Mayor Ethan Strimling said Thursday that he would try to increase the minimum wage in Portland to $15 an hour if he’s elected to a second term.

Strimling made the announcement during a mayoral debate hosted by the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, a business group that endorsed Strimling four years ago but has since become a focus of the mayor’s criticism in interviews, policy debates and fundraising emails.

“I know you’re going to light your hair on fire,” Strimling told the room full of business people, referring to a $15 minimum wage. He said the business community needs to share more wealth with workers and noted that while they were eating their “fancy breakfast,” more than a 1,200 families were on the Portland Housing Authority’s wait list for housing.

Strimling’s predecessor, Michael Brennan, led the effort that made Portland the first community in the state to create its own minimum wage in 2015. That successful effort, Strimling told the business leaders, gave the the city a competitive advantage in attracting workers over surrounding communities. But now that the state’s $11 an hour minimum wage has overtaken the city’s, Portland has lost that advantage, he said.

After the debate, Chamber President Jim Cohen said that he has seen no evidence or analysis to back up Strimling’s claim about a competitive advantage, and pointed out that the state increased its minimum wage shortly after Portland. Cohen said the chamber’s board had not discussed Strimling’s $15-an-hour wage proposal, but its members generally believe that labor and employment laws are best handled at the state level so that Portland employers face the same rules as competitors in neighboring communities.

“Any individual business is always free to raise wages to attract workers on their own and I think we’re seeing that in this economy, as businesses are trying to make sure they have a sufficient pool of workers,” Cohen said. “If they need to raise wages, they do.”

Both Strimling and the chamber opposed a citywide referendum in 2015 that would have set a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Portland. At the time, Strimling said he supported a statewide effort to increase wages. Portland voters rejected the $15-an-hour minimum in 2015 with more than 58 percent of the vote opposed.

Strimling is facing three challengers in his bid for re-election: 33-year-old waiter Travis Curran, 49-year-old nonprofit leader and former school board member Kate Snyder and 31-year-old real estate attorney Spencer Thibodeau.

Only Curran responded to Strimling’s proposal during the debate. He said Portland should establish its own labor laws, because service workers, like dishwashers, can’t afford to live in the city.

“Honestly, I heard some laughter over there,” Curran said about the audience’s reaction to Strimmling’s announcement. “Ethan sounds crazy with the whole $15 an hour thing, but if the rents are rising and wages don’t, who can afford to live there?”

Neither Snyder nor Thibodeau responded directly to the proposal during the debate. But Snyder said she generally thinks labor and employment issues, such as paid sick time, are better handled at the state level, although local action may be appropriate “when needed.” She withheld judgment on the minimum wage proposal when reached after the debate.

“Announcing that policy proposal at a candidate’s debate at the Chamber of Commerce is not the way I would have rolled out a discussion on that issue,” Snyder said. “Announcing it in that way both immediately politicizes the issue and potentially puts people on their heels.”

She added, “This is a big issue both for folks who are working and people who own businesses and are employing people. Anything like this … requires some thought and some homework in order to have a response. And more importantly, it requires discussion among people who have a stake in the issue.”

After the debate, Thibodeau said he was open to the idea, though he noted that this was the first time Strimling has mentioned the proposal over the last four years and during the campaign.

“I would hope that any policy discussion of this importance would deserve more public conversation than mere statement by the mayor on the eve of an election,” Thibodeau said. “I have supported minimum wages increases in the past and I would be open to a discussion about raising the minimum wage in the future.”

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