You’d think, considering he once studied theater at the famed Juilliard School, that Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling might not be so tone-deaf.

Yet there he stood Monday evening in the City Council chamber, cloaking himself in the role of the helpless victim. A role that nobody else in the room could even find in their playbill.

It was billed as a council workshop “To Discuss the Assignment and Duties of the City’s Executive Department.”

But in reality, it was an intervention. And the marathon four-hour session, with no fewer than five former Portland mayors looking on in utter bewilderment, failed miserably.

“Enough is enough,” said former Mayor Cheryl Leeman at the entrance to City Hall. Behind her, nodding in agreement, stood a dozen onetime mayors, city councilors and municipal officials – all calling for an end to the penny opera that for months has pitted Strimling against City Manager Jon Jennings, against the current City Council, against anyone who fails to fully appreciate the sheer awesomeness of Hizzoner.

Strimling told the packed chamber that he came to look forward, not backward. But when Jennings later explained in some detail how “I’m being asked to manage an unmanageable situation,” the mayor too shifted hard into reverse.

At his side: A manila folder brimming with perceived slights by a city manager and a City Hall senior staff fed up with the mayor’s often aggressive, always insatiable ego.

Strimling’s drip-drip list of petty grievances felt like the opening round of a divorce mediation – huge injustices in the eyes of the complainant, not so much for the third-party observers.

Coming up for air at one point, he said, “As I said earlier, these are not all the examples.” Then a dramatic pause, followed by, “I’ll give you a few more …”

Please, Mr. Mayor, don’t.

Truth be told, Strimling’s 20-month tenure as Portland’s second popularly elected mayor in recent times has been, in many ways, a classic tragedy.

Handsome, charming and quick with the smile, he sailed to a 51 percent majority in a three-way race in 2015 that required no second-round count under Portland’s ranked-choice voting system.

With years of television and radio punditry under his belt, he’s taken to the airwaves like a moth to a flame – sometimes sounding off before he has his facts straight and, more importantly, before any of his colleagues have a clue what he’s doing.

Jennings lamented the time Strimling went on the radio and began riffing sans script about overtime for firefighters – at the exact time that issue was being delicately negotiated with the Portland firefighters’ union.

Those same firefighters, Jennings recalled, once called the city manager from a working fire “asking if they had the authority to move the mayor behind the cordoned-off area.”

Then there was the time Strimling showed up at an active crime scene and began peppering a poor police officer manning a checkpoint for information.

“I would never, in my wildest dreams, think of doing something like that,” said Jennings, to whom the police chief actually reports.

But there’s more to this than just Strimling’s hard-wired attraction to the bright lights.

Over and over during Monday’s session, the talk turned to his ever-eroding credibility. In fact, Councilor Jill Duson achieved a linguistic milestone when she decried the mayor’s penchant for what she generously called “misparaphrasing.”

Translation: He hears something that everyone else hears, only to later recount it in terms favorable to him while others scratch their heads and mutter, “Say what?”

To wit: Speaking to the decline in decorum at City Hall, Jennings bemoaned the “individuals and groups” who now flock to council meetings and “say anything they wish about us – including calling one of us a murderer.”

Only minutes later, Strimling lambasted the city manager for “claiming that I called someone a murderer.”


“I don’t think he said that,” observed Councilor Nick Mavodones, who ran the meeting.

Misparaphrasing aside, several councilors brought up Strimling’s notorious lack of preparation and his penchant for asking questions that could easily be answered if he simply read the background material they all get before meetings.

“Questions are important,” counseled Councilor Belinda Ray, a writer and teacher. “It is equally important to do your homework. Before you come to a meeting, read the material.”

She added, “Google is awesome! I get a lot of information that way.”

The longer Monday’s session dragged on, the more apparent it became that Strimling places himself on a considerably loftier pedestal than do the councilors and city manager who wallow in his incessant complaints and demands.

Councilors noted that they get briefed by the city staff on issues, often with Strimling in the room. Why then must he insist on his own private briefings with the same staff on the same issues?

Councilors ask questions of staff members by first going through the city manager. Then why, when the city charter assigns to the manager the “day-to-day operations of the city,” does Strimling chafe at the same protocol?

“We do not sit around in this building or any other city building waiting for you to call us to ask us questions,” Jennings told the scowling mayor.

In the end, it all felt so sad, so futile, so interminable.

Ray recalled how Strimling ran on the promise to be, above all, “listener in chief.”

“That’s the mayor I voted for,” she said. “That’s not the mayor I’ve seen for a very long time.”

Duson said the council must assert itself more to counterbalance “the insistent, singularly aggressive position of the mayor” in his dealings with the rest of the city’s government.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, once viewed as one of Strimling’s close political allies, looked him in the eye and said, “The council is telling you, Mr. Mayor, that you need to get it together.”

Good luck with that one.

In one of the few tidbits of news from the workshop, the audience learned that the city actually paid a mediator to try to patch things up between Strimling and Jennings. It didn’t work.

So there they all sit, pretty much right back where they started.

Strimling and Jennings still can’t stand each other, although they’ll start meeting again weekly with a third party present.

The council, for its part, will keep trying to tune out all the discord.

And Strimling?

He’s the mayor who thrives on improv. And all his city’s a stage.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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