The Portland Phoenix

Despite Election Day failures, progressive reforms could still be in Portland’s future

Voters gather at First Baptist Church in Portland on Election Day, Nov. 8.

Voters gather at First Baptist Church in Portland on Election Day, Nov. 8. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

After multiple election cycles that were wins for progressives, Portland voters rejected substantial changes to the city from both the Charter Commission and via citizen initiatives that many viewed — or criticized — as efforts to push Portland further left.

Voters passed six of eight ballot questions from the Charter Commission, a body of elected and appointed citizens and administrators formed in 2021 to recommend policy proposals for Portland. Among them included proposals for a civilian-led police review board, a system for clean elections in municipal races and the establishment of an ethics commission.

But they struck down the two charter reforms that would have arguably the biggest impact on the city. Charter Question Two, a proposal to expand the city council and empower the mayor as the city’s chief executive rather than an unelected city manager, was defeated at the polls by a 65-35 margin. The issue was propped up by supporters as pushing Portland towards a more representative democracy, where the chief executive is directly accountable to voters. Charter Commission Question 5, which failed by a 58-43 margin, sought to give the School Board autonomy in approving the proposed school budget before sending it for voter approval.

The five citizen initiatives, the most debated being raising the minimum wage in Portland to $18 per hour over three years, was proposed by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, a labor-oriented political group, and supported by One Fair Wage, a national organization that seeks to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers, also known as the tip credit. Portland currently has a $13 minimum wage, which is 25 cents higher than the state minimum wage. The city is currently on track to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by Jan. 1, 2024.

Groups like the DSA have had success in the past few election cycles passing citizen initiatives as referendums. In 2020, a slate of proposals — including raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour over time and enforcing a ban on facial recognition technology — passed. The referendum to raise Portland’s minimum wage received support from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Jane Fonda.

Losses at the ballot box this time around have not deterred supporters from claiming major victories in certain areas.

Members of the Portland group Yes for Democracy — a group spearheaded by two Charter Commissioners, Zack Barowitz and Patricia Washburn, who were backing all eight Charter Commission proposals — expressed regret that the two major Charter questions failed, but were optimistic about moving forward with other reforms.

“While we didn’t win everything we had sought, we feel certain the reforms that passed will help make city government more accountable and responsive,” their statement said.

Four commissioners who opposed Question 2 also released a statement, saying they “agree with voters that there is a better way to make Portland more democratic and transparent, and its elected and appointed officials more accountable.” The statement continued that they wished to continue to improve Portland’s system of government “through a more collaborative and consensus-based process.”

Mayor Kate Snyder, left, and interim City Manager Danielle West field questions on Nov. 9, the day after Election Day, which saw voters reject a proposal to create a more powerful executive mayor and reduce the powers of the city manager. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Process had become a popular term in city government. In a press conference the day after Election Day, Mayor Kate Snyder called the Nov. 8 outcome a “testament for process,” adding that “we now have a clear direction” after the election results. 

Snyder, whose term expires in November 2023 and is not seeking reelection, added that she is “energized” to work under the existing council structure. The mayor said she is committed to addressing quality-of-life issues, such as creating more housing opportunities, addressing climate change, and assisting those seeking resettlement. She added that the city will be “nimble” yet “may not produce results as quickly as some like.” 

“These have been busy and unrelentingly challenging years,” Snyder said. “Now we can focus on the work of our city together.”

Ethan Strimling, former Portland mayor and currently a member of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, was not surprised by the results from Nov. 8. The DSA were pushing three of five citizen initiatives, and while one passed, “the odds were against us when the money was brought in against us.”

Enough is Enough Portland, a political action committee formed to oppose all 13 ballot questions, outraised committees supporting the reforms by a significant margin. The group raised more than $630,000, including six-figure donations from San Francisco-based corporations Uber and DoorDash and a $100,000 donation from the National Association of Realtors. The Restaurant Workers of America, a political action committee arm of the state’s restaurant lobby Hospitality Maine, which opposed an effort to raise the minimum wage (Referendum Question D) raised more than $475,000.

He said Questions 2 and 5 from the Charter Commission failing were disappointing, but noted it took several tries for Portland to enact the council-manager system a century ago, so it may take progressives as many tries to shift the power balance today.

But the former mayor called it “remarkable” that the city passed Referendum Question C, which strengthens rent-control measures and removes loopholes exploited by landlords seeking to evict tenants in favor of short-term rental conversions. Strimling added that Portland “now has some of the strongest tenant protections on the eastern seaboard.”

“Our city is well prepared to make sure tenants have the rights they need as the housing crisis gets invariably worse,” he said.

Question D’s failure was a harder pill to swallow, Strimling said. That item would have raised the minimum wage to $18 per hour as well as eliminated the subminimum wage for tipped workers. The measure failed by a 60-40 margin, while a similar measure to eliminate the tip credit (without universal minimum wage stipulations) passed in Washington D.C. by a 74-26 margin. 

Strimling pondered whether the kind of opposition spending that happened in Portland was smaller in D.C., which could explain its success there. According to him, the opposition leveraged workers’ fears of retaliation from employers, which convinced “workers to speak out against their own best interests.”

“They were better at it than we were,” he said. “Kudos to them for using their leverage to their advantage.”

Going forward, supporters of these proposals will be looking to the Council to see what they do and hopefully bring elements of Question D to committee-level discussions and “get workers the wages they deserve,” Strimling said.

Strimling, who lost to Snyder in 2019, said he has “no plans” to run for a vacant mayor position in 2023. 

“The current system is not representative,” he said. “But if the Council and mayor step up and drive policy and not be a reactive body, maybe this system can work. The jury is out that the current system is not working in solving the crisis we’re all facing in the city. I think we’ll see over the next few years.”

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