To understand why a 12-person commission will spend the next year considering revisions to Portland’s city charter — and to understand why it matters — it helps to begin in 1923, when the Ku Klux Klan was a force in Maine politics.
The Klan in Maine was first and foremost an anti-Catholic organization, riding a rising tide of nativism into the state in the early 1920s. Its leaders thumped “Americanism” and decried the increasing political influence of Maine’s Irish and French-Canadian immigrants and their descendants, who made up nearly a fifth of the state’s population — although they spared some derision for Black and Jewish Mainers as well. The state’s first head Klansman, or “King Kleagle,” was an itinerant flimflammer and bigot named Eugene Farnsworth. Born Down East, in Columbia Falls, he spent much of his childhood in New Brunswick and early adulthood in Massachusetts before returning to Maine as the Klan’s chief organizer. In 1922 and 1923, he barnstormed the state, attacking “hyphenated Americans” in fraternal halls and rotundas, warning of the dwindling power of white Yankee Protestants, and bringing the Klan out of the shadows and into public life. In April 1923, he helped establish a headquarters on Portland’s Forest Avenue that, a few months later, would host an initiation ceremony for nearly 1,000 new Klansmen, lit up by a 50-foot electric cross.
Portland in 1923 was also the site of what the New York Times called “the Klan’s first venture in the political field of New England.” At the time, “good government” reformers in cities across the country, usually representing the well-to-do business class, were successfully stumping for policies that aimed to make municipal governments more efficient and less beholden to parties and machine politics. Critics, then and since, argued that such reforms had side effects — not necessarily unintended — of squelching representation for ethnic minorities, diminishing voter turnout, and making officials less accountable to voters. The “goo-goos,” as good-government advocates were known, had many goals but arguably none more significant than replacing elected mayors with unelected, professional overseers called city managers, responsible for administering the day-to-day operation of public services.
Making that switch required altering a municipal charter — a town or city’s equivalent of a constitution, in which the mechanics of local government are spelled out. And in 1923, Maine’s state legislature approved a ballot measure offering Portlanders the opportunity to do just that. A similar effort to alter the charter, spearheaded by the city’s chamber of commerce, had narrowly failed at the ballot box in 1921. Two years later, Portland voters were asked again whether to abandon a system with an elected mayor and more than two dozen party-affiliated aldermen and councilors, each elected from one of the city’s nine wards. Voters were offered two potential alternatives. The plan backed by most of the city’s Protestant elite swapped a mayor for a city manager of the council’s hiring, and it streamlined representation to a five-seat council elected without parties and at-large — that is, not representing any particular district, diminishing the clout of ethnic neighborhoods.
Among this alternative’s vocal supporters was the Ku Klux Klan. King Kleagle Farnsworth spoke up in favor of the measure, and the Klan placed newspaper ads supporting it. When the charter revision passed in September 1923, some observers credited the Klan for its narrow victory. In Not a Catholic Nation, historian Mark Paul Richard’s account of the Klan in New England, Richard notes that it’s debatable just how influential the Klan’s support was — regardless, he writes, Maine’s Klansmen were quick to take credit. Days before a special election to fill the new city council’s five seats, Farnsworth led a rally at Portland’s city hall that drew a crowd of 3,000. “All we are interested in . . . is wholly American management of the City of Portland,” he declared.
And when the election predictably resulted in an all-white, all-Protestant council, Richard writes, another Klan official sent a far more explicit letter to the Catholic Bishop of Portland (from which we have deleted a racial slur). “Hereafter,” the note read, “no n*****s, Catholics, nor Jews will ever hold office in Portland.”
None of this was top of mind for staffers or volunteers from the Fair Elections Portland campaign in the spring of 2019, when they started collecting signatures to put two charter amendments in front of city voters. The first would have amended the charter to let Portlanders elect city council and school board members using ranked-choice voting, an instant-runoff electoral system that Maine has led the nation in adopting. The second would have allowed candidates for Portland city offices to access public campaign financing if they eschewed private donations — as candidates for state office have for 25 years, thanks to the 1996 Maine Clean Election Act.
