New South Portland mayor takes rise to leadership in stride

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PORTLAND — Patti Smith is still a little awed by her rise in South Portland politics and government.

During an interview Wednesday at her York Street office, she looked back on her decision in 2008 to run for the City Council, the first time she’d ever sought public office.

“I didn’t even think I’d win,” Smith said. “I had never put together a campaign before. I asked a lot of questions, and I worked my butt off, but I had no idea if I’d win. When I did, I think I was like a deer in headlights.”

Three years later, Smith is South Portland’s mayor, chosen by her council colleagues last week.

On the council, Smith is surrounded by residents with deep roots in the community, especially compared to her relatively short residency of just six years. But if she felt nervous when she first joined the council, she has found her place in Council Chambers.

“I get along well with the other councilors,” Smith said. “We have a good range of diverse opinions, but overall we get things done. I think we get through it together.”

Smith and her partner, Susan Chase, moved to Parrott Street in South Portland in 2005. They came to Maine via Michigan, where for 10 years Smith worked as head coach for the women’s field hockey team at the University of Michigan. Before that, she lived outside Philadelphia, where she received a master’s degree in human resources at Drexel University.

Though she’s the city’s first openly gay mayor, Smith said she doesn’t think of herself that way. But she said she was happy when the audience applauded during her inauguration speech, after she said she hoped one day to marry her partner in Maine.

“When I thought about what to say in my address, it was very clear that it was an important thing for me to say,” Smith said, “to thank my family and Susan and let everyone know how important she is to me. But I never, ever thought there would be a noise, whether a clap, a hoot or a holler.”

Still, she said, her family life is just not a big deal.

“There’s so much more to me than just that,” Smith said. “It’s something very core and central to me, but it’s not all that I am.”

What she is, she said, is a mayor who sees her term as a journey, who hopes to see bold moves by the council on issues of sustainability and the local economy. During her inauguration, she asked councilors to imagine a South Portland with more community gardens, hybrid vehicles for city use and a ban on disposable shopping bags.

Smith was quick to point out that she can’t achieve much without the other councilors’ support, but she said everyone has an eye toward sustainability.

“There’s real interest by all the city councilors on how to be more sustainable,” she said. While big initiatives like banning paper and plastic bags may not be achieved in her one-year term, she said she hopes “residents will see a noticeable shift, that people’s awareness will be raised and that maybe councilors were willing to take risks.”

Smith said she also hopes to preside over growth in the city’s small-business sector. She called herself a big proponent of South Portland Buy Local, and said more people should realize the opportunities they have to support local businesses.

“We have to focus on our local, independent retailers and shops,” Smith said. “There’s amazing economic potential there and I don’t think it’s being tapped.”

If she has any concerns about being mayor, Smith said it’s making sure she finds time to seek out input from residents.

She is director of strategic initiatives, domestic sales and operations for Planet Dog in Portland, where she said she works more than 40 hours a week. Council work is estimated to take at least 20 hours per week. Then there’s the day-to-day tasks of tending her garden (Smith is a certified master gardener) and taking care of her two Australian shepherds, Trixie and Mackworth.

It’s a full plate, but Smith said she inherited a strong work ethic from her father, who was a salesman in the textile industry. He was often away from home, she said.

Smith said she feels obligated to dedicate some of her energy to the city. If you love something, she said, you have to give back. And she loves South Portland.

“When I was going door to door during my first campaign, I got to really experience the neighborhoods, and it was eye-opening,” she said. “… The more I discovered, the more excited I got to be a councilor. Now as mayor, this is really a chance to be involved in shaping the city. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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Patti Smith, South Portland’s new mayor, at the Planet Dog corporate offices in Portland. Smith is director of strategic initiatives, domestic sales and operations for the company.

Patti Smith, South Portland’s new mayor, plays with her dogs Trixie and Mackworth in her office in downtown Portland. “I’m a dog mom,” Smith said.

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