after 8:15 p.m.
The results were displayed on a screen, with candidates listed down the left side with horizontal bars representing the percentage of votes for each one
On the right was the coveted 50 percent line.
“What you’re going to see is a race to 50 percent,” TrueBallot’s Caleb Kleppner told the overflow crowd.
Brennan and Strimling were joined by several of the other mayoral candidates, including City Councilor and Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who was third heading into the runoff.
The trio engaged in friendly conversation before the runoff, which followed a process that was anything but instant.
After a two-hour delay in the morning, it took another 10 hours for city staff and TrueBallot workers to scan more than 20,000 ballots, convert the scanned images into data for the computers to process, and visually inspect 1,000 questionable ballots.
Although Kleppner said the verification process would continue throughout Thursday, City Clerk Kathy Jones said she was comfortable the results released Wednesday night were “99.9 percent” accurate.
Out of the 20,212 ballots scanned, only 19,634 were deemed valid. Four hundred thirty-nine ballots were blank, while another 139 were considered invalid because the voters marked more than one candidate in a particular round.
Of the valid ballots, only 16,109 counted toward the final tally because more than 3,500 voters didn’t rank the candidate pool deeply enough.
Brennan’s ultimate victory over Strimling was 8,971 to 7,138.
When votes were redistributed, the new percentages were shown as a bright yellow extension to each candidate’s totals.
Gains by each candidate were negligible when the bottom eight candidates – from 81 write-in votes to Christopher Vail’s 403 votes – were redistributed. But once Republican Richard Dodge’s 662 votes were redistributed in Round 8, things got interesting.
While most of the votes in the later rounds were distributed relatively evenly between the top three candidates, Brennan received his first big boost from supporters of City Councilor David Marshall.
When about 1,000 of Marshall’s 2,306 votes went to Brennan, observers in the room gasped and fell silent for the deciding round.
That’s when Marshall turned to Brennan.
“You’re welcome,” Marshall said, cutting through the tension, if only for a moment.
Brennan and Strimling each received about 1,200 of Mavodones’ 4,075 votes, but Brennan’s early lead pushed him over the edge.
“That was exciting,” Brennan said after receiving warm hugs from his competitors. “My heart is still racing. I hope to never see another bar graph presented like that again.”
Mavodones said he looked forward to working with Brennan on the City Council.
“I’ve known Michael a long time and have a great respect for his experience, knowledge, his skills and his commitment,” he said. “I look forward to doing everything I can as a councilor, and to the extent my experience as mayor would help, to work with him to be successful.”
Brennan, 58, currently works as a policy associate at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. He was a state representative for eight years before becoming a state senator and at one point the Senate majority leader.
Strimling, who raised and spent more money than his opponents, said he was pleased the run-off system gave Portland a mayor who had a majority of votes.
“This allows us to create a mandate,” he said.
Strimling campaigned on the notion that the elected mayor should be the city’s chief executive officer, even though the charter keeps those responsibilities with the city manager. He also emphasized a need to create a business-friendly culture at City Hall.
Brennan, meanwhile, emphasized the collaborative, consensus-building role of the mayor. He said his connections to area colleges and universities would allow him to create a “research triangle” to make sure workers are trained for the jobs needed in Portland.
“Mike and I put out two very different styles of leadership,” Strimling said. “And the city chose Mike’s style.”
Former state Sen. Michael Brennan addresses the crowd at City Hall on Wednesday night after being named the unofficial winner of the run-off election to be Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in 88 years.