Short Relief: Why elect a mayor of Portland when a cheerleader will do?

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I am not a fan of the newly created position of elected mayor of Portland because I think it lacks the power needed to lead. Nor am I a fan of the ranked-choice voting that will be used to choose that mayor.

It’s difficult and time-consuming to get to know 15 candidates for one office. The idea that voters can meaningfully rank 15 is absurd. People have a hard enough time making one choice and expressing it clearly. Counting votes, eliminating low vote getters, and reallocating their supporters’ lower order choices may be problematic.

The allure is that ranked-choice voting ensures that the winner has a majority of votes, albeit a manufactured majority. But, Portland’s problem isn’t that its leaders lacked legitimacy.

Portland’s problem is that its leaders fail to lead.

They either fail to make important decisions, or they make bad ones. The school budget mess, the loss of ferry service to Nova Scotia, the Maine State Pier fiasco, the fitful efforts to develop Bayside and the Adams School and to do something about the aging Civic Center – those are just some of the sources of the dissatisfaction that led to the creation of the Charter Commission.

Since then, we’ve had a police chief who left after two years, a school superintendent who retires after three, and a new $3.2 million dollar fire boat that’s run aground for the second time.

It was a natural setup for a political campaign. The candidates could have focused on specific problems, like the ones that motivated the creation of the commission and elected mayor. They could have given the electorate their analysis of the cause of those problems. They could have explained how they would have avoided or solved them.

But there’s been little of that.

Maybe that’s because negative campaigning is unpopular. Maybe it’s because ranked-choice voting discourages a candidate from criticizing a competitor for fear of alienating the competitor’s supporters from making the candidate their second choice. Whatever the reason, few have been willing to point out that several of the candidates in this race were involved in some of the failures of leadership.

Most immediately responsible were the three city councilors who would be mayor. All of them were on the council when it botched the Maine State Pier deal. But the Legislature hasn’t been much help either. Portland’s legislative delegation is the largest in the state. It has been solidly Democratic for years. Its members regularly occupied positions of leadership. Yet that did not help get the pier done.

Instead of an honest, adult discussion of these issues, several of the candidates promise to be Portland’s biggest booster. In a way, I can’t blame them. Arguably, that’s what the relatively powerless position calls for: a cheerleader-in-chief.

I, too, think that Portland is great. I love its combination of natural beauty and culture. That’s why I moved here. But then, I was lucky enough to have a job. Culture and beauty are great if you can afford them. Beyond that, Portland needs something other to promote than high taxes and a frustrating regulatory process. In order to attain it, we need a position with some executive authority and a person who can make good use of it.

All the candidates support the creative economy. I appreciate Portland’s arts. It’s one of the features that makes this a great city. But that sector of our economy is relatively vigorous. Witness the seemingly limitless appetite for starting new restaurants.

My concern is that Portland cannot survive on art galleries and restaurants alone. In order to pay for those dinners and paintings, someone has got to make a buck by producing and providing other, utilitarian goods and services. It would make for a healthier, more resilient economy if more of them earned their bucks working at jobs here in Portland.

The candidates favor government providing more affordable housing. I am in favor of people with jobs finding housing through the real estate market, and I worry about the incentive effect when working people can’t afford a place as nice as subsidized housing.

The candidates want to further empower neighborhood associations. I think that our city government is already paralyzed by advisory committees, comprehensive plans, and review processes. We plan until opportunity is lost. At committee meetings held at night, we undo the work that government officials do during the day. We are a city of 65,000 people. We do not need more layers of government. We need to pick a leader, give them the authority to implement their proposals, and hold them accountable for the results.

But enough of my whining. A mayor elected with ranked-choice voting is what I’m presented with, so I will make the best of it and make multiple choices:

My choice for symbolic figurehead of the city is Hamza Haadoow, because he is the contemporary personification of the American Dream.

My choice for promoter-in-chief of Portland is Jed Rathband, because he was able to sell Portland on the idea of a ranked-choice elected mayor.

My choice for the candidate with the best-sounding ideas is Richard Dodge, because of his talk about setting priorities and differentiating wants from needs.

My choice for the person most likely to get things done in the council is a tie between council insider Nick Mavadones and council outsider Ethan Strimling. My sense is that they have the government and non-government experience, the stature, the skills, and the demeanor to build coalitions and get things done.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.

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