A voter enters the polls on Portland's Munjoy Hill on Tuesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Progressives in Maine’s biggest city were knocked back on Tuesday when voters defeated questions on the minimum wage, a stronger mayor and short-term rental rules.

It came after a bruising campaign on a slate of 13 questions stretching from overhauling Portland’s governance structure to a buzzy minimum wage item that drew endorsements from Hillary Clinton, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and actress Jane Fonda, and adding an acknowledgement to municipal law saying the city sits on ancestral tribal land.

On Tuesday, 61.1 percent of voters rejected the minimum wage question, 64.9 percent voted down the question increasing the power of the elected mayor, 55.8 percent opposed a question banning corporate and absentee operation of short-term rentals and 55.4 percent rejected a bid to lower the amount of short-term rentals.

Some smaller questions passed, including ones on the land acknowledgement, campaign finance, ranked-choice voting and strengthening protections for renters.

The questions were years in the making. Portland switched to a full-time, elected mayor in 2011, but the position lacks much authority, with the council-appointed city manager running day-to-day operations. Before being ousted in 2019, former Mayor Ethan Strimling warred with city staff and prompted a citywide conversation about who should effectively run things.

It set off a run of success for progressives, who passed a referendum slate in 2020 that will raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024. Then, they swept a Charter Commission in June 2021 and took over the City Council last November.

But with that new power has come an uptick in political tensions and infighting among those in the Democratic Party. Mayor Kate Snyder, who opposed the shift to a strong mayor, called the city “polarized” and “divided” in her state of the city speech last month.

Supporters of the minimum wage hike, led by the Democratic Socialists of America’s Maine chapter, argued that vast changes were necessary in a city where the spiking cost of living is driving people away. Even as the Portland area has seen substantial growth during the pandemic, the city actually lost population from 2020 to 2021, according to census data.

But they stacked a group of far-reaching ballot questions atop one another. The minimum wage hike would have raised Portland’s hourly minimum to $18 by 2025 while phasing out a tipped wage, something opposed by many restaurants and their workers.

It made it easier for opponents — spanning establishment Democrats and business interests — to band together against all of the questions. A group called “Enough is Enough” and another aligned with it raised $1.1 million for the campaign, according to the Portland Press Herald. That included $280,000 from Uber and the $240,000 from DoorDash.

They found an audience in an older group of Portland voters who tended to be wealthier homeowners. They saw too much change too quickly, economically and politically, as spelling potential ruin for their city with the wage hike potentially forcing business closures.

At the Reiche Elementary School polling place on Tuesday, 74-year-old Talbot Goodyear, who backed Gov. Janet Mills, also called himself a strong supporter of the campaign against the initiatives. He compared the frequent referendums in the city to a “mob-ocracy.”

He thinks the current city governance structure is good and has worked, and the effort to “upend it” would move Portland in the “dangerously, dangerously wrong way.”

BDN writer Callie Ferguson contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...