An otherwise decisive election cycle for Portland progressives was spoiled Thursday by the drawing of lots.
Following a competitive campaign for the at-large City Council seat being vacated by Councilor Nick Mavodones, Planning Board Chairman Brandon Mazer was declared the winner two days after the election when his name was drawn at random from a wooden bowl. Mazer bested School Board member Roberto Rodriguez, who had been endorsed by local progressive groups.
While perhaps not aligned with progressive political groups like Progressive Portland, more left-leaning candidates who were supported by those groups ended up winning their seats. School Board member Anna Trevorrow won the District 1 council seat over Sarah Michniewicz, and Victoria Pelletier won in District 2, defeating former legislator and former Councilor Jon Hinck.
Pelletier and Trevorrow supported issues like the City Council’s proposed citywide mask mandate, which ultimately failed; strengthening the role of the mayor while reducing the role of the city manager, and various proposals from the former Racial Equity Steering Committee.
Rodriguez and Mazer disagreed on several topics, including a mask mandate, with Rodriguez saying he would have supported it and Mazer in opposition. Rodriguez was also a bigger supporter of ranked-choice voting than Mazer, whose victory, ironically, came as a result of RCV.
But the two candidates shared some positions, too. They both supported enacting various proposals from the Racial Equity Steering Committee, and both supported the 208-bed emergency services center on Riverside Street. Neither took a particularly strong stance on how they viewed the dynamic between the mayor and city manager.
Rodriguez was also the School Board chair and a sponsor of the resolution in July 2020 when it removed school resource officers from the city’s schools.
While Mazer had a commanding fundraising advantage, Rodriguez enjoyed more endorsements. He was backed by Councilors Pious Ali, April Fournier, Mark Dion, and Andrew Zarro; former Councilor Jill Duson; Maine state Reps. Mike Sylvester, Rachel Talbot Ross and Victoria Morales; School Board members Abusana “Micky” Bondo, Adam Burk, Yusuf Yusuf, and Chair Emily Figdor; former School Board members Laurie Davis, Jenna Vendil, and Tim Atkinson; activist and former U.S. Senate candidate Betsy Sweet, and South Portland City Councilor Deqa Dhalac. He was also supported by Progressive Portland.
Mazer’s notable endorsements were from moderate Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilor Tae Chong, who has criticized the city’s progressive political groups.
The only competitive School Board race, which wasn’t supposed to be competitive after incumbent Sarah Thompson stopped campaigning and withdrew a month ahead of the election, saw Nyalat Biliew win the seat Thompson held for more than 15 years.
The results were much closer than an uncontested contest should be.
Because Thompson’s name still appeared on the ballot, votes for her were still counted. Had she won she would have had to resign if she didn’t wish to serve and the seat would have remained empty until a June 2022 election.
Biliew ultimately won by just over 850 votes, according to unofficial results.
Former Mayor Ethan Strimling used social media ahead of the election to support issues progressive groups favored, including Biliew over Thompson.
Progressive candidates, or at least candidates supported by progressive political groups, have been gaining power in Portland. Last year, two new city councilors – April Fournier and Andrew Zarro – were elected, with Fournier defeating incumbent Councilor Justin Costa.
This year’s Charter Commission election produced wins by a wave of progressive candidates or candidates supported by progressive organizations. Most of the nine who were elected have expressed a desire to dramatically shift the city in a new direction, by reducing the role of the city manager to more of an administrative position, or by outright eliminating the position.
Other ideas the commission may recommend to voters are an overhaul of the city’s Police Citizen Review Subcommittee to create a civilian panel with actual oversight of the Police Department; increasing the size of the City Council and eliminating at-large seats in favor of more districts, and revamping the city’s use of clean elections funding.
Besides setting the agenda for issues and policy decisions in the city, the growing number of left-leaning officials will also have a strong say in the selection of a new city manager.
The contest between Mazer and Rodriguez, meanwhile, was still not fully resolved because Rodriguez requested a recount. It was scheduled to be conducted by hand starting at 8 a.m. on Nov. 9 at Ocean Gateway.
Following his defeat Thursday, Rodriguez said he was glad the current Charter Commission will be looking into RCV.
The tie between Rodriguez and Mazer came on the third ranked-choice runoff. Initially, Rodriguez had the most votes, followed by Mazer, Travis Curran, and Stuart Tisdale. Tisdale was eliminated first, followed by Curran.
The redistribution of their votes left Mazer and Rodriguez with 8,529 votes each. There were also 4,226 “inactive” ballots from voters who didn’t completely fill out their choices or whose markings were illegible.
Ties ‘just don’t happen that often’
The recount this week in the election of an at-large city councilor is the second recount in the city in the last year.
In November 2020, progressive group People First Portland challenged the results of one of the referendums they supported on short-term rental restrictions. The recount ultimately affirmed that the initiative was defeated.
Chris Hughes, policy director of the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, which provided the election software used by the city, said the unusual result last week is just that: unusual. Even without ranked-choice voting, he said a numerical tie is rare, especially as elections get larger.
“They just don’t happen that often,” Hughes said.
One upshot, he said, is Portland’s tie is historic: of the 400 or so RCV elections held in the United States over the past 20 years, he said this was the first tie.
“I think it’s mostly a one-off,” he said, “sort of unique situation that’s unlikely to happen again.”
He added that the city was prepared and moved quickly to a tie-breaker event. He chuckled, saying it was interesting such a mathematically precise procedure ended up with picking a name out of a salad bowl.
“I don’t think it says anything about ranked-choice voting either way,” Hughes said, and while he assumed the city will have some discussion about how to conduct tie breakers going forward, he doesn’t know if there is a better way to do things.
This was not the first time Portland’s use of RCV has raised some eyebrows.
Last summer, RCV came under fire following the election of four Charter Commission members to at-large seats. Because there were 10 candidates, several different runoffs were required. Candidate Steve DiMillo, who had the second-most votes when the first round ended, wound up being defeated by other candidates who received far fewer first-place votes.
After that election, Hughes said Portland could have employed a different RCV system, which would have required a lower threshold for victory given the large number of candidates running for four seats.
Last week, however, he said he wouldn’t want people to connect the two bizarre outcomes.
“It’s sort of just two very unlikely events happening in one year,” he said. “Let’s hope they’re boring next time around.”
— Colin Ellis