Activists stunned the political establishment in Maine’s largest city Tuesday, convincing voters to approve a slate of progressive policies that include rent control, a $15-an-hour minimum wage plus hazard pay and a so-called Green New Deal for Portland.

Standing on the steps of Portland City Hall Wednesday, volunteers with People First Portland cheered the passage of four of their five referendum questions as a victory for workers and a warning to city councilors that more change is coming.

Kate Sykes, a campaign volunteer who finished second in a four-way council race, said “the days of performative public testimony and one-way communication with a council that rules above and against the working class of this city are over.” She said the group is now turning its attention to developing a platform of wholesale changes to municipal government to be considered by a charter commission, which voters chose to establish over the summer. 

“We have acted where the City Council has refused to budge,” Sykes said. “And, in doing so, we have shown the people have the power to stand up and create law that puts our interests first.”

People First Portland is a political action committee formed by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America and their allies, such as labor unions and other activist groups.

The victories at the polls were especially striking because of the group’s powerful and well-financed opponents, as well as the fact that similar recent efforts had failed to raise the minimum wage and adopt rent control.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and every city councilor except Pious Ali opposed the People First Portland referendum questions. Snyder said Wednesday morning that she planned to spend the day figuring out how the referendums will affect city budgets and departments, while also planning future actions the council must take to respond to the new ordinances.

Snyder said she opposed the questions because businesses, nonprofit organizations, affordable housing developers and landlords were not given the opportunity provide input into the proposals. She doesn’t consider the passage of the questions as warning to her.

“I don’t look upon it as a shot across the bow, because a lot of these issues preceded me,” Snyder said. “I have said many times along the way, I’m game for conversations about any of the given issues. … I guess I’m one to think a ready-made answer is less the way to go than an answer that is the result of a lot of input and engagement.”

The People First Portland campaign won by tapping into both national and local voter anxieties and frustrations about the pandemic, economic inequities, rising rents and climate change. The wave also helped a progressive newcomer defeat a sitting city councilor and propelled Sykes, a Democratic Socialist candidate, into the top tier of a four-way council race, although she ultimately lost in a runoff to a better known opponent.

And they did it all at a significant fundraising disadvantage, with opponents raising 14 times more than proponents.

David Farmer, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist who lives in Portland and helped lead Building a Better Portland, a political action committee that opposed three of the referendums, credited People First Portland for running a smart campaign. He said they were able to package and market their policies in a way that spoke to people’s frustrations about by the inaction of Trump and Senate Republicans to address things like climate change and the minimum wage, among other issues.

Farmer noted that the campaign called a reform package changing zoning, labor and building codes “A Green New Deal for Portland,” even though it was not at all like the national Green New Deal touted by progressives. And they offered “An Act to Protect Tenants” during a time of economic uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, when people are losing their jobs and worry about losing their housing.

“I give them credit for the way they presented the referendums as solutions to real problems the city faces,” Farmer said. “I just don’t think the policy matches the promises.”

Portland is a Democratic stronghold, although political outlooks have long been split between the more liberal on-peninsula voters, including many young renters, and the more conservative off-peninsula neighborhoods of older homeowners.

That pattern appears to have held up this year, although a record number of absentee ballots – over 31,000 – makes it more difficult to draw conclusions. Two-thirds of the votes cast in Tuesday’s election were mail-in ballots or early votes not cast in the precincts where people live.

One thing appears certain – in-person voters tended to me more conservative than those who voted absentee in Portland. For example, President Trump earned 31.5 percent of the in-person vote Tuesday, compared to former Vice President Joe Biden’s 61 percent. But Biden earned a whopping 87 percent of the absentee vote, compared to Trump’s 10 percent, catapulting the Democrat to an easy win with 81 percent of the vote.

This year, however, all voters appear to have supported all of the referendum initiatives, except for one that would have further restricted short-term rentals. The five questions passed by voters all held majorities among both absentee and in-person voters, with off-peninsula voters generally more likely to oppose the referendums. The four questions that passed earned between 59 and nearly 66 percent of the vote.

That progressive energy also helped political newcomer April Fournier win an at-large City Council race against Justin Costa, who is finishing his second term as a district councilor and who served two terms on the school board. Fournier, who supported all of the referendums, won despite being unable to do the type of door-to-door campaigning that typically turn local elections and despite being outspent by an opponent with more name recognition. Costa was among the councilors who opposed the initiatives.

In District 4, Andrew Zarro, who ran as a progressive, small-business owner, beat Rosemary Mahoney, a longtime Portland resident, for the open council seat. And Sykes, a proud DSA member, came in second in District 5, a more conservative district, finishing ahead of lifelong Portlander and former councilor John Coyne. Mark Dion, a former sheriff and state legislator, won that seat after a runoff with Sykes.

City Councilor Jill Duson, who is retiring after serving two decades in elected office in Portland, said she voted against all of the referendums, but she supported Fournier’s campaign. She said People First Portland developed effective soundbites to promote their policies, but she wondered whether voters had the time or energy to delve into the details of each proposal before voting.

“We’re in difficult circumstances in households all across this community and folks can’t figure out the best route to turning it around and these were hung out there as opportunities to make a difference,” Duson said. “I’m convinced they will not address the (voters’)  issues the way in which they were sold, but I hope I’m wrong. Things get polarized so quickly and we’re just stopping at the soundbite.”

The activists did get support from Democratic party leaders in the city. The Portland Democratic City Committee voted to endorse all of the DSA’s referendum questions, except the additional limits on short-term rentals.

“The national races were clearly at the front of Portlanders’ minds yesterday, and People First Portland was wise to tap into that national energy by moving forward this bold slate of policy proposals,” said Simon Thompson, who chairs the executive committee. “The Portland Democratic City Committee applauds Portland residents for getting engaged and taking the initiative to create the change they wish to see.”

Farmer, however, worries about the long-term implications for progressive Democrats in Portland if the referendums fail to deliver on their promises.

Opponents worried that the minimum wage, especially a provision for time-and-a-half hazard pay during emergencies, would force small businesses to close; that the Green New Deal would stop all affordable housing production by increasing costs; and that tenant protections would lead to a deterioration of housing conditions. And city officials projected the referendums would increase its annual budget by $12 million a year ≠ an estimate disputed by proponents – at a time when revenues are down and service cuts are likely next yet.

“I look at Portland and I see a progressive city that elects progressive leaders that take progressive actions,” Farmer said. “My larger concerns is (that) we will undermine that overall progressivity and spark a backlash, but that remains to be seen.”

Activists did not share those concerns.

Jason Shedlock, a labor organizer, said the group would not hesitate to pursue additional referendums, if needed.

“Portland voters spoke loud and clear and took matters into their own hands,” Shedlock said in front of City Hall Wednesday. “I hope the people in this building heard that message and, moving forward, they engage with the people they represent in a meaningful way so we don’t have to do this time and time again. But, if we do have to do it, we will.”

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