Two candidates are vying for the Portland City Council District 4 seat being vacated by Councilor Justin Costa, who is running for an at-large seat.
The Nov. 3 election pits small business owner Andrew Zarro against union organizer and education advocate Rosemary Mahoney. District 4 includes the city’s East Deering and Back Cove neighborhoods.
Mahoney, 55, of Illsley Street, is making her second run for the council after losing in her first campaign six years ago. She said she is running again because two female councilors – Jill Duson and Kimberly Cook – are stepping down, and she wants to ensure the council continues to have fair representation. She also said issues she’s passionate about – homelessness and affordable housing – are still primary concerns of voters around the city.
Mahoney said councilors erred with their plan to license adult-use recreational marijuana businesses. The council opted for a points-based matrix to award the 20 business licenses, and Mahoney said the fact there is a ballot initiative on this is proof the council “didn’t do enough” and hasn’t met the needs of the business community. She said the cap of 20 may not be right, and said if more businesses want to apply they should be able to. She also said by limiting the number of businesses, the city is forfeiting potential tax revenue.
“This is a real test,” Mahoney said. “I’m not a free-market person per se, but this is new, this is an emerging industry, and the market will decide who will succeed and who will have to choose another route.”
Mahoney also said the City Council has lagged on issues of institutional racism and policing. She said she sides with Black Portland Organizers Working to End Racism, or Black POWER (formerly Black Lives Matter Portland), and described the city’s lack of support for those protests and demonstrations as “problematic.”
She said she also thinks the police have a lot of unnecessary equipment, and it would be a benefit to the city to not have to maintain equipment like an armored vehicle.
But Mahoney also said she supports the police and acknowledged the demands placed on officers are high and go beyond what they are trained to do. She said she’d ideally like to see a scenario where mental health calls can be diverted to mental health or substance abuse professionals, and “police can get back to law enforcement and turn their attention to what they are trained to do.”
Mahoney said she supported the move to reopen the City Charter with a new commission and there is “a lot of friction” in the relationship between the roles of the mayor and the city manager. She said there needs to be a clear distinction between those roles.
“The rights and duties of the mayor have not been fully realized,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney said the balance between affordable housing and development in the city is “certainly a tricky puzzle,” and said part of the problem is how well Portland has been marketed in recent years as a destination for people with much higher incomes than many longtime residents.
She said the city needs to work with developers to make sure new housing is taking “the right approach” for its residents and is oriented towards attracting and retaining families.
“We need to have appropriate housing for all Portlanders,” Mahoney said. “Housing is an essential right.”
Zarro, 32, is co-owner of Little Woodford, a coffee shop on Congress Street, and lives on George Street. He said many businesses like his have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic, and there wasn’t enough support coming from the municipal government.
“Our council hasn’t had a small business perspective in quite some time,” Zarro said.
Zarro, who is gay, said he also believes it’s important the council reflect the diversity of the population. He said the council hasn’t had an LGBTQ perspective in several years.
“If you don’t have elected officials that represent the cornerstones of your city, you have more work to do,” he said.
Zarro said he was glad people in the city were talking about the adult-use recreational marijuana market, as reflected by the question on the municipal ballot. He said he reached out to small business owners in that industry to learn more about it and believes the matrix system for awarding licenses is “flawed and can be manipulated” by outside investors. He also doesn’t support the 20-license cap.
Zarro said the city and council missed an opportunity in the response to systemic racism and policing by failing to make changes like defunding the Portland Police Department, while other services, such as the Parks and Recreation Department, lost jobs. He said the city didn’t “put its money where its mouth is” when elected officials said Black lives did matter, but didn’t reallocate resources to prove it.
“Our city needs to do so much more than it’s doing,” he said, particularly around issues of diversity and inclusion. Zarro said annual anti-discrimination training for all city officials would be the “bare minimum.”
“To be the biggest city in the whitest state doesn’t give us a pass,” he said. “How are we going to hold ourselves accountable, hold our elected officials accountable?”
When asked about the upcoming role of the Charter Commission, Zarro said it didn’t matter what he thought as an individual, since “the people showed up and voted to do this.” But he also said it’s unfortunate voters have to wait until next June to elect members of the commission.
Regarding the roles of the mayor and city manager, Zarro said the city is stuck in an “in-between” version of what the last Charter Commission wanted when it gave more power to the mayor. He said he supports having the city manager’s role be more of a public administrator, who makes sure things run smoothly on the municipal side, while actual governance is left to the mayor and councilors, who must answer to voters.
“I have no problem with the role of an administrator,” Zarro said. “I have a problem with not being able to hold them accountable.”
Zarro said he’d like to see the Sustainability Department revamped and its funding increased. It currently has one full-time and one part-time person, and Zarro said climate change and greening the city are two major issues that need a bigger departmental focus.
“We are not funding a real Sustainability Department,” he said. “That should be the largest and most robust department in the city.”
Zarro also said he doesn’t believe the city can build itself out of an affordable housing crisis. He said there should be a “multi-pronged approach” to housing that includes paying workers a livable wage, improving public transit, and making sure people have better access to it.
Zarro said Portland has been “dragging its feet” on allowing accessory dwelling units. He said he is happy to see the council and Planning Board working on new rules that would allow property owners to modify their garages or basements to create more affordable housing, specifically on the peninsula.
He said the choice comes down to whether the city wants to “grow tall” or “spread out.”