Both efforts were complicated when Fair Elections Portland submitted signatures to the city clerk. First, the petition for ranked-choice voting fell 76 signatures short of the number required to put it on the ballot. But the city council, acknowledging the near miss, exercised its ability to introduce the ballot measure on its own, and last March, 81 percent of Portland’s presidential primary voters approved the ranked-choice charter amendment.
The clean-elections amendment, meanwhile, amassed plenty of signatures but ran into a legal hurdle. Maine state law, which dictates how Maine communities can affect their charters, today draws a fuzzy distinction between an amendment to a charter and a charter revision. The former, according to materials prepared by the Maine Municipal Association, “is merely a change or correction of detail” to an existing charter and can be passed by way of referendum. The latter “is a fundamental change in the form of government,” and it can only be accomplished by convening a formal commission empowered to propose wholesale changes to a charter — even, in theory, a top-down rewrite — following months of study, public hearings, and debate.
The city’s chief attorney advised the city council that because it contained a funding mandate, the clean-elections proposal qualified as a revision, not an amendment. And Fair Elections Portland, it turned out, had checked a box on a form ordering the council, in that event, to treat their petition as a request to form a charter commission — an option, the group later told a judge, it simply never expected would come into play.
So, in October 2019, councilors scheduled a vote for the following summer, asking Portlanders whether the city should establish a commission to consider revisions to the city charter. Most councilors did so reluctantly; some said they opposed a commission but felt legally obliged to offer it. Fair Elections Portland didn’t want a charter commission either. Instead, the group filed a lawsuit, asking the court to compel the city to send the issue to voters as an amendment. (Following a ruling for the city in 2020 and an appeal, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments in the case this winter but has made no ruling.)
Without the support of the organization that provoked it or the council that sent it to voters, the prospects for a measure forming a charter commission seemed dim.
“The night my colleagues voted to put this on the ballot, I don’t think they believed it would pass,” says Portland city councilor Pious Ali, who was absent during the vote in question.
But a lot happened between the fall of 2019 and the summer of 2020. In March, Portland and the rest of Maine went into pandemic lockdown. Then, in May, George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, touching off protests against racial injustice across the country, including in cities and towns across Maine. In Portland, in the weeks following Floyd’s murder, demonstrators took to the streets on multiple days and nights, including a protest on June 5 organized by Black Lives Matter Portland (a group that now goes by Black Portland Organizers Working to End Racism, or Black POWER). The demonstration included thousands of Portlanders lying face down and silent in the middle of Commercial Street for eight minutes, roughly the amount of time that Floyd’s killer pressed his knee into his victim’s neck.
Organizers also circulated a flier outlining a list of “demands of state and local officials,” including reallocating law-enforcement funds, assessing the effects of policies on residents of color, and more. The reverse side of the flier, meanwhile, outlined only one demand: that the city council fire Portland’s current city manager, Jon Jennings, who the flier claimed “has repeatedly advocated for policies that hurt poor, predominately Black and brown people.” The flier’s heading read, “The Racist History of the City Manager Position in Portland,” and it concisely acknowledged the Klan’s role in the 1923 charter revision.
The next day, city councilors expressed solidarity with protestors but support for Jennings, the former president of Maine’s minor-league NBA basketball team and a frequent target of activists on the political left. Before the month was out, BLM Portland (which did not respond to interview requests for this story) began campaigning for a yes vote on the charter-commission question. Organizers’ explicit goal was to “abolish Portland’s City Manager position, which the KKK established in 1923,” and invest the position’s powers in an elected, accountable mayor. The group’s support brought new attention to the measure, and when it passed in July, with a 73 percent majority, the press largely framed the result as a victory for Black Lives Matter Portland.
“I knew that it would pass, but I didn’t know it would pass by such a margin,” says Ali, who felt the question of clean elections was “moved to the backburner” by the time of the vote.
“This has been a saga we could not have predicted when we started talking about how great it would be if we had a clean-elections program at the city level,” Kellar says. “But it is an opportunity to look, at a deeper level, at some of the same issues that motivated us: What is the balance of power in the city? Do people feel like their voices are being heard?”
