Down East 2013 ©
By Jeff Clark
Photographed by Nathan Eldridge
For almost nine decades, the city of Portland got along without an elected mayor. Each year the city council chose one of its own for what was widely considered an honorific position that had more symbolic than actual power. Portlanders amended the city charter to return to an elected mayor in 2010, although the post still lacks much in the way of direct influence. For example, the job comes with one part-time administrative assistant and no independent staff.
Despite that, former state legislator Michael Brennan was one of fifteen candidates for the job last year. Born on Portland’s Munjoy Hill fifty-nine years ago, his family moved to Florida when he was five after his father lost his job when Union Station closed. He moved back to Portland in 1975, two months after graduating from Florida State University, taught school, served in the state legislature, and found a home as a policy associate at the Muskie School of Public Service.
Given the still undefined role of the mayor’s position, Brennan argued during his campaign that the position would require a consensus builder, someone skilled at collaborating with diverse interest groups, someone who could use the powers of persuasion rather than the powers of the office to accomplish his goals. Not coincidentally, he became widely known during twelve years in the legislature between 1992 and 2006 as someone with all those skills. He will need them, and more, as he carefully maneuvers through a period when Portland’s civic power structure is being rearranged to accommodate a new and potentially unsettling player.
With the first year in his new job behind him, the avid runner sat down with Down East writer Jeff Clark to talk about what he has learned and what he hopes to accomplish in the coming years. Brennan still seems exuberant about the job, praising its strengths while at the same time pointing out that it has a number of flaws — its lack of power being chief among them.
The obvious question first: Why run for mayor? You had been in the legislature. You had a successful career with the Muskie School of Public Service. Why run for a brand-new office with questionable influence? What were your expectations?
The opportunity to be the first [elected] mayor in eighty-eight years was a significant and exciting possibility. The other thing was to be in a position for four years and really be able to identify some issues and have the opportunity to follow through with those for as long as possible. I’ve lived in Portland for more than forty years; I care very deeply about the city. I can’t imagine having a better position than being mayor of the largest city in Maine.
Two things — you’ve lived here for more than forty years, so you remember what Portland used to be.
I moved back in 1975 just as the Old Port was taking off.
Second, you mention the four-year term as being significant for you. Compare that to the two-year terms in the legislature.
It makes an enormous difference. We do have a governor who serves for four years. In the legislature, you run for election, you have one year to be there, and the following year you’re running for election again. So the opportunity to follow through on things is limited. The other thing is how every two years you have different committee assignments, different issues that are coming forward. I think the biggest single difference is, I couldn’t really grapple with issues that had a life span over a four-year period. Sometimes in Augusta we’re thinking in two-year increments when the problem really needs [to be addressed] over a four- to six-year increment. So I really welcome the opportunity here to look at our economic development plan and how we roll that out over the next four years. I want to look at ways to develop the waterfront over the next four years. When you have only two years and then you’re running for reelection, the opportunities to follow through on big items like that become more problematic. And that’s why obviously the governor has a significant amount of power because he or she is there for a four-year period.
How has the reality of being mayor matched your expectations?
It’s actually better. I have not had . . . [here Brennan stumbled and paused several times, carefully choosing his words] I am excited every day by the fount of issues that I have to address. One of the things that has caused me a little bit of concern [that is] very different from the legislature — far fewer people knew what I did in Augusta or paid attention to what I did in Augusta. Many, many people are paying attention to what I’m doing here in Portland and take an interest in helping me make decisions on issues facing the city.
Are you saying there are more people looking over your shoulder here?
No, no, they sit down right in front of you. There are a lot of people who care a lot about the city, and I think that’s awesome.
You mentioned the idea that a four-year term for the governor offers not only more flexibility but also more power, essentially. Is that the case as mayor of Portland?
Well, you know, if you look at the charter and the actual powers that were given to this position, some people would argue that there are not that many, that it’s pretty inconsequential. But I think when you have so much profile and it is for a four-year period, that makes a significant difference.
Do you find that building consensus is more important here than in the political to-and-fro in Augusta? That was one of the strengths you mentioned when you ran for mayor.
There’s a necessity to be able to work with the city manager and the city council because the powers I have in the charter are not as great as some other mayors in the state of Maine. The mayor of Westbrook, for example, can hire and fire people. She has more authority and power than I do. But I have seen both in Augusta and here that if you have good ideas and you’re also working with people to advance their ideas, that you’re in a position to move forward.
Everything you’re doing is setting a precedent. How do you see yourself shaping the job?
[Laughs] I try to ignore that responsibility as much as I can. There are some very specific things I try to focus on, that I’d like to accomplish, things I’d like to improve. We need to move forward with the waterfront, we need to bring the groundfishing fleet back to Portland with a sustainable fishing plan for the waterfront. That is critical to the future of Portland.
The second thing I really care about is I want Portland to be seen as the education, learning center of the state. Almost 42 percent of the people in Portland have undergraduate or graduate degrees. The state average is about 26 percent, the national average runs close to 30 percent. One of the reasons our unemployment rate is at 6 percent or just below is we have a very well educated workforce in Portland. We need to make sure we have a very strong K-12 system.
