In December, longtime Portland City Councilor Jill Duson will experience something she hasn’t in more than two decades: free time.
Duson, 67, will retire at the end of her current council term, bringing an end to a lifetime of elected public service in her adopted city. As the first Black woman ever elected to the council, Duson said she is proud to leave behind a legacy of encouraging diverse groups of people to run for office.
“I think I always had it in mind that I would retire from the council around the same time I would retire from my work-a-day job,” Duson said last week. “I always had it in my mind that I would retire from both things that are taking up a lot of time.”
Duson retired as the director of the Maine Human Rights Commission five years ago. She said she had hoped to be able to transition to the state Senate, but she was unsuccessful in the Democratic primary for a seat in 2018 and did not run again.
“I decided to move on with retirement and find other ways of volunteering,” she said.
Duson said she strongly considered not running for reelection to the council three years ago, but ultimately changed her mind.
“Things were so volatile in the city at the time with relationships on the council, and relationships with the city manager and the mayor,” she said.
At that time the only other councilor with more than one term of experience was Councilor Nick Mavodones, so Duson decided to seek one more term.
“Twenty years is just about enough,” she said with a laugh.
First, not the last
Originally from Pennsylvania, Duson moved to Portland from Hallowell so her children could attend Portland Public Schools.
About 18 months after moving to Portland, she was approached by a group then known as Portland Community Action, which sought progressive candidates to run for office. They convinced her to run for the School Board in 1998.
“I think you have to be accountable for what’s going on around you,” Duson said.
Following one term on the School Board, including a year as the chairperson, she ran for City Council and was elected in 2001.
Duson has seen the city change significantly during her council tenure. Some changes were good, she said, although she cautioned the city still has a long way to go to be the place it wants to be.
She said when she first moved to Portland, the city “wasn’t the darling of tourism” it is now. The Old Port, now a vibrant center of business, dining, and entertainment, was not a place she would have allowed her children to go.
“Portland was struggling with itself,” Duson said.
Looking back, she said, it’s crazy now to think when she was elected to the School Board, she was only the second Black woman ever elected to office in Maine. She also believes she was probably one of the few Black female attorneys in Maine at the time.
“My attitude always was I’m OK being the first, but what was most important to me is not to be the last,” Duson said. “So I have actively encouraged people of color to run (for office).”
Now, with people of color holding four of the nine City Council seats, she can see the city has changed.
“Another thing that has changed is literally the complexion of the city,” Duson said. “The arrival of Black and brown immigrants has improved this city. We are without a doubt the most diverse municipality in the state.”
She praised Portland for creating a “welcoming atmosphere” for immigrants and refugees either searching for better economic opportunities or fleeing unsafe countries.
“The coloring of Portland is a point of pride and appreciation for me,” Duson said. “I just love our city, and I love that so many Portlanders are so invested in the city.”
That engagement and investment make Portland a unique place to live, Duson said.
“People are concerned with what’s going on and they want to get involved,” she said. “That has been an important energizing process for me.”
Duson said while she often identifies more as an introvert, she constantly wants to know what’s going on in the city.
“I have really appreciated people engaging with me and telling me when I’m going in the right direction or wrong direction,” she said.
Addressing the ‘underbelly’
While Portland has changed in many good ways, Duson said the city still faces several challenges.
“We speak well of being an open and welcoming city, but there’s an underbelly there that we need to stay aware of so that we actually implement policies of how we view ourselves,” she said. “There’s the thought that we’re welcoming, as long as you don’t live next to me. I don’t believe it’s the majority, but I do believe there are folks who feel threatened by change.”
Duson said she understands that change is hard, but she also said it’s important to recognize racial inequity, even if the city has improved.
“Being willing to see it means we have a better chance of doing something about it,” she said. “I’m glad to see that work coming to the table.”
Duson said the city and the council have both done a lot toward making Portland a better city for racial relations.
“I love the city,” she said. “I love inviting my Black family to the city. But there are still incidents that happen to people of color in this city. There’s plenty that goes on, on a daily basis.”
Duson said it’s far too easy to turn away from examples of racial inequality, “or call it anything but what it is.”
“So, if we can get to a place where we’re willing to see race and see inequality, then we can do something,” she said.
Duson said these are hard conversations, which she doesn’t like having, because “it requires me to be the victim” and “peel off the scab in a very public way.”
“My community doesn’t always see how much personal investment it takes, and courage it takes, for our young people to be willing to have that conversation in public,” she said. “It hurts, and they have been hurting since day one.”
