Four candidates with different experiences and perspectives on city governance are competing for a single at-large seat on the Portland City Council.
The seat is being vacated by longtime Councilor Nick Mavodones, who opted not to seek reelection. Travis Curran, Brandon Mazer, Roberto Rodriquez, and Stuart Tisdale are on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Curran, 35, ran a long-shot mayoral campaign in 2019 and finished last among four candidates. He took out papers to run for the Charter Commission earlier this year, but had to withdraw for work reasons and said supporters encouraged him to run for City Council after that.
He said he wants to be a voice for working people, citing his life and work experience. He was a restaurant server until he lost his job during the pandemic, and said he has seen friends priced out of living in Portland. He also said he’s been unhoused, which he believes gives him a unique voice in this election.
Curran, who now works various roles at Maine Craft Distilling, said his career as a restaurant server helped guide his thoughts about public service.
“An elected official is a public servant,” Curran said. “I’m a servant. I’ve been a servant my whole life. I love this city; I’ve been here forever. I truly believe with my voice at the table we can make sure the voice of the people is heard, and reinstall some trust in City Hall.”
When asked about what recommendations from the Racial Equity Steering Committee he would support, Curran said the City Council should do its best to help the School Board solve inequity gaps. He said he supported candidates who put equity front and center, like Nyalat Biliew for School Board and Victoria Pelletier for the council District 2 seat. When prompted with a few proposals from the RESC, he said he supports overhauling the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee.
Curran said he is a believer in ranked-choice voting, and it was a big reason he ran for mayor in 2019.
He said the power dynamic between the mayor and city manager needs to be revised and believes the conflict between City Manager Jon Jennings and former Mayor Ethan Strimling divided the city.
Curran said he supports a stronger mayor, “but not the strongest mayor,” since the city still needs a manager. He said he hopes the next manager is “more transparent and open and cooperative with the council.”
Referring to the city’s plan to build a large homeless services center near the Westbrook line, Curran said he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to “institutionalize” the homeless population “in a 200-bed warehouse that’s seven miles outside of town.”
But he also acknowledged those in need still need those services. He said the location, on Riverside Street, is the thing he has the most concern about and believes there are other locations better suited for the shelter.
“I believe in the scattered shelter model because it’s safer,” he said. “They will be more humane. If anything, it will help different neighborhoods in Portland normalize and humanize the homeless community.”
Curran said he would have supported a proposed citywide mask mandate for public indoor spaces had he been on the council. He said a cooperative approach is necessary if there is any hope of getting past COVID-19.
He said the first job for the next council should be creating more affordable housing, because the housing crisis “has gone from awful to worse,” especially during the pandemic. He said one avenue to address is zoning reform to encourage more multi-unit, apartment, and mixed-use developments in zones that traditionally have been reserved for single-family homes.
Mazer, 35, chairs the city’s Planning Board and is an attorney at Perkins Thompson. He said he is running partly to address the divisiveness he sees in city politics – to be a “bridge between everyone in the city” – and to take on major issues that the city will face in the coming years; he specifically identified housing affordability, family housing, and public transit.
He said many of the recommendations from the Racial Equity Steering Committee should be implemented and identified revamping the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee as a major goal. He also said he wants to see more resources put toward mental health professionals as first-responders.
Mazer said he “generally” supports ranked-choice voting because it encourages more candidates to run, but said Portland’s current system has some limitations that came to light during the Charter Commission election in June when several candidates were running for multiple at-large seats. He said one solution could be reducing the threshold of votes required to win in cases like that from more than 50 percent to a lower number like 20 percent.
Mazer said he believes the power dynamic between the mayor and city manager is still new to the city. While it does deserve a deep dive, he said he hopes the Charter Commission “will take a step back and take personalities out of their decision making” when making recommendations.
“Our current manager is departing the city,” Mazer said. “The conflict he had with our former mayor is no longer applicable. So we need to look at the best form of government for a city our size.”
Mazer said he has some concerns about a strong mayor system leading to “higher politicization” at City Hall, and said an elected mayor may not have the skills needed to run the city.
Mazer, who has been on the Planning Board since 2017, said he supports the city’s process and decision on the 208-bed homeless services center on Riverside Street and said it would be irresponsible to delay it any further.
“I’m afraid a small shelter process would be no shelter at all,” he said.
