Since the new position was established in 2011, it has had trouble gaining traction in Maine’s largest city. Less than five months from Election Day, only two people are running to helm the state’s economic center and its only consistent bastion of local progressive policy.
In the heavily Democratic city, the last five years have been marked by electoral and referendum wars between those closer with the business community and activists who favor sweeping changes. Both camps have had victories, and the lines between them have often been blurred.
All along, the job of Portland mayor has been difficult because of political tensions, the times and a lack of formal authority that makes the job more of a figurehead than an executive despite a full-time title and a salary in the low six figures. There also has been a pendulum swing in personalities in the office.
“The idea of the mayor of Portland, Maine, it sounds nice. It looks good,” said City Councilor Andrew Zarro, one of the candidates running for mayor this year. “It is arguably one of the hardest jobs in the state of Maine.”
The mayor’s main job under the city charter is to articulate the city’s goals. They are a member of the City Council, run meetings and can veto budgets. But the council-appointed city manager selects department heads, proposes the budget and runs day-to-day operations.
The scope of the job was the main subject of one of Portland’s recent political battles. Progressives swept a low-turnout 2021 election to select most of the members of a commission to revamp the city charter. Those in that camp also took over the City Council later that year, something that was seen as a positive sign for efforts to strengthen the office of the mayor.
It did not go that way. Among the biggest recommendations from the charter commission was a strong mayor who would nominate the city manager and department heads and could also veto ordinances. The council would have expanded from nine to 12 members. Nearly two-thirds of city voters rejected it in 2022, locking in the current power structure.
That was after business interests led a campaign under the banner “Enough Is Enough” that raised more than $1 million and urged voters to vote no down the ballot, including on key charter recommendations and another list of questions from the Democratic Socialists of America’s Maine chapter, including one that would have sharply raised the minimum wage.
Nearly every living former Portland mayor, spanning eras in which the position was council-appointed and elected, opposed the change. It did not land well with councilors, with four of the five who indicated positions to the Portland Press Herald opposing it.
The idea came from a history of struggles in the position. The first Portland mayor, Michael Brennan, was ousted in 2015 in large part because of a bad relationship with the council. Eleven councilors and school board members plus the local chamber of commerce endorsed his successor, Ethan Strimling, who promised to be the city’s “listener-in-chief.”
He quickly morphed into a progressive movement builder. He warred with then-City Manager Jon Jennings on issues ranging from key policies to access to city staff, losing those old alliances. Snyder, the current mayor and a former school board chair, stayed away from combat with Strimling but proved to be his direct opposite in the race. She promised to be a facilitator and eschewed a specific policy agenda, winning a rout with 61 percent of votes.
She has avoided political problems of the past by mostly winning over the council. But her era has been marked by the frequent referendums and the difficulty of managing the COVID-19 pandemic, the response to racial-justice protests of 2020 and the homelessness crisis driven in part by a wave of asylum seekers coming to the city this year.
Snyder announced last year that she would not seek reelection, saying then that she wanted to make sure voters knew that before she weighed in against the changes to her position. She said in an interview that she’s not running again because she will “be out of steam” this year.
Snyder believes the role of Portland mayor has “a functional job description,” but she urged those looking to succeed her to make sure they understand it and realize that while they are a public face and many will look to them for solutions, the mayor is one of nine councilors.
“All I can say is, it is what it is,” she said. “It has its limits. It has its opportunities.”
The activist crowd in the city increasingly sees the government structure as inert by design in a way that favors established interests. Wes Pelletier, who chaired the Maine DSA’s referendum campaign, sees Snyder as someone with “a vested interest in not doing anything,” councilors as lacking their own agendas and the city staff as inherently conservative.
“There’s a rising contingent that the DSA is very much riding of people that are like, ‘Why the f— isn’t our government doing anything?’” he said.
Even some who generally favor the current structure think the Portland mayor should have more authority. Brennan, now a state representative, said the mayor should be able to present the initial city budget. It would make the mayor more accountable for key policies without severing them from the council, he said.
Only Zarro and political newcomer Dylan Pugh, a web developer, are running for the position now. The next Portland mayor could learn from the last three by blending Brennan’s skill at advocating for the city in Augusta with Strimling’s populism and Snyder’s facilitating ability, said Marpheen Chann, a charter commission member who opposed the governance changes.
He recounted talking with a member of the 2010 charter commission that established the position of mayor as it is, saying the job works but needs “a George Washington” to cement it.
“Tall order, right?” Chann said with a laugh.