This November, while most of the state was eyeing the hotly contested U.S. Senate race and the national results, Maine’s largest city passed a slew of its own local citizen initiatives. All but one was sponsored by a liberal group, People First Portland, and resulted in enacting a number of left-wing priorities: a minimum-wage increase (plus time-and-a-half during a civil emergency); a ban on the city using facial recognition technology, and increasing tenant protections. Portland also approved marijuana advocate David Boyer’s proposal to loosen limits on cannabis shops. Further curbs on short-term rentals were the only measure that city voters rejected.

These results were, unquestioningly, a sweeping victory for People First Portland and their sponsors, the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America. It was an especially impressive victory not only because the proponents were vastly outspent by the opponents, but also because none of the results was particularly close, showing that Portland residents were more than willing to completely ignore vast sums of money being spent on the election. In and of itself, that’s a good thing: The best way to curb the influence of big money in politics is if the voters reject that themselves, and they clearly did that here.

Unfortunately, they did it by imposing sweeping new regulations on private businesses. That’s not good for the economy in good times, but it’s especially troublesome in the middle of a pandemic and subsequent recession. That wouldn’t normally reverberate beyond city limits, but Portland isn’t just the largest city in Maine, it’s a huge driver of the entire state’s economy. These regulations will not only affect a lot of businesses in Portland, but they may be copied by local activists in other cities around the state, resulting in campaigns there.

Now, if they try to export these ideas to other municipalities, activists may have to pare them back or separate them out in order to be successful. Not many other cities and towns in the state have electorates as liberal as Portland’s, especially in a presidential election year. Still, they could gain enough traction in other municipalities that increasingly we’ll have a patchwork of more burdensome economic regulations in some towns than others. That will create a whole new set of economic inequality problems in Maine, as businesses choose where to establish based not just on population and property taxes, but on local regulatory burdens as well.

It could lead to an increased disparity between the have and have-not communities, further increasing the divide between rural and non-rural (or, in all honesty, less-rural) parts of the state. That will, in turn, deepen the cultural and political divides between the so-called “two Maines” – though, in fact, there are far more parts of the state than just two. This would have been a huge potential problem with the local option sales tax proposed last session in the Maine Legislature as well. Just like that proposal, exporting these regulations would largely benefit wealthier communities that can afford to lose a business or two. A town with a small, struggling downtown can’t exactly afford to impose a $15-an-hour wage on its few businesses or rent controls on its few apartment buildings.

The results in Portland also reflect a small, but growing, divide between the Democrats’ liberal base and and the party establishment. In Portland, these measures were opposed by many local business owners and elected officials, including most of the City Council, but they passed anyway. That shows that, even in Portland, elected officials may not yet be ready to totally embrace the agenda of the radical left. The liberals aren’t willing to wait around for their “leaders,” though. We’ve seen this with other issues in the past, like ranked-choice voting. Activists first got ranked-choice voting passed in Portland, then took it statewide on their own without the help of establishment Democrats.

We may see the same pattern play out here with the economic regulations recently passed in Portland. Democratic leadership in the State House would be unlikely to embrace a statewide $15-an-hour minimum wage or rent control, but activists have shown the willingness and ability to get citizen initiatives passed on their own. If a large swath of the liberal base statewide followed the lead of Portland voters and embraced new economic regulations, the party leadership would eventually get on board. It may not happen anytime soon, but the results in Portland could well be an indication of where Maine Democrats are headed long term.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: jimfossel

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