On November 3, voters in Portland, Maine delivered a stinging rebuke to Mayor Kate Snyder and all but one city councilor by voting overwhelmingly to back four out of five referenda placed on the ballot by People First Portland (PFP). Portlanders supported raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour (62.4 percent), mandating Green New Deal building codes (59.5 percent), banning police use of facial recognition software (65.6 percent), and establishing rent control and tenant protections (58.3 percent).
A measure restricting short-term rentals (which take much-needed housing stock off the market for local residents) lost so narrowly that a recount is underway (50.3 to 49.7 percent). The minimum wage referendum includes a time-and-a-half hazard pay provision that will immediately raise essential workers’ pay to $18 an hour, making it the highest minimum wage in the United States.
All this despite the Chamber of Commerce, well-heeled developers, and the corporate headquarters of Airbnb spending $1,000,000 (nearly all of it in the final month) to defeat the measures. PFP, for its part, raised approximately $30,000 and relied on an all-volunteer effort spearheaded by members from the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and coalition partners including the Southern Maine Labor Council (along with a half-dozen union locals), Black P.O.W.E.R. (formerly Black Lives Matter Portland), the Southern Maine Workers Center, Fair Rent Portland, Our Revolution Maine, the Portland Green Party, and Progressive Portland.
“People voted to build a more equitable city where people are cared for,” says PFP organizer Ana Lagunez. “We want a community that supports everyone, a more just community, one that points to possibility, not profit.”
Mayor Snyder and the majority of city councilors campaigned against PFP by warning that, should the referenda pass, they could not be altered by the city council for five years. They warned the referenda would override the city council’s authority and “subvert the open public process.” This claim was always patently ridiculous, but it may have helped propel PFP to victory as voters sought an end run around the council’s failure to act against the rapid pace of gentrification in the city.
“We won because people were sick of vague policy positions, they wanted to vote on things that make a material difference in our lives,” explains Em Burnett another PFP volunteer. “When the working class votes, when young people vote, we can win. The city council is not connected to the reality of people who are hurting in Portland.”
Incredibly, Mayor Snyder and the majority of the city council are now attempting to sabotage the election results. On the advice of counsel, the city council is claiming that the time-and-a-half hazard pay provision — that was clearly spelled out in the minimum wage referendum and was the target of hundreds of thousands of dollars of negative campaigning — should not be implemented until January 2022, instead of December 3, 2020 as the referendum calls for. Faced with the clear will of the majority of voters, Snyder summed up her hesitation to raise essential workers’ pay by commenting, “There’s a lot of interpretation that happens.”
It is exactly this sort of doublespeak that has opened up a gap between the council (almost all liberal Democrats) and leftist grassroots organizers. “The campaign shows that this is what people in Portland want,” notes Howa Mohamed, a member of the local DSA and Black P.O.W.E.R. “Their actions show why there is a lack of trust in the city council’s ability to reflect how the people feel.”
All this follows a long summer of Black Lives Matter protests after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the attempted murder of Jacob Blake, in which the city council attempted to walk a thin line between decrying racist violence and expressing their support for local police.
The breech widened in June when the city closed several homeless shelters and food distribution centers during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting organizers to set up a weeks-long encampment on the steps of city hall. And even as they work to postpone the hazard pay provision, the council is considering ways to delay the effects of the remaining referenda.
Whether or not they succeed, it is clear that the Left and working-class voters are beginning to make their presence felt in a small city long dominated by developers, landlords, and the Chamber of Commerce.
“This has been a long time coming,” notes Grayson Lookner, a former Bernie Sanders field organizer and Maine DSA member who was just elected to the state legislature for Portland’s District 37. “The city council dragged its feet and along comes DSA and says, ‘we can do this.’ The Democratic Party likes to say that it’s a party of small business owners and workers, of landlords and tenants. But they always seem to side against workers and tenants.”
It’s too early to tell if the council can be pushed to implement the PFP referendum, but organizers are in no mood to back down. On November 14, several dozen took part in an outdoor, socially distanced PFP organizing meeting devoted to implementation, outreach, and next steps. One of those steps includes June 2021 elections to a city charter commission that voters approved last July. The commission will have the authority to review election procedures, taxation, and the authority of the unelected city manager.
DSA, Black P.O.W.E.R., and other labor and community organizations see the June elections as a means to change the city’s political structures, structures actually rooted in the 1920s. Eliminating the city manager position and replacing it with democratic structures accountable to the people is one of Black P.O.W.E.R.’s main demands.
The June election will be a challenge as it will likely have a much lower turnout and the Chamber of Commerce and their allies will spend freely to stack the charter commission with business and police-friendly candidates. However, the viability of socialist and working-class candidates is no longer in doubt in Portland.
Although coming up short, DSA members Anthony Emerson earned 47.5 percent of the vote for school board and Kate Sykes received 29.1 percent of the first-round vote in a four-way race, ending up in second place in the Ranked Choice Voting election with 43 percent in the instant runoff, while DSA-endorsed candidate April Fournier won her at-large city council race.
Maine is in for a dark and difficult winter as COVID-19 surges, cases have exploded from thirty-five per day in mid-October to over 170 per day this week with no end in sight. Massive state, municipal, and school budget cuts are being prepared for the spring by elected officials from York to Fort Kent, while tens of thousands of Mainers face impossible choices between heating their homes and putting food on the table.
Nothing will be easy in the coming months and successes in Portland do not easily translate to the rest of the state. But they are a start.