Mazer said while he encourages people to wear masks if they want to, he believes the council made the right decision about not involving a citywide mandate. He said the lack of city enforcement would have left it to businesses to enforce on their own, and there’s “no good data point” to determine when the mandate wouldn’t be needed anymore.
Mazer said the first job for the new council is to “heal this divisiveness we’re currently seeing” in the city. After that, tackling the housing crunch and issues of affordability. To do that, he said the council needs to create incentives for more family and affordable housing developments on corridors like Forest and Brighton avenues.
Rodriguez, 42, is a member of the city’s School Board, where he served as the chair in 2018 and 2019.
He said he is running for City Council because he believes in the ability of the city to take on the biggest issues and believes he has that experience from five years on the School Board. He noted the board’s achievements in advancing a comprehensive plan grounded on “equity, investments and messaging.”
Rodriguez, who owns a small business called Fresh Food Gardens and is also the interim co-director for Cultivating Community, said all the recommendations from the Racial Equity Steering Committee are appropriate for the council to adopt, but the one he supports the most is overhauling the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee. He said this recommendation is a great example of reasserting the city’s commitment to racial equity.
Rodriguez said he is a big supporter of ranked-choice voting, but also acknowledged some concerns with Portland’s methodology, which became an issue during the recent Charter Commission election. He said he’s open to discussions that may come from the Charter Commission, but in general, believes RCV “benefits our democracy and encourages more participation from citizens.”
Rodriguez didn’t take a firm stand on revamping the power dynamic between the mayor and city manager, saying it was more important to have the right people with aligned visions. Without that, even if the Charter Commission alters the relationship, he said it could still lead to “inequitable outcomes.”
He said he wants to see what the commission comes up with and then see if residents approve. He said he has experience with the existing structure since the School Board mirrors the City Council.
“And based on our strong and healthy working relationships, we’ve been able to advance some really important work,” he said.
Rodriguez said he believes it’s important to build the Riverside shelter and wants the city to focus on moving forward. He said the focus should be on providing the best care for the unhoused population, regardless of whether it’s in a large shelter or several small shelters.
He said he would have supported a mask mandate had he been on the council at the time because masks mitigate risk.
Rodriguez said the most important job for the next council is hiring a new city manager “with the expectations to address the issues that are most pressing in our city.”
“It sets the tone for the direction we’re going to move forward,” he said.
This is 68-year-old Tisdale’s first campaign for elected public office.
The attorney and former Cheverus High School teacher said he hopes his life experiences will help replace the years of institutional experience walking out the door with Mavodones and Councilors Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau.
Tisdale said he also hopes to “be the voice from the rational middle” to create a more collaborative, calm, and reasonable environment and “bring people together.”
Tisdale said he supports the RESC recommendation of using mental health professionals instead of police when addressing individuals in distress or crisis. And while he believes police oversight is important, he is not in favor of a stronger citizen review panel because it would be unfair to police officers to be judged by individuals who haven’t done the job.
“As a high school teacher I wouldn’t want to be second-guessed by anyone who’s never been in a classroom,” Tisdale said.
He also opposes the creation of a racial equity department for the city, because he doesn’t support “bureaucratic duplication.” But he would support an individual, such as an equity ombudsman.
Tisdale said as a voter he supported ranked-choice voting because he believed it would help candidates who are “more moderate in their messaging.” He said as a candidate, “I’m trying to deal with it the best I can,” and “didn’t want to complain” about it while in the middle of a campaign.
Concerning the mayor-manager relationship, Tisdale said he believes the city could do without a mayor before it does without a manager.
“It would be a mistake to write it out of the charter and make it purely a political office,” he said.
Tisdale said he favors the smaller shelter solution over the Riverside proposal but would like to see a regional and state response to address homelessness instead of just having it fall to the city.
He said had he been on the council at the time, he would have voted against a mask mandate because a Portland-only response wouldn’t have helped protect health care workers. If the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention supported a mandate, however, he said he would be open to it.
Tisdale said the biggest job for the new council is addressing deficits in the schools. While he acknowledged that should also be addressed by the School Board, he said “that would be on my mind as a councilor.” He said he wants a “full-court press” to improve standardized test scores.
“If I’m not allowed to get involved in that process, then I would wait until the school budget comes up and would ask the questions then,” Tisdale said. “The test score deficit is appalling. It’s just horrible and we have to fix that.”