Although Portland has a garnered a reputation for being a liberal enclave, one local initiative found that that’s not always the case.
After analyzing 19 key roll call votes from Portland’s 2016 City Council session, the group Progressive Portland found “wide ideological splits and few consistent progressives.” Last week they published a scorecard that objectively looks on how Portland’s city councilors voted on progressive issues last year. It found that the average city councilor voted on the progressive side of issues just 57 percent of the time.
“If Portland got to pick the president, we would have elected President Bernie in a landslide,” said Progressive Portland Steering Committee member Steven Biel. “So why do we have a city council that consistently votes for landlords over renters and handouts for wealthy developers?”
Mayor Ethan Strimling, who voted progressive 83 percent of the time, earned the highest score on the council.
Ed Suslovic, who voted progressive just 37 percent of the time and lost reelection to Councilor Brian Batson, had the lowest score on the council.
The scores for the rest of the council, in order from most to least progressive, were: Jon Hinck (78%), Spencer Thibodeau (67%), Justin Costa (56%), Jill Duson (56%), Belinda Ray (47%), David Brenerman (44%), and Nick Mavodones (42%).
Before we get into which votes were analyzed, it’s worth asking, “what does being progressive even mean?”
According to Biel, a political strategist and consultant who has worked for Greenpeace and MoveOn.org, the term can often mean different things for different people. But in his mind, progressive values include racial justice, gender equality, strong public schools, a robust park system, access to affordable health care and housing, a sane drug policy, a clean environment, an end to corporate handouts, a welcoming community to immigrants, and an economy that serves the interest of working people, not just wealthy businesses.
Biel said that there was some challenge in determining what issues voted on last year are deemed as progressive. Biel and his fellow Progressive Portland members spent many hours poring over pages of city documents and more hours discussing which votes would be included in the scorecard and which would be left out. For example, the issue of Airbnb rentals in the city was one that didn’t make it onto the scorecard, because it’s not yet clear which side of the argument is progressive; on one side it’s pro-environment and brings wealth to local homeowners, but on the other side it takes housing units off the market and contributes to the housing crisis.
“It’s complicated,” said Biel. “Some issues don’t fit neatly on a right or left spectrum. As a progressive organization, with the 19 votes on our scorecard we felt there’s a clear right and left side to the positions.”
The issues that were considered progressive and analyzed on the scorecard included: the closing of the India Street Health Clinic, housing related issues (such as leeway no-fault evictions, banning discrimination against holders of housing vouchers, and rezoning of the Elks Lodge property for offices), global warming (the council defeated a measure to incentivize green buildings), tax breaks for the wealthy (the council voted four times for a regressive tax system that benefited corporations), raising the tobacco age to 21 (passed unanimously), a moratorium on marijuana retail sales, protecting Ft. Sumner Park, and LGBT rights (a ban of state-funded travel to anti-LGBT state passed unanimously), among others.
You can see the other votes analyzed and a breakdown of which issues passed and which way Portland’s city councilors voted here: http://progressiveportland.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Scorecard_final2.pdf.
“The city councilor’s voting records are fair game, and none of them should be afraid to explain to their constituents how and why they voted,” said Biel. “This is not meant to be a conversation ender, but rather a starter. It’s a collection of data that we think will be helpful to all voters.”
Biel joked that it’s fine if conservatives in the city look at their scorecard and vote for the guy with the lowest score (Ed Suslovic). “We’re just getting the facts out.”
In an age of alternative facts, real objective ones are important to the political process no matter where you stand on certain issues. According to Biel, the Progressive Portland group came together after Mr. Trump’s victory, when they realized that not much progress would happen in Washington.
“One of the very few places in the states that progressives have the ability to enact any kind of agenda is here at the municipal level,” said Biel. “There’s no real political advocacy organization focused on a consistent way on the Portland City Council.”
Biel hopes the information that his group has provided will arm voters with the knowledge necessary to make decisions on key issues in the future, of which there will be many. But what are the ones most pressing on progressives' minds?
After surveying over 400 locals last January, Progressive Portland found that the top priority in 2017 will be passing the 61 million dollar school bond to repair the Reiche, Longfellow, Lyseth and Presumpscot elementary schools.
“Leaky roofs, asbestos; those schools are literally falling apart,” said Biel. “They’re among the worst conditioned schools in the state. The city council has done seven different task forces over the last 25 years and every time rejected proposals to fix these schools. It’s finally time to fix them.”
Taking second and third priorities with progressive voters in Portland are the issues of landlords giving tenants extra time during no-fault eviction situations, and adopting a paid sick leave policy for workers.
“Our role won’t be as policy experts,” said Biel, mentioning ILAP (Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project), the Sierra Club, the National Resources Council of Maine, and the Maine Women’s Lobby as groups that already do a great job with that. “We’re focused on mobilizing grassroots support for progressive policies and arming voters with the tools to hold their representatives accountable.”