One of the proposals I’m working on, for lack of a better word, is a research triangle in Portland, a very clear, strong partnership between higher education, our research and development capabilities, and the business community. At least once a week someone comes up to me and says, “I just graduated from college, I really love Portland, I want to move here, find me a job.” I go out and visit businesses, and every business I’ve gone to says, “We’re going to expand and grow, but we need to have a qualified workforce.” I need to close that gap between those who say, I want to be in Portland, and businesses that say, I need a qualified workforce.
Back to your question about setting precedents, I try to do two things: One is I try to look at those issues that are important to the city. The second thing is, I think it’s important as the mayor to recognize that everyone in the city has a role to play and everybody has something to contribute. So at the same time we’re promoting business development, we’re also providing housing for homeless people. At the same time we’re acknowledging the fact that we have a real history in the city, we also have new residents coming to the city. Today I just issued a proclamation on [the independence of] South Sudan. We have a lot of people here who come from South Sudan. Twenty years ago we probably wouldn’t have had that discussion.
My father grew up on Kellogg Street, my mother grew up on Smith Street, they were childhood sweethearts, they got married at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Church right up here. So I’m always very conscious of the history of Portland, but at the same time recognizing the fact that we have residents coming to Portland on a regular basis that add to the diversity.
You were born in Portland, grew up in Florida, returned right after college. Why come back?
I had a teaching certificate. I had an aunt who lived by herself. She was the Maine Teacher of the Year in 1968. She thought she’d be able to get me a job teaching. I’d come to Portland in the summers with my family to visit, and the opportunity to come back to Maine seemed exciting to me. I was fortunate enough to find work and find the woman who became my wife. We’ve now been married for thirty-two years. I really understand what it means to have a family that can’t find work in Portland or in Maine and is forced to leave the state. I also know what it means to come back.
Would the initiatives you’ve mentioned be possible under the old mayor-council system? Would they have been introduced with as much emphasis?
If you look back, almost every mayor picked one issue as their hallmark issue. For me, I’ve been able to unveil an economic development initiative, waterfront plans, education issues, and, obviously, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with the legislature working with other mayors across the state. Under the prior structure, it would have been more difficult for a mayor to be working with other mayors, working in Augusta, and also focus on several local initiatives all at the same time.
Have you worked out yet where the boundary lines are between you and the city manager and the city council?
I think it’s evolutionary at this point. The city manager and I have an excellent working relationship. To tell you the truth, this structure would not work if the city manager and the mayor were not able to work with one another. I have a part-time administrative assistant, so everything I’d like to do in terms of initiatives, whether they be policy initiatives or otherwise, I need to work with the city manager in terms of working with the staff — which he supervises.
With the city council, one of the first things we did was restructure the committees, combined a number of them, and increased the number of members, adding chairs and vice-chairs. I’m beginning to understand the city council and its rhythms. As I said, it’s an evolutionary process.
What sort of structures do you want to create to leave behind for your successors?
Some of this is drawing from my legislative experience, but one of the reasons we restructured the committees into fewer numbers but expanded membership is that I would really like a lot of the work in the council to occur in the committees, and I’d like to see those appropriately staffed. If you have good staff support, the committees will make good decisions. What the council ends up deciding to do will be a better decision and ultimately more beneficial to the city.
The other thing is, I’d like to create a more collaborative atmosphere between higher education and the business community and research and development so we’re really creating the jobs so that every person who graduates from the Portland school system who wants to stay in Portland will have a job waiting for them that will provide them with an income to raise a family, buy a house.
For many Maine towns and cities, the emphasis on creating those jobs has been on bringing in new large businesses from outside Maine. You’ve been quoted as saying that is not one of your goals.
I don’t want to say that’s a bad approach, but that’s not our primary interest. Our primary interest is to build the businesses that we have and retain those. We want to attract people who have knowledge, skills, who are entrepreneurs, who will create businesses that will make our economy better. The idea that economic development is going to Texas and trying to persuade some big company to move three hundred jobs to Maine is an antiquated, sort of 1960s view of economic development.
Economic development now is about the quality of the people and the skills and background and knowledge they bring to the table. There are businesses all throughout Portland that have national and international markets, and they’re working here because of our arts, our location, we’re the safest state in the country, and we have all the amenities of a large city without a lot of the problems. That quality of life is very important to businesses in terms of being here. We want them to be here. How can we help them grow? My chances of getting twenty businesses to add ten jobs are better than getting one company to come and bring in two hundred jobs.
We have a lot of underemployment, people who are making $35,000 and $40,000 and $45,000 a year who are willing to do that because they want to live here. We need to figure out how we’re going to create jobs that pay $75,000 and $80,000 a year so that the people who choose to live here don’t have to take such pay cuts or feel that they have to dampen down their professional aspirations.
Forty-six percent of all the state’s economic activity occurs between Greater Portland and Biddeford-Saco. Everything we do here has an enormous ripple effect throughout the state.
Any opinion on how the role of mayor should be changed?
At this point, I think it’s too early for me to say that there’s anything significant in terms of structure or duties that I would propose at this point. But next year at this time, ask me again. I might have a couple.
Jeff Clark has worked in Maine journalism for more than thirty years. He lives in Bath.