The Klan’s prominence in Maine lasted only a few years. In the mid-1920s, it held rallies across the state and endorsed campaigns — most prominently, the successful gubernatorial run of future U.S. senator Owen Brewster, who’d helped write the 1923 charter revision as a state senator from Portland. But public opinion turned on the Klan as high-profile Mainers condemned it and financial mismanagement left it ineffectual. By the end of the decade, the Klan in Maine was effectively washed up.
Meanwhile, the popularity of the council-manager form of government grew steadily throughout the 20th century. Since the 1970s, it has been the most common form of government across the U.S. in communities of more than 5,000 people. Portland, in the last century, has seen a few unsuccessful proposals to return to a “strong mayor,” or “executive mayor,” system, in which an elected mayor, not a hired manager, serves as the city’s chief executive, appointing department heads, determining budgets, and often holding veto power over a council. In 1969, the city council reinstated the title “mayor” to describe the chair it elected from among its own members, but Portland’s mayor had no significance outside the council chamber until 10 years ago — the last time the city launched a charter commission.
After years of public comments and council discussions about reintroducing an elected mayor, Portlanders voted in 2008 to form a charter commission to consider the issue. From June 2009 to May 2010, a commission of nine elected members and three appointed by the council (the same makeup as the forthcoming commission) met 33 times, eventually recommending the city readopt an elected-mayor system. The commission outlined a plan for what they called a “policy mayor,” a hybrid system in which a mayor chosen by voters serves as a full-time council member (the others are technically part-time), a facilitator for that body, and the designated communicator of the city’s vision and goals to the city manager and professional staff. Voters approved the change in 2010, and the city has elected three mayors since 2011.
“THIS HAS BEEN A SAGA WE COULD NOT HAVE PREDICTED WHEN WE STARTED TALKING ABOUT HOW GREAT IT WOULD BE IF WE HAD A CLEAN-ELECTIONS PROGRAM AT THE CITY LEVEL.”
But a decade in, there is something like consensus in Portland political circles that the charter leaves the precise duties of the mayor too ambiguous, along with the nature of the mayor-manager relationship — and that this has led to confusion and sometimes friction. The current mayor, Kate Snyder, elected in 2019, voted against forming a new charter commission, feeling it was too soon since the last go. “But then the voters spoke,” she says. Now, she views the commission as an opportunity to “get some clarity about the mayor position and city-manager position, because I actually think there’s a lot of strength in having a professional paid person who serves as the city’s administrator.”
“I do think there are some clarifications that are needed to iron out the role of the mayor versus the role of the city manager,” says James Cohen, a partner at Verrill Dana law firm and an elected member of the previous commission who served as its co-chair. A former council member and appointed mayor, Cohen joined the commission leaning towards an executive-mayor system, but he says conversations with fellow commissioners and piles of research changed his mind. “I think we felt it provided more stability and expert day-to-day management by having a professional in that position rather than an elected official.”
Pamela Plumb, who chaired the 2009–2010 commission, agrees. “Elect the person who’s going to set the direction you want the city to go in,” she says. “Don’t elect the guy who knows how to evaluate local government bonds.” A retired professional facilitator and also, in the ’80s, a council member and mayor, Plumb was appointed rather than elected to the commission (which, it bears mentioning, was all white). And while that commission was formed with a mandate to evaluate an elected mayor, Plumb says, “there was no restriction on what we could consider,” provided it complied with state law. The group recommended two other charter revisions, both of which voters adopted. The more significant, Plumb says, was that the mayor be elected using ranked-choice voting — a system seldom discussed in Portland before the commission was formed.
“Whenever one has a charter commission, everything is on the table,” Cohen says. “It’s one reason that this country has never had a constitutional convention after the Constitution was ratified, because I don’t think anyone has felt comfortable that the entirety of our system of government would be thrown open to a complete overhaul. But with a charter commission, that can happen.”
“It’s like pushing a snowball down a hill,” councilor Ali says. “By the time it goes where you want it to, it picks up everything on the way that will stick to it.”
