Progressives in Portland have been on a winning streak since 2020, when five out of six referendums on the city ballot passed on issues including the minimum wage and rent control. That wing got control of the City Council in 2021.
It was a warm-up for what they are trying to do now.
There are 14 questions on this year’s ballot, with the biggest changes coming from a charter commission looking to strengthen the mayor, allowing them to present the budget, veto measures, manage a city administrator and nominate heads of city departments. Other questions, including one phasing in an $18 minimum wage and phasing out the tip credit, are on the ballot as well.
All of the questions are the culmination of a years-long war between a more business-friendly group of Democrats in the city and progressives. It has led some figures once seen as staunch liberals to come out against them, with former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen of Maine’s 1st District telling reporters he feared an “attempted revolution” in city government.
It makes for an uncertain political future in the city. It was not long ago that progressives were losing big battles. Mayor Kate Snyder ousted Ethan Strimling in the 2019 election after Strimling refashioned himself from a consensus candidate in his first race to a liberal battler in the second. He has remained one of the city’s most visible figures since his loss.
Since the scope of her job may be changing, Snyder has said she will not run for reelection in 2023. The Portland Press Herald found little smoke this month in the coming battle to replace her, with many city politicians saying they want to know what the job is before they go for it.
It is worth thinking about what this job would look like on the statewide stage. Mayors do not emerge often there, particularly because of a general New England tradition instilling them with little power. The most famous former mayor is former Gov. Paul LePage, the Republican elected out of Waterville who stormed a primary based on Tea Party support in 2010. His job was a strong one with rare partisan affiliations plus veto power.
A strong, popularly elected mayor in Maine’s most liberal city would immediately rise to one of the highest-profile positions in a state with relatively few straightforward stepping-stone offices. Many Mainers do not know who legislative leaders are. Lawmakers elect the attorney general and secretary of state, dampening their profiles outside of Augusta. The Portland mayor would get significant attention.
The shift also comes as Maine’s congressional districts are polarizing even further, with southern Maine getting significantly more Democratic and the 2nd Congressional District continuing along a conservative trend line.
Any Portland mayor would be looked at as a potentially strong challenger in any 1st District congressional primary down the road. The right kind could be statewide timber after an era in which 2nd District Democrats have had more success.