Portland City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, left, is retiring after more than 24 years in office. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau is leaving after his second three-year term. Both say politics and polarization are making it harder to govern the city. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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With three incumbent City Councilors all deciding not to seek reelection this fall, a collective 36 years of council experience will be leaving Portland City Hall.

Two of those councilors, Nick Mavodones and Spencer Thibodeau, said they are concerned about the tenor of political discourse in the city, with discussions becoming more polarized in recent years. 

Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray

The council has recently lost a significant amount of experience. Last year, longtime City Councilor Jill Duson did not seek reelection after 20 years of service, and incumbent Councilor Justin Costa was defeated in a reelection bid. This year, besides Mavodones and Thibodeau, Councilor Belinda Ray is also not running again.

(Ray announced in May she would not seek reelection to a third term because she had accepted a new job with the Greater Portland Council of Governments. The Bayside resident, who represents District 1, declined an interview after being injured while mountain biking.)

The departures leave Councilor Pious Ali, who was elected in 2016, as the most experienced member of the council. Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilor Tae Chong are in the second year of their first terms; Councilors Andrew Zarro, April Fournier, and Mark Dion were elected to their first terms last fall.

‘It’s something we need to figure out’ 

Mavodones, 61, is the city’s most experienced councilor, having served 24 years and a total of more than 30 years in public service. He is the operations manager for Casco Bay Lines and said he will step away from the council to spend more time with family, particularly his three young grandchildren.

“I’m just looking to have more personal time and time with those guys,” he said.

Mavodones was elected Portland’s mayor four times by his council colleagues and has routinely served as mayor pro tem when the now-popularly elected mayor has not been present for meetings. He has chaired the Finance Committee and ran unsuccessfully for mayor when the position became popularly elected in 2011.

Mavodones said retirement was something he’d been considering for several years. “I think to some extent it’s been a long time coming,” he said.

He noted he’ll have served 24 1/2 years on the council by the time he’s done in December, so it’s hard to look anywhere in the city and not see something that the council took up during his tenure. From bike paths to new schools, he said there’s a variety of things that have happened to make Portland an exceptional city.

“I think government has been a help to that, not a hindrance,” he said.

Portland City Councilor Nick Mavodones. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Mavodones, however, said he’s concerned about polarization in city politics. While there will always be differing opinions, he said councilors have generally been able to work together.

But in recent years, the discourse has become divisive.

“With some it’s either you’re with us or against us, and I believe we get our best results working through issues that are often complex, and many times coming up with compromises,” he said. “To me, there’s less of that. I don’t know if it’s less in the community or more vocal folks in the community. It’s not unique to Portland, but it’s something we need to figure out.”

He said it’s easy to step aside when there are vocal opinions, but rather than bullying people, it’s important for there to be civility.

“We’ve tried a lot of things over the years, some have worked and some haven’t,” Mavodones said. “I hope things are less polarizing. If people who live in the city get out to vote, that’s the most important thing they can do. At least you participated in the process.”

He said he hopes the council remains careful with the city budget and its impact on residents’ property taxes.

“It’s easy to add things to a budget without really thinking through the ramifications, especially the cumulative effects like the tax rate,” he said.

He also said there is a widening gap in the city where the middle class is disappearing, and it seems now there are more people who are either struggling financially or have no struggles at all.

“We need to be mindful as a city of that impact and make sure we continue to foster development,” Mavodones said. “The taxpayers and homeowners foot a huge portion of the bill.”

He said the council will have to continue to focus on housing issues and the challenges of homelessness. He said there is no simple fix, and solutions will come via compromise.

“One thing I’ve learned over the years, there’s a consistent pattern, no matter what the proposal is in a neighborhood or district, there’s always opposition,” he said. “It’s not that people are opposed to everything or against the development, but at some point, the council has to make a decision and move forward.”

He also urged the elected officials who will succeed him to use their best judgment and be prepared to make the best decisions at the time, and not be swayed by how many people attend council meetings.

While he wouldn’t rule out serving on a board or commission in the future, he said he doesn’t intend to run again for elected office.

“I’m looking forward to being done,” Mavodones said. “It’s been part of my life for so long it’s been a given, but I don’t intend to watch the council meetings.”

‘This city is in for a rude awakening’

Thibodeau, 33, is also finishing his second council term. The 2019 mayoral candidate, who by day is a real estate attorney with the Verrill law firm, announced last week he had decided not to seek a third term, even though he had taken out nomination papers.  

The West End resident represents District 2, and finished second in the 2019 mayoral election behind Mayor Kate Snyder and ahead of incumbent Ethan Strimling.

“In all honesty, I’m normally taking papers on the first day,” Thibodeau said. “If you look back at my two council races and for mayor, I always take them out and always return them back on the first day you can.”

Portland City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

This time around, however, Thibodeau said he waited about three weeks to take out papers because he wasn’t sure. He said he was on a camping trip to Herman Island when he started to reflect on his council tenure and realized he wasn’t so sure he wanted another term.

“Six years is a long time,” said Thibodeau, who recently chaired the Housing and Economic Development Committee and also served as a senior adviser in Maine for the Biden for President campaign. “Three years from now, I’d be 36 at that point. I said I feel like I put my heart and soul into this for six years, and I promised my constituents if I felt like I wasn’t able to do that, I wouldn’t run again.”

At this point, he said, he doesn’t feel he has the time or energy to focus on a campaign or another three-year term and wants to focus more on things in his personal life.

As he prepares to leave the council, Thibodeau said he’s most concerned about the “ideological and theoretical battles” that are not responsive to the needs of constituents, as well as the “nationalization” of local issues.

“As long as those two items are at play, this city is in for a rude awakening,” he said.

Thibodeau noted running for and serving on the council is nonpartisan, so candidates should not be running as Democrats, Republicans, or as members of any other political organizations.

He didn’t specifically identify the Democratic Socialists of America, which has had a role in several recent political outcomes in the city, including supporting candidates who were elected to the Charter Commission. Strimling, the former mayor who had a public falling out with the City Council and City Manager Jon Jennings, is a supporter of various DSA causes and candidates.

“You are responsible for your district, you are hyper-local,” Thibodeau said. “If we allow for these theoretical debates to take the place of the practical, I think the citizens will feel like we’re not getting anything done.”

For that reason, Thibodeau said he hopes whoever replaces him and others on the council will do the local work and address local issues for their constituents.

“We have not had these national arguments until recently,” he said. “And I’m fearful that’s where we’re going.”

Thibodeau said he is proud of the work the council accomplished in his six years, especially the progress made in the city’s overall responsiveness to its residents. When he was elected in 2015, he said, even simple things like email weren’t being used regularly.

“Our ability to respond to the little things was not there,” he said. “… We changed how the city can respond, that’s my bread and butter. (The council’s) responsiveness and say ‘let’s check this out. Let’s see if we can get you some resolution.’”

Thibodeau also said the city’s willingness to accommodate outdoor dining was something he is proud of, and something he was spearheading before the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020. He also said he is proud of the steps the city has taken on climate change.

“I think we are setting Portland up for the next few years and the next 100 years,” Thibodeau said. “I think that will be unbelievably significant for a seaside city.”

He also emphasized this is only “goodbye for now” and didn’t rule out trying to return to the council or running for another office in the future. 

“There are some interesting things going on in the next few years, whether it be races or issues, that I find important that I definitely plan to be a part of,” Thibodeau said. “I haven’t decided if that’s as a candidate or not. But I’ve been humbled by the folks who say ‘you should run for this.’ I’m excited for this, I’ll have some beach time, but I’ll keep people in the loop. I’ve said it before, but I wouldn’t count me out.”