Ali says he’s excited to see what ideas the new commissioners bring to the process. And so is Plumb — with one reservation. “Just don’t take away the city manager,” she says. “That would be a nightmare. That’s going backwards.”
Last November, a suite of citizen initiatives put forward by the progressive PAC People First Portland reminded the city that power can rest not only with the council, mayor, or manager, but also with the people. On Election Day, voters approved five ballot measures codifying a $15 minimum hourly wage, mandatory time-and-a-half during declared emergencies, rent control, new green building codes, new affordability requirements for housing developers, and more — an unusually sweeping set of changes that, depending whom you ask, will either lift the city’s working class or stifle its economic engine.
The bundle of citizen-initiated ballot measures left some Portlanders cheering and others reeling. PACs corralling donations from the chamber of commerce, the restaurant lobby, real estate agents, developers, landlords, and others spent more than half a million dollars trying to prevent the measures’ passage, which was also opposed by Mayor Snyder and most city councilors.
“I think it cracks open the door of what’s possible as people realize we can have power in this city,” People First Portland organizer Em Burnett says, “that it’s not a forgone conclusion that the developers and the yachts and the tourists are going to run the city, but that perhaps those who live here can also have power, determine our own futures here, and make it a more equitable city.”
In February, People First Portland launched a new campaign: A People First Charter, the backbone of which is an online forum where Portlanders can post, discuss, and cast votes ranking issues for the new commission to address. On a recent visit, clean elections and a strong mayor were scoring high. So were creating municipal utilities for electricity and broadband, expanding voting rights to noncitizens, and removing barriers to the citizen-initiative process — for example, by permitting electronic signatures.
But the risk of a wide-open charter revision, Burnett realizes, is that her neighbors who are skeptical of citizen initiatives may well seek and win seats on the commission — particularly given the mood in the wake of November’s far-reaching referenda. Citizen initiatives are a subject that Fair Elections Portland hopes the commission considers as well, chair Anna Kellar says, given the group’s recent experience with the initiative process. “I think this is going to be as hot a topic as the mayor and city-manager question, because of the success of the referenda and the backlash,” Kellar says.
“I would be surprised if the commission didn’t look at the language governing citizen initiatives,” Mayor Snyder says. “I think an analysis of that would be interesting. It was unprecedented to have six citizen initiatives on the ballot and on such big policy issues. It contributed to a very busy first year for me.”
On June 8, Portlanders will elect nine charter commissioners from among two dozen candiates. Nearly half are running for four at-large seats; the rest are competing to represent one of the city’s five voting districts (including People First Portland’s Burnett, who is running in District 2). Nomination papers were due at the end of March; campaigning for the race, which is officially nonpartisan, has just begun.
Three appointed commissioners were already named last August, chosen by the city council from a pool of applicants. Peter Eglinton, deputy director of the Efficiency Maine Trust, spent several years on the school board, followed by a stint as Portland Public Schools’ COO. Dory Waxman, owner of Old Port Wool and Textile Company, is a former city councilor with a long history in Portland politics. Michael Kebede is a policy counsel with the ACLU of Maine. All three commissioners say they’re heading into the process committed to listening and researching rather than advancing a specific agenda — as concerned with progress as with power. If the Klan used the charter campaign in 1923 to send a message about who doesn’t belong, the nucleus of the new commission, at least, seems to want belonging back at the heart of the conversation.
For Kebede, who’s fairly new to Portland municipal affairs, last summer’s racial-justice demonstrations — and the community they introduced him to — were the impetus to apply for the appointment. “Even though I’ve helped shape Maine legislation and I do things like go clamming, camping, hiking, and lots of other Maine things,” he says, “I honestly just never felt like I belonged here until I met a group of Black people who had grown up in Maine, who’d gone through the public school system, who’d gone to colleges and universities in Maine, and who were frustrated about some of the same things I was very frustrated about.”
“Meeting a lot of these people made me feel, oh, I don’t have to just punch in and out for my day job and achieve the changes I want to see that way,” Kebede says. “I can actually invest in this community in a way that creates deeper changes. There is a sense of greater responsibility that comes from feeling a deeper sense of belonging.”