Ethan Strimling is dead meat.
That’s what political insiders are saying about Portland’s mayor in the wake of his public feuding with the city manager and the city council. They claim that if Strimling is harboring ambitions of achieving higher office — and there’s not the slightest doubt he is — his intemperate blundering through disputes over his staff, his salary and, most of all, his power has rendered such an objective unattainable.
A prominent Democrat told a reporter, “[H]e’s unfortunately, it seems, always in battle mode.”
Another Dem described the mayor as “strong-headed and stubborn,” going on to say, “I think he’s convinced he’s right and everyone else is wrong.”
A third semi-sympathetic observer was quoted as saying, “I think he means well, but he doesn’t play well in the sandbox.”
In an interview with a national publication, an influential independent said, “There’s a crude bullying to his approach to dealing with others.”
And a Republican-leaning newspaper columnist dismissed the mayor as “derisive, bombastic, embarrassing,” adding that “his unwillingness to conduct himself civilly is a terrible waste” of his political influence.
None of those people was talking about Strimling. They were commenting on GOP Gov. Paul LePage’s stint as mayor of Waterville.
Mixing up descriptions of LePage’s and Strimling’s experiences in municipal government is easier to do than you might think. Even though the two stand at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum — the governor to the far right and the Portland mayor to the extreme left – they share a definite style and approach.
Mayor LePage vetoed loads of measures approved by the City Council, even if they passed unanimously. He was routinely overridden. Strimling threatened to veto the city budget because it eliminated funding for his assistant, but backed off because he had almost no support among councilors.
Republican LePage faced a council dominated by Democrats, and was often forced to give ground. Democrat Strimling has to deal with a council where Dems prevail, and even so, he rarely gets his way.
Both men won office with the support of a cadre of fanatical followers. LePage was the darling of the Tea Party when he first ran for governor, and he owned the alt-right vote when he sought his second term. Strimling’s base is a group of “progressive” activists with strong fundraising skills and a penchant for extreme attacks on his opponents.
They’d both be right at home in the government of Syria.
LePage’s time in elected office will come to a close after next year’s election (his talk about running for the U.S. Senate against independent Angus King is hogwash). Strimling’s term runs until 2019, so there’s still time for him to repair some of the damage he’s done to himself before again facing the voters. But with City Manager Jon Jennings’s contract set to expire next year, there’s little chance the mayor will allow his conflict with the manager over who runs the day-to-day operations of the city to fade.
But keep in mind that being a mayoral clod didn’t stop LePage from winning the Blaine House. He ran for governor on claims he turned Waterville’s finances around by lowering taxes (mostly not as a result of anything he did) and improving the city’s credit score (again, not due to any of his actions). Strimling could try something similar. Under his administration (using the word very loosely), Portland has prospered (if you’re wealthy) and increased its role as the economic engine that drives the rest of Maine.
Of course, the rest of Maine deeply resents Portland for that, so Strimling’s campaign slogan (He Gave Your Town The Jobs His City Didn’t Want) could stand a little tweaking.
The point is that Strimling might not be as dead politically as his critics would have you believe. In spite of wasting his influence by appearing to demand more pay, taxpayer-funded campaign staff, and control of municipal government that the city charter clearly says belongs to the council and manager, he could still recover from all his self-inflicted wounds to emerge as a viable candidate for re-election, Congress or governor.
Or, perhaps, mayor of Waterville.
Voters there have plenty of experience with guys just like him.