Too Green to Lead?
Portland’s third party struggles to get its groove back
By Chris Busby
When the five Democrats on the Portland City Council closed ranks last month to make Nick Mavodones mayor for a third time, they revealed two truths about politics in Maine’s largest city…
1. Democrats are afraid of the Green Independent Party.
2. They shouldn’t be.
It all started back in 2002, when a 33-year-old house painter and eco-activist named John Eder beat a Democrat to win a seat in the Maine House of Representatives, becoming the first Green Party politician in the nation to serve in a state legislature.
The following year, Democrats in Augusta redrew the boundaries of Eder’s legislative district, effectively severing the Green from his political base in Portland’s progressive West End. The Green Party cried foul and sued to block the redistricting plan.
They lost that case, but when voters went to the polls in 2004, the Dems turned out to be the real losers. The new lines had also separated incumbent Democrat Ed Suslovic from most of his constituents. Eder moved to a new apartment a few blocks west to challenge Suslovic, and West Enders — many of whom were offended by what they considered the Donkey Party’s dirty politics — elected him again.
This was the beginning of a hot streak for local Greens. Party leader “Zen” Ben Meiklejohn won re-election to the Portland School Committee in a citywide race that year, and was joined on the school board by another Green, Jason Toothaker, a scrawny college kid who out-hustled an Ivy League-educated mom in a squeaker decided by a recount.
In 2005, the Greens won a fourth seat on the school board, putting them within a vote of majority control. And the next year, two young Greens took the unprecedented step of winning seats on the Portland City Council. Kevin Donoghue beat incumbent Will Gorham on the East End, and artist Dave Marshall won the West End’s Council seat by besting two strong challengers.
But 2006 was also the year the wheels started coming off the Greens’ party wagon. After running a lackluster campaign, Eder lost his seat to attorney Jon Hinck, a Democrat making his first run for public office. The Dems also picked off Green school board member Stephen Spring that November.
In December, Toothaker was arrested for skipping out on a cab fare during a night of heavy drinking. Cops found him trying to hide under a porch in Parkside — not exactly model behavior for one of the nine people charged with overseeing the city’s schools. He resigned in disgrace a few weeks later.
Having taken it in the shins for several years, the Donkey Party kicked back with a vengeance come ’07. That fall, yard signs declaring “These GREENS Cause CHAOS” popped up around town. They targeted Meiklejohn and John Anton, a Dem-turned-Green running for one of two at-large seats up for grabs on the City Council. The signs were paid for by local attorney and lobbyist Tony Buxton, a major Democratic Party fundraiser.
In a fundraising letter sent to Democratic donors during the same campaign, City Councilor Jill Duson warned that the political traction the Greens had gained locally could lead to broader electoral success. “What happens in Portland will not stay in Portland unless you help to close the door,” the letter read. “Let’s not let a certain upstart party strengthen its foothold.”
When Kate Snyder, a Democrat running for the school board that fall, gave Anton a positive quote to use on a campaign card, she caught hell from party leaders. They bullied her into saying she wasn’t actually “endorsing” the Green despite her quote saying Anton would “help put Portland back on the right track.”
Portland City Council and School Committee races are officially nonpartisan — candidates’ party affiliations don’t appear on the ballot. But the veneer of nonpartisanship has become a joke this past decade.
“Is there anybody under 70 who thinks these elections are nonpartisan?” Sive Neilan, former chair of the Portland Democratic City Committee, remarked to The Bollard as the ’07 campaign season got nasty. “Of course they’re partisan,” she said. “That’s what makes them fun.”
Anton won in ’07, as did Duson — veteran Democratic Councilor Jim Cloutier, now a Cumberland County Commissioner, took it on the chin that November — but Meiklejohn went down in flames, finishing last in a five-way race.
The Greens now had three members on the Council, but no one in the Legislature, and the party’s presence on the school board was disappearing fast.
Green School Committee member Susan Hopkins decided not to seek reelection the next year, having grown tired of the acrimony surrounding the post. “People are vicious,” Hopkins said at the time. “I’m sick of it.” The most recent Green to serve on the school board, Rebecca Minnick, also called it quits after one term.
Councilor Marshall ran unopposed for reelection last year, and Councilor Donoghue handily defeated a cabbie
unaffiliated with the Dems (or Toothaker). But otherwise it’s been one defeat after another for the “upstart party” ever since.
When Rep. Hinck ran for reelection in 2008, his Green opponent, Joshua Miller, didn’t even campaign. Miller managed to remain anonymous throughout the race, though in an echo of Eder’s past popularity in the district, he drew over 1,100 protest votes, about a third of Hinck’s total.
A few weeks after Election Day, the nine Portland City Councilors meet to choose who among them will serve as mayor for the coming year. The post is mostly ceremonial. The mayor presides over Council meetings, assigns councilors to various sub-committees, and cuts ribbons. The mayorship had traditionally been handed to the councilor who’d served the longest without being mayor and wanted a turn wielding the gavel and scissors.
That tradition was challenged in 2006, when outgoing Mayor Jim Cohen, a Democrat, expressed interest in serving another term. It was the newly elected Greens, Donoghue and Marshall, who provided the swing votes that thwarted Cohen’s unusual bid and gave the mayorship to Mavodones, a Dem who’d just won a third three-year term representing the entire city.
So much for returning the favor.
Last year’s election put Marshall and Donoghue next in line for the podium. Donoghue didn’t want the post, but Marshall did, and he made his interest public after Election Day. Marshall said he called all his Council colleagues seeking their support.
Of the five Democrats on the Council, only Dory Waxman and Dan Skolnik called him back, he said, and neither of them would give him the nod. Knowing Mavodones had five votes locked up, the Greens and Cheryl Leeman, the Council’s lone Republican, joined the unanimous motion to make him mayor again.
Waxman was the only Democrat on the Council willing to comment for this story. Asked why she supported Mavodones over Marshall, she said, “I just felt Nick would be able to cover the school and city budget issues better than Dave. It was about the experience.”
Given that the mayor has no more power or influence over fiscal matters than any other councilor, The Bollard asked Waxman to elaborate. She said she thinks Mavodones will “be able to give better guidance” to the Council’s three-member finance subcommittee, “if they ask for it.”
Greens say Mavodones’ mini-coup has energized the party and inspired a renewed push to challenge Democratic officeholders this year. “The fact they couldn’t be fair about it and vote Dave Marshall in [has caused] a lot of frustration within the party,” said Ben Chipman, chair of the Greens’ Cumberland County board. “I’ve heard folks talk about how we need to run a full slate next year.”
But the Dems have heard that kind of talk before, and they’ve yet to pay much of a price.
After Eder’s district was redrawn in ’03, Meiklejohn, then chair of the Maine Greens, told the Portland Press Herald his party would run as many as 100 candidates for the Legislature in ’04. They managed to muster only 20, and all but Eder lost.
The field of Green legislative candidates has been roughly halved in every state election cycle since. The party ran 12 candidates for the Legislature in 2006 and lost every race. Only six Greens stepped up in ’08, and once again they all lost, most by wide margins.
Yet while the number of Green candidates has dwindled, the number of registered voters in the Maine Green Independent Party — which marked its 25th anniversary last year — is at an all-time high. Ten years ago, there were approximately 8,700 registered Greens. Today, there are over 32,000, a figure that grows by a couple thousand every year, Chipman said.
Granted, that total includes an untold number of voters who don’t realize they’re enrolled in the party.
“A lot of people disregard ‘Green’ and hear ‘Independent,’” said Reb Brann, current chair of the Portland Democratic City Committee. “They think, ‘That’s me: I’m independent.’” (To wit: Leslie Minton, a Portland school board candidate in 2007, who registered as a Green Independent by mistake. Local Greens persuaded her to stay enrolled in the party through the election, which she lost.)
