At-large council race could be a brawler

At-large council race could be a brawler 
Former state rep faces activist and council widow

By Chris Busby

The choice Portland voters make in the race to succeed Peter O’Donnell on the City Council could say a lot about the city’s character and future direction. 

Will voters choose a former Democratic state representative with progressive credentials (Ed Suslovic)? Will they support the widow of a former councilor whose family ties link her to Portland’s working-class past (Loretta Griffin)? Or will they choose a feisty activist running with the support of the Green Independent Party (Carol Schiller)?

Schiller is the dark horse in this race, but that position could usher her into public office this Nov. 8 if, as expected, Suslovic and Griffin split the votes of Democrats who dominate the electorate here. (Council races are non-partisan, but political affiliations and endorsements by party politicians do influence the campaigns.) 

That possibility worries local Democrats, and has already caused strife within the party, as accusations have flown – mostly out of public view – that attempts were made to dissuade Griffin from running. 

“I’ve heard that rumor, too,” said Suslovic, who is treasurer of the Portland Democratic City Committee. But he adds, “I was at the meeting (of city Democrats) where people who were running were invited to attend. No pressure was put on anybody to run or not to run. I spoke to Loretta directly and said, ‘It’s not up to anybody to decide who can run and who can’t run.'”

That assurance didn’t make Griffin feel particularly welcome, but she stops short of saying she was pressured to stay out of the race. “I’ve been around for a while, and I know how things run,” said Griffin, who worked on two of her late husband John’s council campaigns. She characterized the city Dems’ process of finding a candidate this time as “kind of strange” and said a few party members went about the process in a way that was “kind of different” than past meetings. 

City Councilor Jim Cloutier hosted two of those meetings in his office earlier this year. Asked who fellow Democrats, citizens and office-holders alike, will support in this race, he said, “I think Ed Suslovic will have a lot of support, and Loretta Griffin will have some.”

Griffin angered many prominent Democrats when she supported lawyer (and Republican) Ken Cole in his race against O’Donnell to fill the at-large seat her husband’s passing opened in late 2003. O’Donnell won the special election the following February, but decided not to seek another term this year. 

Assessing this campaign, Cloutier, an at-large councilor himself, noted a host of complicating factors that could make the contest a toss-up. 

Among them: Green voters are strongest in the two on-peninsula districts, but Griffin’s family ties and history are strong on Munjoy Hill (where she lives) and in the West End (where her husband grew up). Suslovic lost his reelection bid to Green Independent Party state representative John Eder, when the two faced off last fall in a redrawn district that includes the West End, but the race was close, and Suslovic is well known in the area. 

With no clear favorite among on-peninsula voters, voters in off-peninsula neighborhoods could very well decide the race. 

Suslovic, a 45-year-old father of three who lives off Brighton Avenue, has represented some of those neighborhoods in the Legislature, and could benefit from the support of his former colleagues – the current state representatives of those neighborhoods. 

Griffin, 62, has no children and no experience as an elected representative, but she has name recognition both as a Griffin and as a Breggia (her maiden name). Observers say those ties give her the support of old Portland families, many of which have spread out from the peninsula to off-peninsula neighborhoods in the city over the years.

Schiller, 50, is also a widow, but has two children and has lived in Portland for 25 years. She resides a few streets away from Suslovic, in a neighborhood off Forest Avenue, and has some recognition off-peninsula for her work with neighborhood associations.

All three candidates realize this won’t be an easy campaign.

“I have to work hard,” said Schiller, a self-employed marketer and organizer. “I’m running against the name recognition that Ed’s established being a state rep… and the strong name recognition Loretta receives from her late husband.”

Griffin said she’s feeling “very confident” about her chances for victory this fall, noting calls of support she’s been getting of late from old acquaintances and strangers alike. Among those early supporters is City Councilor Will Gorham, who represents the East End and much of downtown.

Suslovic is also feeling confident, but obviously hasn’t forgotten being edged out by Eder a year ago.

“I feel I have good, strong support throughout the city,” he said, noting his work and involvement in housing and environmental issues, social services (he’s the development director for Shalom House, which provides support for people with mental illness), and youth athletics. 

“Believe me, though: I never take anything for granted.”

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