Incumbent City Councilor Jim Cohen (left) must fend off fiesty challenger Al Schulman in District 5 to become Portland’s next mayor. (photos/The Fuge)
Mayor Cohen vs. Mayor Schulman?
Council challenger brings big-city politics to town
By Chris Busby
Alvin “Al” Schulman wants to be your mayor. In fact, as he sees it, before the decade is over, the people of Portland will have elected him to his first term, he’ll have moved into the mayor’s official residence (where high school students will tend the gardens), and he will live there and represent you until the day he dies.
Except at night, when the “night mayor” will handle constituents’ problems at City Hall.
Welcome to the race to represent District 5 on the Portland City Council.
This fall, incumbent Jim Cohen is running to represent the neighborhoods of Riverton, Deering Center and North Deering for a second three-year term. If re-elected, Cohen said he will seek to be appointed mayor by his fellow councilors – a largely ceremonial, yearlong post held by councilors on a rotating basis.
“If my colleagues on the council are supportive, I’d certainly be pleased and honored to serve as mayor in the upcoming year,” said Cohen. “It’s something I’ve given thought to, and I have a lot of good ideas about the important goals I’d like to see the city continue to move [toward].”
Shulman, obviously, has other plans, including one for Cohen on election night.
“I’m having a victory party the night of the election,” Shulman announced, then added this message for his challenger: “I would like to invite you. You write your speech, I’ll correct it, and you can read it then.”
Cohen needs to know this, Schulman said: “He’s not playing with a local politician here.”
Indeed, he is not.
Schulman is the product of big-city politics – New York City politics, as his accent and aggressive rhetoric show. He was born and raised there, and was involved for 20 years with his local Jewish Community Council.
As his council’s Vice President for Operations, appointed by its elected board, Schulman said he was responsible for the council’s “day-to-day operations,” including overview of its budget and grants, as well as the operation of two kosher food pantries and two senior nutrition programs.
He was the “liaison” between state and city officials and the 70,000 people the council represented, he said. “I was on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day. I couldn’t go to a place like Shaw’s on a Sunday morning to buy bagels and lox and whitefish and everything else without someone saying… ‘Al, I’m in trouble, you’ve gotta do for me.'”
The 58-year old father of four (and grandfather of two) moved to Portland five-and-a-half years ago “to start anew,” he said. He works in sales for Filene’s, the department store chain being phased out in the wake of its parent company’s merger with May Department Stores, which is closing the Filene’s at the Maine Mall.
Schulman worked for the campaigns of former mayors Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch, and for Senator Chuck Schumer’s Congressional campaigns. He’s a board member of the Portland Taxpayers Association.
Cohen is a father of two who turns 40 on Oct. 3. He’s an attorney who works in the fields of energy, telecommunications, and public water, as well as banking, regulatory law, and “legislative law.”
Cohen’s civic work includes two years as president of Portland Trails, the non-profit land trust; and six years on the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s board, three of them as its treasurer. He co-founded the North Deering Neighborhood Association, and is still on its board.
Following its Sept. 27 city council candidate forum, which both Cohen and Schulman attended, the League of Pissed Off Voters endorsed Cohen. Reached by phone two days later, Schulman’s reaction is characteristic of his no-holds-barred campaign rhetoric.
“Pissed-off voters means you vote and your voice is not heard and the things you want done don’t get done,” Schulman said. “Then you turn around and endorse an incumbent that’s disenfranchising you?
“My question was, I said to my wife, ‘How much did he pay for the endorsement?’ Because that’s the way it is elsewhere…. What did he offer them? More bike trials? More Arts District? More free movies? Or did he say, ‘Look, you need money to run your organization, we’ve got money at the North Deering Association. We’ll help you on the ‘q-t?'”
Cohen is at-large councilor Jim Cloutier’s “puppet,” Schulman said. “Whatever Jim Cloutier says, Jim Cohen nods his head and says OK – good, bad or indifferent.”
This assertion is part of Schulman’s larger, dim view of the city government hierarchy. “The city council hires the city manager, the city manager then hires two assistants,” he explained. “The only one who can fire the city manager is the city council, and he controls the city council through Jim Cloutier and Jim Cohen – who’s the puppet – and we’ve all been disenfranchised.”
Schulman’s main campaign issue, what he calls his “alternative agenda,” is advocating for an elected mayor in Portland. “We need representation, somebody who has the moxie to stand up and say, ‘What you’re doing is bullshit,'” he said.
This issue has come before voters several times in recent history, and has yet to attract a sizeable group of proponents. The Portland Taxpayers Association brought it up again last year, but no councilor stepped forward to push the idea.
If elected, Schulman said he would be that councilor and then some.
“When I win, Jim Cohen will not be on council. Someone else will be appointed as mayor, based upon seniority,” said Schulman. “After that individual is mayor, the following year I will be the mayor of the city of Portland, appointed by the council. I will be requesting a referendum [on an elected mayor]. The people will say yes. I will run and then I will be mayor until I die.”
A Mayor Schulman would take a salary of $75,000 and move into an official mayoral residence where “all functions would be held.” This would most likely be an old home that students taking vocational classes at Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS) would renovate. They’d also tend a botanical garden on the premises, where trees and plants for city parks would be grown.
City department heads would become “commissioners,” appointed by the mayor. City Hall would be “open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. If there’s a problem [at night], there’s a night mayor who can handle the situation,” he said.
Among Schulman’s priorities are a carousel for Deering Oaks, an aquarium, bus service between his district and the Maine Mall on Sundays, and a public library in North Deering.
Cohen said he’s running again “to continue working for the interests of my neighbors and residents; to make sure they have a strong voice in City Hall; and to continue to work to improve our tax structure, our pedestrian safety, to make sure Portland is a vibrant, livable city, and to be a strong advocate for our education system.”
“I’m taking the race very seriously,” said Cohen. He added that he feels he’s distinguished himself as a hardworking councilor who takes a fair and rational approach to city business, and one who goes to great lengths to respond to, and communicate with, his constituents.
Schulman acknowledged the Cohen is responsive – “he will call you back,” he said. But Schulman is irked that Cohen, like the rest of the councilors, does not have a “community office” where constituents can be heard and seek help.
“You have to have a place where people can go gripe, where they can bitch, where they can moan, where they can have somebody hold their hand or get a referral…. In the meantime, have a cup of coffee and have a cookie.”
Schulman said his basement on Bartley Avenue is ready to be such a community office. “I’ll put two desks in and a coffee pot and a phone and that’s it. It’ll be open Monday through Thursday, and other times by appointment.”
“I’m not really going to comment on my opponent,” Cohen said, though after hearing some of Schulman’s criticisms, he weighed in. “Al Schulman, as far as I’m aware, has shown up at one council meeting during my term — to talk about an elected mayor. Not once have I heard from Al Schulman on a pending issue before the council.”
As for his availability to constituents, Cohen said, “I am open for business 24-7… I have been extraordinarily available and responsive. I certainly wouldn’t want to limit my availability to just a few office hours a week. If Mr. Schulman wants to limit his availability to the public by having office hours, that’s his choice.”
And on the subject of an elected mayor, Cohen said that’s up to the voters, not the council, and the voters “have already spoken on that very recently that they don’t want one.”
“Mr. Schulman is certainly free to continue to advocate for an elected mayor from whatever position he holds,” Cohen said.
Schulman may just do that. “I talk right from the hip, right from the shoulder,” he said. “I have a big mouth and I don’t care who I insult or what. We’ve got to take back our city.”