A better explanation for the Democrats’ fear of the Greens has less to do with this year’s election season than with the municipal election of 2011. That’s when Portland voters may get to elect the mayor themselves.
In 2008, Portland voters approved the creation of a commission to study the City Charter and recommend changes to the way local government works. Chief among the changes under consideration is the idea of having voters directly elect the mayor. Most members of the Charter Commission support the idea, and a proposal to implement it is expected to be on the ballot this November.
Marshall has been a strong proponent of switching to a directly elected mayor. He and Donoghue began advocating for the change shortly after taking office three years ago.
The way the Democrats broke tradition and muscled one of their own into the post this year — with no public debate and weak rationales after the fact — could convince voters that “rather than have five people decide who’s mayor, it’s wiser to have 65,000 people be part of that dialogue,” Marshall said.
Mavodones is on the other side of this debate. Portlanders rejected an elected-mayor proposal when it last came up for a vote in the late 1990s. “I think people spoke very clearly last time it came up,” Mavodones told The Bollard in 2006. “I don’t know if it’s ever the right time to revisit the issue.”
Timing really is everything. From the Dems’ perspective, the only thing worse than having a Green serving as mayor leading up to this year’s vote on a charter change would be having a Green mayor effectively running as an incumbent next year.
Anton and Duson are due to face voters again this fall, as is Democratic district Councilor Dan Skolnik, a notoriously outspoken and combative attorney. Both the at-large and district races are expected to be highly competitive — and highly contentious.
Though the Greens have failed to win most of the local elections they’ve entered over the past few years, the Charter Commission races were a notable exception. Both Chipman, chair of the Cumberland County Green Party board, and Anna Trevorrow, the party’s state chair, won commission seats
Now they’re working alongside former Democratic Portland mayors like Nathan Smith and Cohen to rewrite the way city government operates. The fact this group has found a lot of common ground despite its members’ political differences undercuts the notion that party affiliation matters on the local level.
Donkeys of a different color?
Lost amid the bickering between local Democrats and Greens is the fact the two parties’ political philosophies really aren’t much different. For example, both camps list promoting equality and affordable housing, protecting the environment, and increasing access to health care among their top priorities.
Asked how the Greens are different than the Dems, Portland Democratic Party leader Brann said, “I’ve always kind of asked that myself.
“I can’t really put my finger on it, because I think the ideals are the same,” Brann continued. “Sometimes they’re more idealistic than can be put into practice. If I had the money, god, I’d like to do everything they want to do.”
“There’s not a policy conflict on the Portland City Council,” said Donoghue. “No one’s putting forward an alternative package of policies or opposing the policies we’ve been working on.”
The difference, Donoghue said, is that Greens are pushing to put into practice the policies Democrats on the Council passed years ago — plans that had been collecting dust on the shelves in City Hall ever since.
“I didn’t write our housing plan, a past Democratic Council did,” said Donoghue. “I didn’t write our transportation plan, [former City Councilor and Congressman] Tom Allen did. I’m working on implementing them.”
“A lot of the issues they’ve gotten behind were on the planning table for awhile, it’s just that no one’s picked up the ball and run with it,” Councilor Leeman said.
“I don’t think the Greens are any different from anybody else who comes into the position,” Leeman continued. “There’s a learning curve for all of us when we first get elected.”
Marshall’s lack of political experience may have been as significant a factor as his party affiliation during last month’s scramble for the gavel. He knew all along that he’d have to win the support of councilors from other parties, and it takes considerable political skill to forge such cross-party alliances.
Leeman’s been on the Council as long as the Green Party’s been in Maine, and knows better than anyone what it’s like to struggle in the shadow of the Council’s Democratic majority. Her take on Marshall’s failed bid for the mayorship was blunt:
“He didn’t have the votes.”