Because of this, Duson said she respects the Black Lives Matter movement, especially as a means of engaging younger people of color.
“As an old, Black woman, my desire has been to really resist the urge to step in front and grab the mic,” she said, adding she doesn’t seek out media attention for equality issues.
And she said she values and respects feedback from younger people, even if it is critical.
“I get that folks think I’m too old to do this work,” she said. “I hear you. I’m going to respect your advocacy and leadership. A piece of me feels affirmed in my retirement decision, which I made before this. But I feel affirmed that it’s fine. If folks need me to relinquish my seat at the table in favor of someone who will step in and stay engaged, I’m very down for that. I’m happy to make room for other voices, and I’ve done that consistently over the years.”
As for other aspects of the BLM movement and recent protests, Duson pushed back against a call for City Manager Jon Jennings to resign over policies that some said disenfranchised people of color.
Duson said she’s worked with several city managers during her service on the council, and said a city manager doesn’t have the ability to make those kinds of decisions. She said it’s fine if people want to build their own political power bases, but she pushed back against the idea she was “led by the nose” by anybody.
“I am making decisions and I’m fully accountable,” Duson said. “… In the end, we don’t have a system that allows the manager to make decisions for the city.”
Duson said any policy decision ultimately requires at least five councilors to agree to something, and said even then, a 5-4 decision isn’t good enough.
“That’s an indication we didn’t work hard enough,” she said. “That’s been something that rankles me, people dismiss my own ability to think by ascribing some of the really tough decisions we’ve made to the manager.”
In her more than two decades of service to Portland, Duson said there are several things she’s proud to have accomplished, and said it was the work that kept her engaged.
One thing that stands out, she said, was the development of the Maine State Pier. She said she was in a minority position on which proposal to select, but appreciated the level of engagement the discussion elicited. She said that “really helped solidify my approach to public service and my commitment to staying in the room where it happened.”
“The number of people across the city who were very engaged in which direction the council took on that really mattered,” Duson said. “People were talking to me about issues in the produce aisle at Shaw’s. People cared deeply. … It was an issue everybody had an opinion about. I knew I had to hear from everybody and make the best decision I could.”
Another significant council decision – albeit one that was ultimately struck down and reduced to a noise limit – banned abortion protesters from the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood on Congress Street. She said the council tried to address the intimidation of patients who had to “run a gauntlet of protesters” just to get inside.
“For goodness’ sake, they can’t block people from trying to go get services,” Duson said. “It’s just been important that we stand for access to health care and the First Amendment. You get to speak freely, and I get to speak back.”
Duson said she was also proud that the council developed and implemented a vision for the Bayside neighborhood, which set an example for how to plan neighborhoods.
“That process included the adoption of a neighborhood organization planning process and promises on how development would be planned by the neighborhood,” she said. “That set an approach in my head for trying to do the right thing.”
In general, Duson said, she’s proud of the approach she has taken while serving the city.
“I think I have, from time to time, influenced the council process in getting to a decision in making sure we have public comment, and not killing what people are saying because of their tone.”
While she is not a proponent of forcing people to be polite when addressing the council, especially when they are presenting a grievance, she admitted there has to be a line somewhere. But she said it’s still important to engage, even if the language is ugly.
“We have an open forum,” Duson said. “I think people still feel intimidated by coming to council meetings, and it’s important to me people can say what they mean and it’s an environment where people can be heard.”
Over the years though, Duson said, her top priority has been housing. She admitted she’s had successes and failures when it comes to influencing housing policy, but said it’s always remained her highest priority.
“I grew up in difficult, bad, essentially slum housing in Pennsylvania,” Duson said. “Part of my commitment to public service was around watching my mother and other aunties in the neighborhood take on the conditions of housing in our city.”
Duson said her mother and her community were able to address unsafe conditions, and she watched as they organized, focused their demands, and enacted change, which was an important process for her.
Duson said she is also a child of the civil rights movement. Her community received a desegregation order, and she was part of an initial wave of students who were bused to a previously all-white school.
She said she can still remember the parents of Black students being terrified of what they were sending their children to, but determined to get them access to better education.
“And on the other side were these white parents terrified of these little fourth-graders coming to attend school with their children,” Duson said.
Because of that, and as a result of all that was put on the line for her, Duson became the first generation in her family to graduate college. She went on to law school and returned to her hometown to work in legal services.
The ‘Duson rule’
Throughout her career, Duson has relied on what she calls “the Duson rule,” her way to provide clarity over time, especially in the face of controversial issues.
