The disagreement over the referendums is being spurred by disagreements within the Democratic party, rather than partisan politics.
Signs supporting and opposing Portland ballot questions appear next to each other on the Eastern Promenade, which rings around the Munjoy Hill neighborhood. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — In the most conservative neighborhood of this liberal bastion, Alex Kappelman has two signs on his lawn: one for Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and another in opposition to several referendums pushed by a rising group of progressives.

Unlike the rest of Maine, Portland’s election is largely marked by fighting among Democrats rather than between the major parties on most of the local ballot’s 13 referendums, including those giving the mayor more power, raising the minimum wage and limiting short-term rentals.

Tensions have grown so high that the outgoing Mayor Kate Snyder used Monday’s annual state of the city address to say that Portland was “polarized” and “divided.” Signs for and against the referendums litter the city, pitting older and wealthier homeowners against a more progressive urban population dominated by renters.

“There’s deep and persistent messaging that one camp or side of an issue is good and one is bad,” Snyder said, calling for calm.

Snyder was mirroring opponents’ concerns about the major referendums, which they say will increase division in the city. Wes Pelletier, chair of the referendum campaign led by the Democratic Socialists of America’s local chapter, said the mayor was confusing urgency with polarization and called it “a political position.”

He argued the changes would decrease polarization by giving voters more say in city policy rather than the unelected city manager holding the most power, and he is optimistic after knocking on many doors of residents dealing with rising rents and stagnant wages.

“It would give voters someone to go to and either elect or kick out of office if our needs aren’t being met,” Pelletier said. “We don’t have that right now.”

The Portland campaign is loud in part because of the big money being raised by opponents. Enough Is Enough, the chief group opposing the 13 referendums on the ballot, raised $439,000 through Sept. 30, according to the Portland Press Herald. It included $50,000 each from Uber and DoorDash, which would be affected by a minimum wage provision that applies to independent contractors.

Proponents of the slate have wondered why that group is opposing every ballot question, including a charter amendment acknowledging the city sits on historic tribal land. But progressives have made missteps, including strict limits on cruise ships opposed by longshoremen. The DSA-led campaign is now urging a no vote on its own question.

Kappelman, 41, said he doesn’t disagree with some of the referendums on the ballot, but disagrees with the referendum process, adding it has put “a lot of undue stress” on the city.

As a real estate agent and landlord, he vehemently opposes Question C, which requires 90-day notices for lease terminations and rent increases and discourages no-cause evictions, which he said would end up being bad for renters and landlords.

“It’s driving down property value and it’s causing landlords to increase rent unnecessarily,” Kappelman said. 

Many voters were far more keen to talk about the governor’s race than the referendums, which they saw as a divisive issue where their words could have consequences. A North Deering voter with a sign against the referendums declined to talk because former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, a leader of the referendum effort, co-writes an opinion column for the Bangor Daily News.

Others said they were still deciding. One woman in Portland’s ultra-liberal Munjoy Hill neighborhood said she would spend time reading each question at the ballot box. She expects it will take her a significant amount of time, but said she was leaning against the minimum wage and strong-mayor referendums.

“There’s so much going on with politics these days, and it’s all so muddy and complicated,” said the woman, who only identified as Liz because she feared repercussions. “I’ll have to look into it.”