Why Michael Brennan is the Paul LePage of the Portland mayoral race

Three candidates for Portland's mayor's seat (from left) Tom MacMillan, Ethan Strimling and Michael Brennan, spar in Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine earlier this month. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Three candidates for Portland’s mayor’s seat (from left) Tom MacMillan, Ethan Strimling and Michael Brennan, spar in Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine earlier this month. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

It’s hard to find two office holders less alike in terms of political ideologies than Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.

And yet, with two weeks to go in the city’s mayoral race, the incumbent finds himself playing a strangely similar role as his political rival in the Blaine House.

Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a Portland Community Chamber of Commerce event. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a Portland Community Chamber of Commerce event. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Like LePage, Brennan is running as the candidate who puts forth bold initiatives and follows through, even if he ruffles feathers in the legislative body — which in Portland, is the City Council — to do it.

Brennan’s most dangerous challenger is fellow former state Sen. Ethan Strimling, who finished as the runner-up when Brennan was elected in 2011, but seems to be polling with a notable lead this time around.

Strimling’s campaign is, to some degree, following the script of Mike Michaud, the Democratic congressman who challenged LePage last fall. Strimling is running as the uniter or peacemaker in the face of what he’s characterizing as a divisive incumbent.

And both candidates can hope for similar results as the 2014 gubernatorial election, in their own ways.

Brennan hopes to win the election by running on his record, as LePage did. Strimling might point out that, while LePage was re-elected statewide, Michaud earned 71 percent of the votes in Portland — the only place that matters in this particular race.

Brennan’s record and the voters

Brennan has been in office for almost four years, and most of the things he said he would do, he did. For example:

He was in office while Portland continued to pile up superlatives as one of the best places in America to live, saw the unemployment rate drop to around 3 percent and experienced a revitalization of commercial shipping.

Yet Brennan is now playing catch-up in the final two weeks of his campaign for re-election.

Why is that?

There are a few reasons why Brennan has struggled to capitalize on his resume.

State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta

State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

One may be that many Portlanders still don’t see connections between most of those initiatives and their personal lives. It’s nice that more school cafeterias are serving locally grown produce, for instance, but that can be a very distant accomplishment to the thousands of local voters who aren’t farmers or parents.

Also, there’s the issue of approach.

Not unlike how LePage has clashed with some fellow Republicans in the Legislature, like Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, Brennan appears to have alienated city councilors and school board members in Portland by pursuing big proposals without first seeking their buy-in.

That approach of carrying everyone across the finish line has gotten the job done in most cases, but has ignited or reignited rivalries with fellow Portland officer holders.

Half of the City Council and seven out of the nine Portland Board of Public Education members lined up to say so — and to full-throatedly endorse Strimling — soon after the challenger entered the race in August.

‘Work together’

Today, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce joined the chorus of local individuals and organizations endorsing Strimling in recent weeks.

The chamber’s remarks in announcing the choice reiterated what has been Strimling’s overarching campaign pitch — and by extension, the nagging criticism of Brennan’s leadership style.

“Chamber directors understand that Portland needs a new approach from its mayor. Ethan will provide our community with the opportunity to be heard, to work together, and to find solutions to the city’s challenges that have eluded us recently,” Chamber CEO Chris Hall said in a statement.

Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Hall (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Hall (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

“We may not always agree with Mayor Strimling, but we expect we will always be able to work together on housing, education and growth priorities with the entire community,” he continued. “It’s time for Portland to come together — that’s why we have endorsed Ethan today.”

You can find sentiment like this coming from nearly all of Strimling’s endorsers: We want a mayor who will listen to us and consider our input.

Brennan might argue he’s tried to be that mayor — he very publicly toured local businesses to help gather input on how best to grease the skids for economic growth, for instance — but the individuals and groups best positioned to gauge his success on that front are saying those efforts have fallen flat and they want someone else to try.

For almost every one of Brennan’s accomplishments is a local group counteracting it by calling for him to be replaced.

The mayor helped find funding for the Hall school and formed an education coalition? Yeah, but seven school board members want Strimling.

The mayor streamlined business permitting and formed an economic development group? Yeah, but the chamber wants Strimling.

The mayor fought for a higher citywide minimum wage? Yeah, but at least six of the local labor unions want Strimling.

Many of the highest profile people and organizations in the city are urging voters to support Strimling, saying it’s not just about what you do, but how you do it.

Strimling’s campaign can point to the regular departure of city department heads and the frequency with which Portland has landed in court over the last four years as symptoms of a dysfunction in the mayor’s office.

Brennan’s campaign can argue that citywide debates and controversies can be found throughout Portland’s history, but what distinguishes the current mayor’s tenure are the relative successes of the city on the statewide or even national stage despite them.

The question of an elected mayor

This brings us all the way back to the 2010 debate about whether or not to have a publicly elected mayor in the city of Portland.

That year, voters approved a series of charter changes re-establishing the publicly elected mayor position after nearly nine decades — since 1923, the title of “mayor” was held by whomever the City Council chose to serve as its chairman in any given year.

As the new position was legally bestowed with very limited powers (the elected mayor can set council agendas and veto the municipal budget, but that’s about it), most pundits at the time argued the mayor could become whatever the winning candidate wanted it to be.

He or she could settle back into the role of a more passive council chairman or could use the only real tool he or she had to enact greater changes citywide — the so-called bully pulpit.

The mayor could claim to have been given a mandate by the voters to stand above the legislative body, represent the voters’ interests and advance a new vision and new policies. Or the mayor could continue to consider him- or herself a legislative equal and speak only as a representative for the larger council.

The former approach would represent a sea change in Portland’s power dynamics, while the latter approach would largely maintain the traditional relationships around City Hall.

In 2011, candidate Brennan touted the importance of bringing a collaborative approach to the position and working alongside his fellow councilors and other city leaders to bring about positive results. But he ultimately led from so far in front that it rubbed many of those stakeholders the wrong way.

In 2011, candidate Strimling repeatedly argued Portland needed a “CEO-type” and that he was it. Four years later, he’s saying that approach hasn’t worked, and that he’s willing to be the open-door collaborator Portland now needs to mend fences and get everyone pulling in the same direction.

In some ways, a vote for Brennan this year is a vote for the candidate Strimling advocated for in 2011, while a vote for Strimling this year is a vote for the approach Brennan called for the last time around.

Green Party candidate Tom MacMillan, who didn’t run in 2011, is offering himself as a “none of the above” choice who represents a more distinct leftwing alternative to the two Democratic Party frontrunners, uniquely supporting a $15-per-hour minimum wage, among other stances.

What do Portland voters want out of their mayor in 2015? We’ll find out in two weeks.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.