She said it’s important to her that the council not make any important decisions without input from the public, or out of the public light. She said it’s also important to her that the council not signal which way it’s leaning without the public having its chance to weigh in.
“So when we start talking about putting off a decision, I don’t want to put off a decision in which people have seen us struggle without a clear idea of what we’re going to do between now and the next date,” she said.
Duson said council decisions, even if it’s just a postponement, must be done in the public eye.
“If you don’t see the rationale, it’s so much harder for my constituents to buy in,” she said. “They understand the council isn’t always going to do what they were asked to do at the beginning. But people need to know why we went one direction or another.”
The Duson rule, which will have to live on in the council without its namesake, essentially boils down to support for the open process of decision making.
“Don’t be mad because I disagree with you,” she said. “I am open to changing my mind, I’m listening carefully. I am open to understanding some piece of it I didn’t yet. … I am going to make the best decisions I can and live by them.”
Going forward, Duson said she plans to find more ways to volunteer. Ideally, she said she’d like to find work on a board of directors for a nonprofit advocacy group – after she takes a few months off in the winter to hibernate and visit family.
She also said she’d be interested in taking a look at teaching English to recent immigrants and refugees, which she said is an opportunity to help people one-on-one in a direct way.
“I’m a habitual volunteer anyway,” Duson said.
Cook won’t seek reelection to council, Costa hopes to succeed Duson
Along with the contest to replace retiring at-large City Councilor Jill Duson, there will be two other City Council seats and three School Board seats on the Nov. 3 General Election ballot, as well as seats on the Peaks Island Council and Portland Water District Board of Trustees.
In addition to Duson’s retirement, first-term City Councilor Kim Cook on Monday said she will not seek reelection in District 5. Cook said there were “a few” reasons she decided not to run again, but did not want to discuss them “at this point.”
Cook was elected to the council in 2017, succeeding Councilor David Brenerman. She is considered more financially conservative than some of her colleagues and has sought to reduce the city’s annual borrowing program and the overall budget.
In February she was one of two councilors – District 4 Councilor Justin Costa was the other – who opposed guidelines for a new low-barrier homeless shelter in her district. She unsuccessfully tried to delay a decision, and the council’s 6-2 vote paved the way for design of a shelter in the Riverton neighborhood to replace the downtown shelter on Oxford Street.
Nomination papers for the council and School Board seats have been available since the end of June. Those seats are in Districts 4 and 5, as well as the at-large seats. All are for three-year terms.
Candidates must return papers to the city clerk’s office between 9 a.m. on Aug. 10 and no later than 4:30 p.m. Aug. 24.
To qualify for the District 4 and 5 seats, candidates must collect at least 75 signatures and no more than 150. For the at-large seats, at least 300 but no more than 500 signatures are required.
For seats on the Peaks Island Council, candidates must collect between 50 and 100 signatures. And candidates for the Portland Water District Board of Trustees, where one seat is available, must collect 100-150 signatures.
For the at-large seat being vacated by Duson, four candidates – including Costa – have taken out nomination papers. The three others are Ronald Gan, Laura Kelley, and Astrida Rideout.
April Fournier and Andrew Zarro have taken out papers for Costa’s District 4 seat.
For the District 5 seat currently held by Cook, two candidates have taken out papers: Kathryn Sykes and Kenneth Capron.
On the School Board side, four residents have taken out papers for the at-large seat, currently held by Mark Balfantz, who has not taken papers out. Those who have include Yusuf Yusuf, Stacey Hang, Victoria Parker, and Nyalat Biliew.
Two people, Aura Russell-Bedder and Christopher Vail, have taken out papers for the District 4 seat currently held by Timothy Atkinson, who has not taken out papers.
And three people have taken out papers for the District 5 School Board seat, which is held by former Chairperson Marnie Morrione: Jeffrey Irish, Israa Enan, and Anthony Emerson. Morrione has not taken out papers and did not respond when asked if she plans to seek reelection.
Additionally, there is a seat on the Portland Water District, one three-year term on the Peaks Island Council and one two-year term on the Peaks Island Council available.
Current Trustee Kenneth Levinsky is the only person who has taken out papers for the five-year term on the Portland Water District board.
Incumbent Peaks Island Councilor Sarah Rafferty has taken out papers for a two-year term on the Peaks council, and no one has taken out papers for a three-year seat.
Write-in candidates have until Sept. 4 – 60 days before Election Day – to declare themselves for the election.
— Colin Ellis