Eight candidates for three vacant city council seats in Portland. [Alphabetical L to R, top then bottom: Travis Curran, Jon Hinck, Brandon Mazer, Sarah Michniewicz, Victoria Pelletier, Roberto Rodriguez, Stuart Tisdale, Jr. and Anna Trevorrow.] Credit: BDN composite photo

PORTLAND, Maine — With three council seats up for grabs in next week’s election and a city manager soon to come, Portland’s government could soon look a lot different. At least one candidate running in each of the three races is more progressive than the existing councilor they aim to replace.

Last year’s national civil rights awakening, sparked by police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, was well represented in Portland. Anti-racist activists and organizers took to the streets at least half a dozen times in the summer of 2020, coalescing into several racial justice organizations. They called for racial justice reforms in Portland schools — which responded by removing school resource officers and passing an historic equity-focused budget — and within City Hall, which appointed a Racial Equity Steering Committee.

Most candidates picked up on the work of that committee, which called for tighter police oversight and racial equity assessment training among other recommendations in April. Here’s what else they have to say on the issue.

District 2 (2 candidates)

Both candidates in Portland’s District 2, which covers the West End, Oakdale, Parkside and St. John Valley neighborhoods, agree that budgets and public policy decisions should be guided by commitments to equity.

Jon Hinck, a 67-year-old lawyer, said that every level of government “should continually respond to the fact of institutional and systemic racism,” which he recognizes impacts education, health care, housing, food systems, transportation and law enforcement.

Hinck also wants to close racial gaps in education outcomes, housing and homeownership. Policing could use considerable reform, he said.

“We need law enforcement officers … who understand implicit bias and instinctively apply de-escalation techniques,” Hinck said, adding that city governments could more often deploy civilian professionals as first responders rather than police officers, whose presence implies a threat of lethal force and coercion.

Pelletier is immersed in this issue. The 33-year-old works in racial equity and economic management for the Greater Portland Council of Governments; is an advisor for the Maine Community Foundation focusing on Black, Indigenous and other communities of color; sits on the Board of Directors for In Her Presence, an immigrant skill-building and empowerment organization; and works with Maine Black Community Development.

“While my work in local government and community advocacy make me a very qualified candidate, my lived experience is being a young, low-income, Black Portlander who rents in the Parkside neighborhood,” Pelletier said.

To her, the equity push should go beyond the late trend of statements of solidarity issued on social media by businesses and nonprofits.

With a strong planning background, Pelletier backs up her talk with data, which she believes governments should use to invest in marginalized and chronically under-resourced groups. Local governments should also amplify those “who are rarely invited to decision-making tables.”

“Keeping the status quo when our city continues to diversify is to keep outdated ideologies about how our city should be run,” she said.

District 1 (2 candidates)

The District 1 race, which covers parts of Bayside, Munjoy Hill, the Old Port and the islands, is split between Sarah Michniewicz, a 50-year-old seamstress and president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, and Anna Trevorrow, a 39-year-old paralegal.  

Michniewicz spoke in broad terms about the equity movement, acknowledging that there is “work to be done to ensure our systems and policies support our goals” and deferring to the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for Portland to “be a state and national leader in achieving a more equitable city.” She cited the Racial Equity Steering Committee’s recommendations but wanted “more information on what our actual benchmarks are and how success will be measured.”

Michniewicz also cautioned that “spending on equity doesn’t necessarily translate into expected results,” citing a view shared by a politically moderate city councilor who works for the Chamber of Commerce that persistent racial “achievement gaps” in Portland schools during the pandemic suggests the school budget is too high.

As an eight-year veteran of the school board, Trevorrow is familiar with the push for racial equity. She cited the board’s professional development in anti-racism, including “learning how internal bias affects the policy decisions we make as elected officials,” and suggested the council could undergo similar training.

“Often we may believe we are simply responding to our constituents, not realizing that we are actually responding to a subset of our constituents who are savvy and know how to navigate the system,” Trevorrow said, adding that it could lead to upholding policies that benefit those with outsized privilege. She also supported the recommendations of the equity task force.

At-large race (4 candidates)

Travis Curran, a 35-year-old retail manager at Maine Craft Distilling and the son of an English-as-a-new-language teacher in Lewiston, called for “fair representation in City Hall” for Portland’s growing immigrant community, and applauded the Racial Equity Steering Committee’s push for a police oversight board.

“We should respond by listening to groups like Black P.O.W.E.R. and the communities that are impacted by the votes we make in City Hall,” Curran said, referencing the group that evolved from Portland’s Black Lives Matter movement which has called for mandatory diversity and harm reduction training for city employees and restricting the police use of so-called “less-lethal” force on protesters, like tasers and rubber bullets.

Mazer echoed that the council should apply recommendations from the Racial Equity Steering Committee, particularly revamping the police oversight committee, mandating racial equity training and department assessments and implementing an alternative crisis response model.

“The Black Lives Matter movement brought to the forefront the systemic racism that’s been taking place in our society for years and has gone unrecognized,” Mazer said.

In addition to supporting the committee’s recommendations, Roberto Rodriguez uses “a racial and social justice lens” to inform his positions on housing, climate change, transportation and education. City governments should question their policies whenever Black, Indigenous, and people of color are negatively impacted in the data.

“To me, when we talk about systemic inequities and systemic racism, I like to look at it from the position of outcomes,” he said. “If they’re inequitable, we need to start from the beginning.”

Rodriguez added that recent vacancies by the city manager and chief of police make “great opportunities” to find leaders aligned with the city’s vision.  

“Hopefully we can find someone who can make a long-term commitment, not just using us as a stepping stone in their career,” Rodriguez said.

Stuart Tisdale, Jr., a 68-year-old retired teacher of history and government at Cheverus High School, grew up in the Civil Rights era. He said it has taken him a while to adapt to the term “structural racism” that focuses on the disparate impacts of policies rather than individual attitudes.

“Racism will always mean to me a bad heart rather than a facially race-neutral policy with disparate impacts,” he said.

But he’s come around.

“But no question, if a policy works to disadvantage [Black, Indigenous and people of color], then it should be changed to eliminate the disparate impact regardless of the lack of evil intentions,” Tisdale said.

Work can be done here, he says. The council should respond to the civil rights movement’s cries of systemic racism sympathetically, and by giving policymakers the benefit of the doubt.

“The policy or practice has disparate impacts that were unintended,” he said. “No one is accusing anyone of [having] an evil heart.”