Portland City Councilor Mark Dion won 51.5 percent of the vote, compared with 48.5 percent for Councilor Andrew Zarro, after a ranked-choice runoff for the office of mayor.
Campaign manager Cheryl Leeman hugs Mayor-elect Mark Dion as the results of Tuesday's election were announced at Portland City Hall on Wednesday morning. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Portland City Councilor Mark Dion narrowly held off a progressive colleague to become the city’s fourth mayor since the position became a full-time elected office in 2011.

Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff and state lawmaker who ran for governor in 2018, clinched the mayor’s seat after a ranked-choice voting count at City Hall on Wednesday. He held a commanding lead in the first round of voting during Tuesday’s election.

The mayor-elect won 51.5 percent of votes, compared with 48.5 percent for Councilor Andrew Zarro, a progressive who was the runner-up after outpolling Councilor Pious Ali, former Councilor Justin Costa and newcomer Dylan Pugh. The latter three were eliminated from the race. Voters who picked them first had later-round choices reallocated to Dion or Zarro.

While Dion was a liberal Democrat at the state level, he stood out as the most conservative hopeful in Maine’s largest city and a liberal bastion. He was the only candidate to oppose raising the hourly minimum wage past the $15 it is set to rise to next year and emphasized public safety more than anyone when discussing the homelessness crisis.

He owes his seat to the more suburban areas of the city, winning a commanding 57 percent of in-person votes in the ward that includes his neighborhood of North Deering along the Falmouth line. Zarro and Ali won the more progressive wards in the city’s core, then the runner-up benefited from a disproportionate share of Ali’s first-round voters.

But it was not enough to edge out Dion, a 68-year-old lawyer who carried a 13-point lead on Zarro going into the ranked-choice count. He will now try to cement a mayoral position that has failed to become a steady part of the city’s civic life over the past decade. 

After one term, the first elected mayor, Michael Brennan, was beaten by the second, Ethan Strimling. Then Strimling was ousted in 2019 by Kate Snyder, who declined to run for a second term as mayor after working through the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the mayor’s position comes with a salary in the low six figures, the mayor has only limited authority with a main job description of merely articulating city goals. Nearly two-thirds of Portland voters rejected charter changes last year that would have allowed the mayor to nominate the city manager, pick department heads and veto ordinances.

Zarro, who represents a district in East Deering and the Back Cove area, built his campaign around an ambitious housing plan calling for 12,000 new units in 10 years with stronger tenant protections and a racial equity effort. 

Dion retorted that Zarro’s plans were unrealistic, saying Portland needs more housing but that the characters of neighborhoods should be preserved. His housing plan revolved around stopping interventions in the market and building low-income units.

While Dion’s election was a setback for the city’s most liberal wing, the more progressive candidates won the three City Council races on Tuesday’s ballot, including incumbent April Fournier and newcomer Kate Sykes, an activist who has worked with the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and will replace Dion.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...