Ethan Strimling, who just earlier in the day was sworn in as just the second publicly elected mayor in Portland since 1923, set the tone for his four-year term Monday night in his inaugural address.
Just more than a month ago, Strimling upended incumbent mayor Michael Brennan in a rematch of the top two finishers in the historic 2011 race. Unlike in the 15-candidate battle royal of four years ago, however, Strimling claimed victory in the 2015 affair.
On Monday night, the Rev. Kenneth Lewis evoked the memory of the late Rev. Martin Luther King’s famed 1963 “I have a dream” speech and the city’s Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus sang songs of family and togetherness to introduce Strimling to the lectern, amplifying his campaign messages of bringing Portlanders together and seeking a common vision.
Strimling spoke to a crowd of nearly 200 people for approximately 15 minutes, cutting his remarks much shorter than his predecessor.
Brennan spoke for about 40 minutes in 2011, and used that time almost like a State of the City type address, proposing specific initiatives, like development of a foreign language immersion program in Portland schools and a collaborative “research triangle” of local labs and universities.
On Monday night, Strimling opted not to get that specific, keeping with broader themes. But there were still some worthwhile takeaways from the inaugural address that give Portlanders a better idea about who their new mayor is and what to expect over the next four years:
Strimling isn’t as polished as you think he is
Longtime Strimling confidant and former campaign head Corey Hascall was among those to take the lectern before the new mayor. Although her largely tongue-in-cheek “5 things you didn’t know about Ethan” talk didn’t have too many real bombshells, she did paint a picture of a guy who’s more private and less polished than people might think after seeing him talk politics as television pundit for the last several years.
Hascall said that, despite his clean-cut, suited appearance, Strimling’s primary clothing choice is usually “whatever’s on the floor,” and wife Mary Beeaker, who he met years ago as a student at UMaine, can be credited for making sure he’s actually presentable when he leaves the house.
Why does this matter? It doesn’t much, but it does add another layer of humanity to a guy once called “The senator from handsome-town” by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”
Portland leaders often find themselves in an uphill climb when trying to advocate for the city’s interests with power brokers from other parts of the state, and even if Portland’s reputation in faraway corners is unfair, anything that puts grass stains on Strimling’s jeans could make him more relatable outside the city.
Along those same lines, Hascall also talked about Strimling’s work ethic, saying he was known for quietly logging extra days of work on the weekends over his nearly two decades as executive director of the education nonprofit Learning Works, effectively casting the man known to many as a polished TV talker instead as a guy who rolls up his sleeves, gets dirty and toils long hours.
Yes, Strimling will work with LePage
During the campaign, Brennan tried to tie Strimling to Republican Gov. Paul LePage, saying Strimling’s pledge to work with everyone would put him in bed with the governor, whose conservative policies are unpopular in the heavily left-leaning Portland.
Brennan and LePage feuded in recent years over a range of issues, most notably the city’s use of General Assistance aid to help certain immigrants and homeless shelter users. Brennan said the governor’s positions were irreconcilably in opposition to Portland’s, and suggested Strimling would be betraying the city by engaging in talks with the boisterous LePage.
On Monday night, Strimling reiterated that he will indeed be willing to talk to the governor.
“During the campaign, it was suggested that I might even sit down with Gov. LePage,” he said. “You know what? I probably will. But will I agree with Gov. LePage on most things or will he agree with me? Probably not. But that’s the point. There are many competing interests in this city, and there’s no way I or anyone else in this city will agree on every decision that’s ultimately made.”
This puts in stark relief one perceived difference between Strimling and Brennan, his chief rival for the mayor’s chair for the last two election cycles. Strimling casts himself as the peacemaker and listener, Brennan casts himself as the decision maker and doer.
Brennan garnered a reputation as someone who would announce and push ahead with bold initiatives without first seeking buy-in among city councilors and other potential stakeholders, a take-charge approach that rubbed some the wrong way after nearly 90 years in which mayors were just extra council members with little extra political power, implied or otherwise.
(To be fair, the impression of Brennan as going it alone on major initiatives is not entirely based in reality — he assembled committees of stakeholders to discuss his goals of a citywide minimum wage and combating substance abuse in the city, among other issues, and those groups met for months before any concrete proposal was brought before the council for ratification. The reputation nagged, nonetheless.)
Strimling, who campaigned in 2011 as a “CEO type” before changing direction and approached 2015 as the Listener In Chief, is promising to make sure every voice is heard when making big decisions.
Just because Strimling listens to you doesn’t mean you’ll get everything you want
So Portland elected the peacemaker as its new mayor.
Is this the end of controversy in a city where citizens rallied to fight a proposed sale of the publicly owned Congress Square to private hotel developers, or pushed for an ordinance change that would restrict the redevelopment of the historic Portland Company Complex?
Will every diverse group of Portlanders now be totally satisfied with everything that happens in the city?
In fact, if the new mayor’s inaugural address is to be believed, the opposite is probably more likely.
Strimling said he’s been asked how he’d keep his broad base of diverse campaign supporters happy once he took the mayor’s office and real-world problems need to be solved.
“The simple answer is: I won’t. I can’t. No one can,” he said. “I made only one [promise]: I told every single group I met with, ‘You will have a voice at the table. You won’t get everything you want. But neither will the other side.'”
It sounds like Strimling will do his best to avoid the all-or-nothing battles in the courts and in the voting booths that have become common in the city in recent years, but the alternatives may be middle-ground plans in which everyone’s a little disappointed.
Housing and education remain Strimling’s biggest priorities
No, he didn’t rank his priorities. But he paid special attention to the city’s housing crunch and the Portland school system during his address.
He reiterated a campaign plan to permit the construction of at least 2,000 new residential units in the city over the next five years, a step that would loosen up a housing market that’s become increasingly unaffordable, squeezing out middle and lower income residents and undermining the local workforce.
He decried “a vacancy rate nearing zero percent” and a nearly $500 average gap between monthly housing costs and incomes among Portlanders.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the longtime education worker also talked about the importance of rebuilding or replacing aging and deteriorating school facilities, and building a pipeline from the local public school system up through the University of Southern Maine.
“We have to work together with our school board to achieve the best schools in our state, period,” Strimling said.
The new mayor described a strong supply of housing at all price levels and a top notch school district as primary pillars for attracting the population necessary to set Portland up for long-term prosperity.
And while didn’t dismiss the need for other more immediate solutions to problems like drug abuse, he suggested long-term prosperity would be the best defense against many other societal ills plaguing Portland now and waiting at the door in the future.