Phil Harriman (left) and Ethan Strimling, BDN Agree to Disagree bloggers. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

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Phil Harriman, a former town councilor and state senator from Yarmouth, is the founding partner of Lebel & Harriman, a financial services firm. Ethan Strimling, a former mayor and state senator from Portland, is the president of Swing Hard. Turn Left, which promotes progressive policy at the local, state and national levels.

Phil: Did I read in the paper that you and your friends in the Maine Democratic Socialists of America are once again running a slate of referenda in Portland?

Ethan: Yes! This time we have four initiatives. The first will reduce the number of short-term rentals like Airbnb, in order to free up much needed housing. The second will strengthen protections for tenants being evicted through no fault of their own or being gouged by greedy landlords. The third will raise the minimum wage to $18 an hour and abolish subminimum wages. And the final will restrict the number of mega-cruise ships that dump pollution and congestion into our city.

Phil: Your appetite for government intervention in our economy simply cannot be satiated! We’ll analyze the impact of these ideas in future columns, but what’s with all the governing by referendum? Lost your faith in democracy?

Ethan: This is democracy. Just as Maine’s constitution guarantees the right of the people to petition our government through citizen initiatives, Portland’s city charter allows for the same.

Phil: I understand that it is allowed, but is it advisable? As former local and state elected officials, we both know the importance of putting legislation through the checks and balances of our representative government. Public hearings. Feedback. Amendments. All make legislation better and minimize unintended consequences.

Ethan: Sadly, as you and I also know, that process is dominated by lobbyists and monied interests. Subsequently, a lot of important legislation goes nowhere or gets watered down beyond recognition. And, talk about unintended consequences! Let a lobbyist get a hold of your bill, and watch out!

Phil: Sure, but the Legislature can go back and fix whatever may have gone wrong, including overreach by regulators. In Portland, the charter says your proposed changes can’t be changed for five years.

Ethan: That is incorrect. It’s pushed by those who want to protect the status quo. At any time, the city council could have work-shopped the 2020 referenda and passed changes for the voters to approve. In fact, that’s what we’re doing now on a couple of them because landlords have been breaking the rules with very little consequence and tenants are continuing to be squeezed out in this brutal housing market. The mayor and the Portland City Council could have done the same, but they didn’t.

Phil: The mayor and the other eight councilors are the elected leaders. If your vision for the future of Portland was considered by them and voted down, then I could understand going the referendum route. But your group just bypassed them. Why?

Ethan: Because our city is becoming economically unlivable for too many, too fast, and our planet is melting. But your basic premise is incorrect. The council had a vote on a higher minimum wage and a committee held hearings on the same. Nothing passed. Committees have discussed cruise ships and nothing. The Housing and Economic Development Committee held hearings on wages and enforcing rent control, and so far no action.

Phil: Remember, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed king rules. I am concerned that because you have such a deep understanding of how municipal government works, that regular folks are put at a disadvantage. The vast majority of voters do not know enough to present alternatives to compete with you.

Ethan: Also not true. A bunch of Airbnb owners have placed a competing measure on the ballot to block ours, which will simply protect their profit margins. But remember, we had record turnout in 2020, and those passed with an average of over 60 percent of the vote. “Regular folks” aren’t dumb.  

Phil: Those Airbnb owners are not the vast majority, nonetheless your quest to create a more perfect union through referendum is destined to create more turbulent times.

Ethan: If turbulence is what you want to avoid, let’s talk about Paul LePage….