PORTLAND — While challengers Ethan Strimling and Tom MacMillan challenged it, Mayor Michael Brennan stood firmly behind his record during the first debate of the mayoral campaign.
Held at the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association Hall at 519 Congress St. Sept. 30, the 90-minute debate featured questions asked by the moderator, former state Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, and questions contributed by the audience of about 70 people.
“By almost every metric I would say we are better off,” said Brennan, who defeated Strimling in 2011 to become the first popularly elected mayor in the city in almost 90 years.
Before a change in the City Charter restored the office to a four-year term, the mayor’s job was a one-year post determined by a City Council vote.
Strimling is a former Democratic state senator who heads Learning Works, which provides educational opportunities to disadvantaged youth.
“There is no doubt that what I want to be remembered for is what you see when you walk into Learning Works,” Strimling said, but he also criticized Brennan at several turns for a perceived lack of leadership and unity in the city.
MacMillan, the chairman of the city’s Green Independent Committee, cast himself as the true alternative on the ballot, one who would care for the entire city.
“If you think the status quo is going well, you are not going to vote for me,” he said.
Citing his 2011 promise to work for economic growth, educational improvements and ensuring everyone could prosper in the city, Brennan made a pitch for inclusionary zoning that requires new developments to set aside affordably priced units.
He noted city schools are on the way to having 50 percent of meals sourced locally, and said he and city councilors “prevented one of the biggest tragedies in the city” – forcing 800 people into homelessness – by funding assistance for asylum seekers who were to be denied state aid.
But Strimling and MacMillan criticized the progress the city has made, citing a need for more housing for the chronically homeless, rapid increases in property taxes and rents (15 percent and 17 percent in the last few years, respectively), and policies that favor developers over residents.
Strimling called for more projects such as Logan Place and Florence House to help chronically homeless people.
“We have to come up with answers that will move people into homes,” he said.
MacMillan said he was forced out of an apartment when the rent increased 35 percent. He advocated a $15-per-hour minimum wage, an end to credit checks by landlords, and an extension of the deadline for tenants to move out of housing when rents are increased.
Strimling and MacMillan also criticized Brennan’s support of a ban on gathering in street medians, saying it did little to address the problems of homelessness. The ordinance, an attempt to prevent panhandling, was overturned by the U.S. District Court in Portland.
“I (supported) it because I thought it was a public safety issue and one I experienced many times myself,” Brennan said.
“Banning people from medians is not the way we are going to end homelessness,” MacMillan countered.
Strimling also criticized the city for not finding a new way to keep anti-abortion activists from gathering in front of The Planned Parenthood of Northern New England offices at 443 Congress St.
A similar buffer zone in Massachusetts was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, and councilors repealed the buffer zone ordinance in July 2014.
“We know there are constitutional ways to do it, and we have not done anything,” Strimling said.
Brennan’s sharpest defense of his tenure came when he was criticized over the 5-4 council vote to provide assistance for asylum seekers. Despite the razor-thin margin, he noted, the council was unanimous in a separate vote on the eligibility rules.
“What I am not going to do tonight is let Ethan rewrite history about the City Council,” he said.
The three candidates will next debate Wednesday night, Oct. 7, from 7-8:30 p.m. in Hannaford Hall on the University of Southern Maine campus.
Election Day is Nov. 3.
Tom MacMillan, left, and Mayor Michael Brennan listen as Ethan Strimling speaks in a Sept. 30 mayoral candidates debate at the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association in Portland.