Portland mayoral candidates get a little feisty in forum

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PORTLAND — A forum Tuesday morning hosted by the Portland Community Chamber and the Maine Real Estate Development Association offered mayoral candidates a chance to speak about economic development.

But several candidates were also given the opportunity to address specific concerns raised by chamber and MEREDA members. During those responses, candidates gingerly took off the gloves.

Thirteen of the 15 candidates to be Portland’s popularly elected mayor attended the forum. Peter Bryant and John Eder were not able to attend.

The forum began with a “lightning round,” where moderator Chris Hall, vice president of the chamber, presented a series of statements and asked the candidates to raise their hands if they agreed. That lived up to its name, and it was difficult to tell who supported what.

The candidates were then asked to take the stage in small groups to address specific issues – education, homelessness, demographics, affordable housing, land use and the city’s social service burden – in relation to economic development.

Hall said many developers and business people remember Ethan Strimling from his time as a Democratic state senator, not the chief executive who turned around a struggling nonprofit using private-sector principles.

“They kind of remember the old Ethan,” Hall said. “I want to know about that moment on the ‘Road to Damascus.'”

Strimling said he brought in the CEO of Bass Shoe, a former director of the Portland Chamber, and former Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Whynot-Vickers to see how transform the organization, LearningWorks.

“It was inspirational to me,” he said, noting he learned that the little things like having operating lights and freshly painted walls mattered. “Until you focus on the small stuff, you’re not going to get to the big stuff,” he said.

Strimling also repeated his assertion that the elected mayor will be the CEO of the city – a strong leader who is accountable for success or failure.

That response drew a rebuke from two opponents, former state Sen. Michael Brennan and City Councilor David Marshall.

Brennan said Strimling describes the mayor as needing a strong and forceful voice. “He never used the word ‘inclusive,'” Brennan said.

He said residents in two weeks will chose between two leadership styles, even though there are 15 candidates in the race.

“The next mayor of this city, in order to be an effective mayor, has to be able to listen to the many voices in Portland and develop those voices into one voice,” he said.

Hall said many people have been impressed with Marshall’s knowledge of the issues and mastery of the city government process. But he also said many wonder whether he is ready to lead the city.

Marshall responded that his campaign is “leading by example,” attaching specific policy ideas to his philosophy.

He said he was originally elected to the council to bring change, noting he submitted two proposals to have an elected mayor, but was denied by the council. He said he sponsored the formation of the Charter Commission, which recommended the elected mayor post and saw it through to the end.

“We’re here today because of this leadership role,” Marshall said, his voice rising. “I didn’t just sit back on the sidelines and throw grenades at the City Council. … I stood up and said we need to deliver the biggest change to city government in 88 years. That’s leadership.”

Although he didn’t mention Strimling by name, Marshall said, “when I hear people step up and say they’re not going to respect the charter as it’s written – that’s offensive.”

Hall asked Rathband to back up his claim that he is part of the new generation of leadership Portland needs. 

Rathband said he is energetic and creative, and has worked with many chamber members in the last 10 years on different issues. His consulting company also campaigned heavily for the elected mayor position as way to get new leadership into City Hall.

“I am the demographic this city is going (towards),” the 39-year-old said. “If we’re going to solve old problems, we need new solutions. That’s the bottom line.”

Other highlights of the forum:

• Chris Vail said he is open to regionalizing police, fire and emergency medical services with Cumberland County. He was also the only candidate to say Portland should not encourage population growth without first addressing the needs of current residents.

He also said the city “got steamrolled” by the new owners of the Eastland Park Hotel, who are removing affordable housing without paying a penalty required by city ordinance.

• Hamza Haadoow said the city shouldn’t encourage immigrants to come to the city until there is economic justice, which he described as giving people “the opportunity to participate, learn and get the jobs they deserve.”

• On education, Rathband said building a gifted-and-talented program would be his top budget priority, while Markos Miller emphasized the importance of pre-kindergarten.

• Richard Dodge said he would convert the former Nathan Clifford Elementary School on Falmouth Street to housing for low-income residents and senior citizens.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings