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Portland City Council races offer political smorgasbord

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Portland City Council races offer political smorgasbord

PORTLAND — The Nov. 5 City Council election has something for everyone.

A three-way contest for an at-large seat pits a longtime incumbent against two former high-school teammates challenging her from the right and the left.

Two recent "losers," separated more by age than politics, are running for another at-large seat.

And a David-and-Goliath match has a popular incumbent facing an unknown in District 3.

Three-for-all

Councilor Jill Duson, 59, of Pennell Avenue, has served on the council since 2001 and is vice chairwoman of its Legislative Committee. A lawyer, she works as a compliance manager for the Maine Human Rights Commission and also as a clerk at the L.L. Bean retail store in Freeport.

A Democrat who was active as a teenager in the civil rights movement, Duson is running on a platform that supports education, environmental sustainability and affordable housing.

Duson cast a pivotal vote in the decision last month to sell a portion of Congress Square Plaza to the developer of the former Eastland Park Hotel. Duson and Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who were undecided in the days leading up to the decision, ultimately sided with the majority in the 6-3 vote to approve the sale.

However, Duson expressed reservations about the sale before her vote, calling the terms "a little stingy." The developer, RockBridge Capital, agreed to pay $524,000 for 9,500 square feet of the plaza in order to build an event facility that would adjoin the hotel.

Last week, Duson said she "really struggled" with the decision and still felt the city probably could have struck a better deal.

"But in the end, I think we made the right decision," she said. "It didn't make sense to me to scuttle the entire project. ... It's most important that we as councilors are effective, and let the city move forward."

One of Duson's challengers is Greg Smaha, 30, of Phipps Road, who works as the expense controller for LAI International, a Scarborough-based contract manufacturer of precision technology parts. He's never run for elected office before, and said he's only doing so now because he wants to add a fiscally conservative perspective to the council.

"I don't want to be a politician, I just want to right the ship a little," Smaha said.

Smaha criticized the sale of Congress Square Plaza, and said the city should have been more diligent in the transaction and entertained offers other than RockBridge's. He also spoke harshly of Duson's vote.

"It's mind-boggling to me that she had reservations, but turned and voted for it anyway," he said.

The third contender, Chris Shorr, 30, of Harvard Street, works as a lobsterman. Like Smaha, with whom he played football at Deering High School, he has never run for elected office. Shorr also criticized the plaza sale, and Duson's apparent reservations.

But while Smaha admitted he looks at most issues through an "economic lens," Shorr, a Green Independent candidate, said his primary concern is homelessness and the needs of "marginalized" residents. That's one of the reasons he was opposed to the sale of the plaza, which is often visited by homeless individuals.

"I don't think the council is putting the quality of life first," he said. "To continually make decisions that hurt the most needy really bothers me."

Shorr has attracted notoriety because of his criminal history, which includes convictions over the past 10 years for disorderly conduct, operating under the influence and receiving stolen property.

"If I could go back, I'd do things differently," he said. "But you learn from your mistakes. The thing I'm proud of is that I turned myself around."

The biggest loser

Jon Hinck and Wells Lyons, the contenders for an at-large seat being vacated by Councilor John Anton, are no strangers to Maine politics.

Hinck, 59, of Pine Street, is a lawyer who co-founded Greenpeace USA and has worked for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. He also served three terms as a state representative. Last year, he failed in a bid to win the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat relinquished by former Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Lyons, 31, of Danforth Street, ran an unsuccessful campaign last year to unseat Councilor Nicholas Mavodones in an at-large race. A lawyer with Rogue Industries, a start-up manufacturer of technology accessories, Lyons had never before sought office, but was active with Equality Maine and with the Maine League of Young Voters.

Both Hinck and Lyons are Democrats who admit many of their political views are similar. Both support efforts to make the city more sustainable, said they'd strengthen public schools, and want to improve city services such as trash collection. But they distinguish themselves on other grounds.

Lyons believes his opponent is more focused on state and national politics.

"My commitment is to local issues," said Lyons, who grew up in Cumberland. "My attention is on what can we do at a local level to make lives better for Portland residents."

He also said he believes his experience starting a small business would be an asset for the council, and would like to see the panel do more to strengthen the local economy. For example, he said he believes the city should offer tax incentives for businesses to employ people who have experienced homelessness.

"I think it would fantastic to have a small-business owner on the council and to bring that perspective to the debate," he said.

Hinck said his experience in the Legislature will make him a more effective councilor.

"The biggest difference between Wells and me is pragmatism and experience," he said. "We both have high aspirations for Portland, but I have a better sense of how you achieve it."

Hinck said the city should offer residents incentives to weatherize their homes, in order to reduce heating expense, as well as their carbon footprint.

And he said he feels seeking a council seat isn't inconsistent with his previous interest in state and federal offices.

"I discovered in the Maine Legislature and elsewhere that there are people who are dedicated to the outcomes of public policy more than they are to politics. I know that's true for me," he said.

The name game

Councilor Ed Suslovic, 53, of Kenwood Street, represents District 3, which includes Rosemont, Deering Center, Libbytown and Nasons Corner. Prior to his current term, he held an at-large seat and served a term as a state representative. He has never been re-elected in any of those three roles.

As chairman of the Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, Suslovic has advocated several ordinances that have attracted public debate: the current attempt to create a protest-free "buffer zone" around a Planned Parenthood clinic that performs abortions, the July banning of loitering in street medians, and recent restrictions on street artists.

He also has been an outspoken critic of Fire Department staffing, which he claims is larger and costlier than necessary. And he led a task force that drafted a much-publicized ban on polystyrene foam food packaging, which is now being reworked in committee.

Suslovic, a community development consultant, is president of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, and serves on the boards of directors of the METRO bus system and of ecomaine, the regional waste disposal authority. His many roles keep him shuttling to sometimes two or three meetings a night.

"I think I've developed a reputation for being able to get things done," Suslovic said. "But when you get a chance to be part of things like this, it's pretty satisfying. My biggest weakness is that I spread myself thin."

If elected, Suslovic said he would continue working to help Portland grow economically while remaining sustainable. But he had little knowledge of how his candidacy differs from his opponent's, who has run a low-profile campaign.

Greg Blouin, 40, of outer Congress Street, is a political newcomer. He said he was inspired to enter the race by his father, state Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford.

"I learned everything from listening to him," Blouin said. "He's a great resource."

Blouin would like the city to cut wasteful spending, reduce tax breaks for big commercial developments, and avoid property tax increases, which he said are especially hard on residents with fixed incomes.

"I feel their pain," he said. "You've got to draw the line somewhere."

A manufacturing laborer, he said he's had in-plant firefighting experience and disagrees with Suslovic about reducing the size of the Fire Department.

"Maybe it should be restructured, but no one should lose a job," he said.

Blouin admitted that he would have to learn a lot as a councilor, and that Suslovic has an edge because of his name recognition and knowledge of City Hall.

"A lot of people (like Suslovic) get by on name recognition," Blouin said. "He knows the system, but he plays the system, too."

Blouin said he feels he can bring a fresh perspective.

"Instead of complaining, I don't take things lying down," he said. "I got a voice and I'm not afraid to use it."

Portland voters can cast ballots from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 11 polling locations, which are listed on the city's website. Absentee ballots can be requested from the City Clerk's office before 4:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 31, and must be returned by mail, fax or hand-delivery by the time the polls close.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.