Mayors. Who needs ‘em?
It’s a fair question in Maine. After all, we are part of a proud New England tradition of town government. Town meetings elect moderators, not to rule, but to keep the peace en route to a resolution of the motions and articles. The role of “moderator” is prestigious through service. It is a referendum on the reason, judgment, and fairness of the individual.
Very different traits are rewarded in big-city politics. The last three mayors of New York City — Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill de Blasio — are all brash, larger-than-life figures. Each aspired (or considered) higher office, with Guliani running for the presidency in 2012 and de Blasio a candidate for the White House until he dropped out Friday. Each had their pet causes to remake the city in line with their vision.
So, how do mayoralties play out in our state? It takes a bit from both worlds. Some municipalities have abandoned the town meeting in favor of a council form of government. In our cities — Portland, Bangor Lewiston, Belfast, and others — this change creates the title of “mayor.” Different places deal with it differently.
For example, Bangor and South Portland confer the honorific on a member of the council. It essentially replaces the term “chair.” These cities hew closer to the town meeting tradition; the mayor is seen as a moderator who keeps the public business of the community moving. It includes a bit of a bully pulpit, but the officeholders know they can’t get much done without the support of their peers. They may be the “mayor,” but they are primus inter pares; first among equals.
Other places elect the mayor directly, but acknowledge it is a part-time position. They walk the middle road between Maine and New York. When it works, it can work well. Former Gov. Paul LePage was elected mayor of Waterville despite Democratic electoral advantages in town. He did not shy away from using the title and his personality to drive down tax rates, and Waterville voters rewarded him for his efforts.
When it doesn’t work, headlines abound. Belfast has spent the last year in the news due to the strife between the mayor and council. The mayor is a self-described “young, queer” voice. She implied members of the council were ageist and sexist in a provocative OpEd. The council spent a lot of its time working through this strife, rather than on core public business. This problem is compounded by the structure of Belfast; the mayor only casts a vote if the council is deadlocked.
Then we get to Portland. The anti-Candide, thus far the mayoralty has been the worst of all possible worlds. Beginning in 2011, the mayor became popularly elected. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent chasing voters. The winner gets a full-time job. But unlike NYC, the mayor is not strong; the council is still the governing body of the city, exercising its will through professional management.
Incumbent Ethan Strimling has probably caught more headlines than all other mayors in our state, combined. He has had well-publicized fights with the city manager. He has overseen — and caused — consternation and strife amongst the city council. He spent tens of thousands of tax dollars getting a legal opinion saying that the city charter means what it says.
And, in full disclosure, I am supporting his foremost opponent (and my brother’s high school classmate) Spencer Thibodeau. But this isn’t anti-Strimling sentiment; four years ago, I supported and defended Strimling when he was attacked as a pawn of the Chamber of Commerce and the development community. He ran on being a “listener in chief” and bringing the community together. It sounded more like a town meeting moderator.
But he has discharged the office of mayor very differently than he campaigned. Which brings us back to the question: who needs mayors? Maine isn’t New York City. So while our cities may confer the title, Bangor and South Portland probably do it right. The honor may be the natural evolution from “town meeting moderator,” and that is probably all we need. We can leave the office of strong executive in Augusta. And our elected officials can get back to work.