PORTLAND, Maine — Challenger Ethan Strimling became Portland’s second popularly elected mayor since 1923 on Tuesday night, ousting incumbent Michael Brennan in a three-way competition that also included Green Party candidate Tom MacMillan.

Portland uses ranked-choice voting in its mayoral elections, meaning voters could mark their first, second and third choices in the race. If no candidate claimed 51 percent of the first-choice votes, the third-place candidate would be eliminated and his second-choice votes would have been reallocated among the remaining two candidates.

But Strimling rendered that extra step unnecessary Tuesday, jumping out to an early lead and cruising to a convincing victory. Brennan reportedly conceded the race shortly before 10 p.m.

Strimling’s campaign message of inclusiveness resonated in a city where several issues have deeply divided the community in recent years, including a proposed sale of Congress Square Park to private hotel developers a year ago, and a referendum this year seeking to slow the buildup of the old industrial Portland Co.y complex at the base of Munjoy Hill.

Strimling, the longtime head of education nonprofit LearningWorks, was also a familiar face to voters, who have watched him as a regular political analyst on local television news programs for years.

Strimling was the runner-up in 2011, when Brennan bested a field of 14 other candidates to become Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in nearly nine decades. But this time around, polls showed Strimling as the favorite even before he officially entered the race in August, and he built on that lead by announcing a string of high-profile endorsements throughout the campaign season.

Perhaps most damaging to Brennan was a news conference held by four city councilors and seven school board members in August announcing they had lost faith in the incumbent’s leadership ability and were backing Strimling for mayor.

Strimling pointed to his broad base of supporters and the near constant turnover of department heads at City Hall during Brennan’s tenure to convince voters a better communicator was necessary in the mayor’s office.

“We had the Chamber of Commerce and labor unions at the same table,” Strimling said of his campaign Tuesday. “We had [former U.S. Rep.] Tom Allen, a Democrat, and [former longtime city councilor] Cheryl Leeman, a Republican, on the same side. We had teachers and school board members at the same table. We had city councilors and firefighters at the same table. That’s a governing coalition. That’s the kind of coalition that makes government work.”

The role of underdog was tough to swallow for Brennan, who maintained high favorability ratings even in polls that found him trailing, and who accomplished many of the policy objectives he set out to pursue in his four-year term as mayor.

Perhaps Brennan’s signature achievement was the passage of a citywide minimum wage higher than the statewide amount, but even that accomplishment was bittersweet, as progressive activists blasted the effort as not going far enough.

In addition to his mayoral campaign, the Green Party’s MacMillan spearheaded a referendum drive aimed at establishing a $15 per hour minimum wage, topping Brennan’s $10.10 set to take effect in January.

“It’s been a challenge,” Brennan said Tuesday. “It’s been a race like I’ve never been in before. It hasn’t been about policies and objectives, but rather about personalities and endorsements. … I’d hoped to have a conversation about my record and what I’ve been able to accomplish in office, but I really haven’t been able to do that with so much focus on personalities and endorsements.”

Strimling on Tuesday said as mayor he will pursue goals of powering at least 25 percent of all Portland businesses and homes with solar energy and permitting at least 2,000 new units of housing over the next five years, among other initiatives.

He said the affordability of the city emerged as a top concern among voters he spoke with during the course of his campaign.

“It’s about affordability,” Strimling said. “This city is just squeezing out the middle class.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.