The Bollard’s View


Changing of the old guard: City Councilor Jim Cloutier, center. (photo/Chris Busby)
Changing of the old guard: City Councilor Jim Cloutier, center. (photo/Chris Busby)

A mighty long wind

I’m gonna miss Jim Cloutier.

Don’t laugh. I’m serious. Granted, the veteran Portland City Councilor has made his share of unpopular decisions. And his harshest critics – some current public officials among them – have long complained that “Clout” has used his considerable clout to alternately steamroll and sneak his agenda through City Hall. He’s been cast as the Karl Rove of Portland politics, the brains behind a bullying Democratic Party majority, and now that voters citywide have cast him out, not a few folks on the other side of the fence are rejoicing.

I can’t toast to that. Love him or loathe him, no one can deny that Cloutier put as much work and thought into his part-time public service gigs as most full-time city employees do. He certainly did have an agenda – and no qualms about doing the behind-the-scenes legwork and lobbying necessary to move it forward – but his master plan was hardly secret. He’d gladly explain his vision for the city in elaborate detail if you’d give him enough time – say, about a week and a half – to do so.

Cloutier’s been called a windbag (and much worse), but as a reporter and a citizen, I much prefer this sort of politician to such alternatives as the hothead, the airhead, the pinhead, the pissant, the snake, and the loon. I’ll take the wonk over the wanker every time.

Sure, I disagreed with his positions now and again, but I seldom considered it a waste of time to hear him elucidate their finer points, even if my coffee turned cold in the interim. I learned a lot about local government by listening to Cloutier’s ramblings these past eight years. The loss of his institutional knowledge is significant.

Cloutier was generous – overgenerous, really – in his willingness to share that knowledge. For a reporter whose job is to help readers understand how City Hall works, he’s been a great source. Plus, Cloutier always answered the phone or called back, and rarely, if ever, played the game whereby officials claim to be unavailable so as to first find out the subject of the story, and then decide whether or not to speak to the press. The receptionist at his law office never asked why I was calling; she just patched me through. It’s a little thing, but like Cloutier himself, it speaks volumes.

Ironically, Clout’s politically fatal misstep was tied to the ease with which he navigated the halls of City Hall. His handling of the Maine State Pier circus while it was before the Council committee he chaired was assailed for being too expedient and too much the product of his own bureaucratic imagination (e.g. the concept of the “concept RFP”). But there was also an expectation in some influential circles that Clout, the de facto mayor, could deliver this $100 million baby for the city and Ocean Properties, the bidder he and many other powerful people prefer. When it became clear that wasn’t in the cards, his reelection prospects started taking on water.

Cloutier seems to have sensed the pier issue would be his downfall. In an article printed in the November edition of Working Waterfront, headlined “Portland can’t decide what to do with Maine State Pier,” reporter Sally Noble quotes him criticizing the Olympia Companies’ proposal, and notes that Cloutier “anticipates losing his council seat in the upcoming election.”

(No appreciation of Jim Cloutier would be complete without a lengthy digression, so allow me to insert one here. Pundits like Noble, the Press Herald‘s editorial board and the cranks on local talk radio have been bitching that the City Council “can’t make up its mind” about the pier, as if the nine-member body had one head. But the deadlock over the pier accurately reflects the public’s conflicted feelings about its future. It’s democracy in action. 

(It’s also the latest indication that Cloutier’s faction of the Donkey Party isn’t in charge anymore. Power has shifted to a loose affiliation of Greens, renegade Dems like incoming Mayor Ed Suslovic, and lone Republican Cheryl Leeman, who’s rumored to be taking Clout’s place as chair of the Community Development Committee. This new majority of sorts is about as stable as nitro, but it’ll be thrilling to watch it explode.)

So, so long, Jim – at least until next year, when rumor has it you may run for State Senate. That’d be a tough race to win. The last person who ascended to that office after losing a Council campaign was Ethan Strimling, and he has much better hair. 

Until such time, this pundit will miss your wit and wisdom; your folksy, lawyerly manner; your insights and anecdotes. May a mighty long wind carry you back home.

— Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard.