The Rich in Portland, Maine, Are Spending Big Money to Defeat Left Politics

Through running a slate of left-wing candidates and ballot referenda on issues like a $15 minimum wage and rent control, leftists in Portland, Maine, are fighting for the right of working-class people to live in the city. Portland’s wealthiest residents are shelling out huge amounts to try to stop them.

Members of People First Portland, urging voters to vote yes on referenda A–E. (Maine DSA)

How much does an election cost in Portland, Maine? The Chamber of Commerce, real estate developers, and Airbnb’s corporate offices are hoping it’s around $1 million. With just days to go, opponents of five progressive referenda sponsored by People First Portland are pouring money into direct mailers (I’ve received dozens in the last two weeks), Facebook ads, and high-price social media advertising.

The five referenda (A, B, C, D, and E) include raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour (with time and a half for essential workers during emergencies), banning police use of facial recognition software, Green New Deal building policies, rent control and tenant protections, and restricting short-term rentals. Taken as a package, the measures seek to slow gentrification and greenhouse gas emissions, boost workers’ pay, and remove one racist tool from local police forces in the wake of skyrocketing rents, pandemic-induced budget cuts, and long-standing racist treatment of the city’s people of color by the Portland Police Department and city officials.

In sum, People First Portland seeks to defend the right of working-class people to live in Portland.

The all-volunteer campaign has raised $24,955 as of October 27. The largest donors to the campaign are the carpenters’ and laborers’ unions, while the largest employment designation of small donors (who have collectively kicked in some $3,500) is “unemployed.” People First Portland was initiated by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in consultation with local organizations, many of whom are endorsing all five measures, including the Southern Maine Labor Council (along with a half-dozen union locals), Black P.O.W.E.R. (formerly BLM Portland), the Southern Maine Workers Center, Fair Rent Portland, Our Revolution Maine, the Portland Green Party, and Progressive Portland.

Airbnb alone ponied up $124,000, and a single local real-estate developer, Tom Watson, who has a plan before the city council to build a 171-unit apartment complex in Portland, bundled almost $60,000 in anti–People First Portland contributions. And why not? The investment is cheap when you consider that just seventeen of the units Watson proposes must be set aside for median-income renters ($70,630 for a single-person household to $90,810 for a three-person household), while the rest can go for the “market rate” of between $1,350 and $1,900.

Of course, these parties have done their best to cover their tracks and lock in their advantages. Jack O’Brien, a People First Portland volunteer, points out:

Portland likes to imagine itself as a progressive place. But like so many other cities, gentrification has meant that the developers and landlords have taken over the levers of city government. With such strong control over the process of governance, they have to spend this money not just to beat back the specific policy proposals we’ve put forth, but to prevent the residents of the city from thinking that there are other ways policy can happen. What they need to prevent is not just the policies themselves but also the idea that these policies can be publicly debated.

Unfortunately, the bulk of Portland’s elected officials (all Democrats) have not only jumped on the bandwagon but have put their shoulders to the wheel. On October 13, Portland mayor Kate Snyder and seven out of eight city councilors came out against the ballot measures. Only progressive councilman Pious Ali declined to sign the statement.

“When you put up a serious challenge to power, it has a way of clarifying relationships among those in power. Seeing most of our city council side with the Chamber of Commerce has given us a clearer picture of forces arrayed against us,” Maine DSA’s cochair, Aaron Berger, told me.

Members of Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) marching at Portland’s Pride Parade in 2018.

City councilwoman Kim Cook resorted to red-baiting tactics, suggesting in a written statement that People First Portland’s referenda would “subvert the open public process” of policy-making and constitute “an abuse of our citizen initiative process to pass the Democratic Socialists’ agenda without consideration by local elected officials or members of the general public.”

The grandstanding seems like overkill. As Em Burnett, another volunteer with People First Portland, explains:

I was surprised by the Council’s political posturing on this. Regardless of how you feel about the issues, the Council’s actions showed contempt for a direct democratic process, an ignorance of how social justice reforms are passed (usually not through polite conversations), and a coldness to the real suffering of people in this city.

As the fight goes down to the wire on the referenda, DSA is working on another front: not only speaking out and organizing against politicians in office, but trying to replace at least some of them with socialists and community organizers.

DSA has endorsed several local candidates in Maine, including Anthony Emerson (Portland School Board D5), Kate Sykes (Portland City Council D5), April Fournier (Portland City Council At-Large), Nyalat Biliew (Portland School Board At-Large), Pete Bourgelais (State House district 112), and Grayson Lookner (State House district 37) — who will be DSA’s second and third state legislators if they win — as well as Green-independent Lisa Savage in the ranked-choice voting election for US Senate against Democrat Sara Gideon and Republican senator Susan Collins.

Typical of a new generation of socialists, Emerson graduated in 2013 from Portland’s Deering High School and is a grocery store worker today. He says Donald Trump’s election made him seek out radical answers, but Heather Heyer’s murder during the far-right riot in Charlottesville led him to join the movement. “She paid the ultimate price at the hands of white supremacy. I thought the least I could do was join DSA.”

If he wins, his priorities are clear. “I’m most concerned about how the pandemic affects students with disabilities and who need extra support in class. I have Asperger’s, and I wonder how I would have made it through this pandemic. Funding, equity, and racial justice have to be built into decolonizing our curriculum.”

Emerson’s point of view will be particularly important on the school board in the coming year, as the district faces plunging city and state revenues and deep budget cuts.

And although Portland’s liberal mayor may be embarrassed by her allies’ anti-referenda cash dump (“We care very much about transparency, especially with the money coming in to influence local election matters,” she has said), City Hall’s obvious deference to the Chamber of Commerce and their shielding of the police means the fight around the referenda is just one more step in a long battle for economic and social justice in our city.

As Kate Sykes says:

Political campaigning in the US is so broken. It’s completely backward. Billions of dollars are spent crafting slick marketing messages and then cramming them into mailboxes and social media feeds, like political candidates are so many new cars for sale. Being a socialist just means that I never treat voters like they’re sitting in the audience. The people most affected by a problem are the ones most qualified to come up with the solutions.

Win or lose, Sykes’s observation should be our starting point for what comes after November 3.