The Mayor Must Be Crazy
Is Ed Suslovic saving Portland or screwing it up?
By Chris Busby
“No incumbent mayor has ever been defeated in the city of Portland,” said former City Councilor Will Gorham. “But there’s a first for everything.”
If Gorham’s right, Portland Mayor Ed Suslovic could make history when he attempts to win re-election to the Council this fall. A series of controversial votes and pronouncements over the past year have turned large blocs of once-likely supporters into sworn enemies. A leader in his own party, Democrat Dory Waxman, is running against him, as is a Green Independent from the peninsula, activist Tina Smith. By the time this issue of The Bollard hits the presses, others may already have taken out nomination papers to join the scrum.
Is Suslovic toast?
“I think he’s certainly quite warm, and might be browning,” said former City Councilor and Mayor Jim Cloutier, who knows what it’s like to get burned in a citywide race. Last fall, Cloutier lost to a fellow Democrat (Councilor Jill Duson) and a Green from the peninsula (John Anton) in a race for two at-large Council seats.
Portland City Council elections are officially non-partisan, but party politics are a strong influence that shape and partly determine their outcome. In a year when Portland Dems are expected to mob the polls in support of their candidates for Congress and the White House, alienating the top dogs in the Donkey Party is not a wise political move, but that’s exactly what Suslovic has — some would say gleefully — done.
“[Suslovic’s] been a Democrat for a long time, but certainly the kind of traditional Democratic support cores will be looking elsewhere,” said Cloutier, who is supporting Waxman and running for a seat on the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners this fall. “I think of the longshoremen, some of the progressive real estate development community, the education people, some of the social services people and quite a large number of the neighborhood groups.”
Suslovic is unfazed by this sort of speculation. “You have to be careful when you talk about the Democratic Party,” he said. “An awful lot of Democrats support me based on my reasoning and what not… Will Rogers was absolutely right: I belong to no organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”
Suslovic also knows he’s an attractive candidate among unenrolled voters, who value his independent streak, his willingness to stand up to the powers that be in his own party or anywhere else.
“Ever since I’ve served on the Council, I made the commitment that I would not decide on issues based on political expediency,” said Suslovic, 48, a former state legislator who’s nearing the end of his first three-year term. “I’d do what I thought was right for the people of Portland.
“I try to take a long-term view … knowing full well that those aren’t always the politically easy or the politically smart choices to make,” he continued. “But I went into this just absolutely committed.”
Not a few people think Suslovic should be committed for his decisions in office. The mayor must be crazy,
Crazy, maybe. But maybe crazy like a fox.
Steppin’ in it
Last fall, Suslovic threw the Maine State Pier redevelopment process for a loop by suggesting a so-called megaberth (a long dock capable of handling most cruise ships) be built at the city-owned Ocean Gateway facility next to the pier as part of any final deal with a private developer.
“Preposterous,” fumed then-Councilor Donna Carr.
“Outrageously ridiculous,” Duson said that night in Council Chambers.
“He’s drunk the fuckin’ Kool-Aid,” Councilor Kevin Donoghue told The Bollard.
But that was nothing compared to the anger Suslovic stoked when he voted for The Olympia Companies’ pier plan over the competing proposal submitted by Ocean Properties, a much larger development company that had partnered with former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell for the project. While union heavies glowered at him from the gallery, Suslovic’s swing vote led to a 4-4 stalemate prior to last November’s election. After the election, newly appointed Mayor Suslovic brought down the gavel on a 5-3 vote in Olympia’s favor.
In April, Suslovic was back in the hot seat over his vote against putting a nearly $20 million state bond to build an elementary school before city voters for approval. “In these bad budget times, to give away $20 million is disgraceful,” Councilor Nick Mavodones said that night. “I hope all the people who live in this city take note of this.”
Pretty much all of them did. This time, the public outcry was so intense that Suslovic and Councilors Dave Marshall and Donoghue, who’d joined him to block the measure, relented and reversed their votes. Portlanders passed the bond by a wide margin weeks later.
Earlier this summer, Suslovic stepped in it again when comments he made to The Forecaster appeared to question the city’s longstanding commitment to move its public works facilities out of Bayside — part of an ongoing effort to revitalize the blighted industrial neighborhood.
Councilor Donoghue, whose district includes Bayside, said the mayor has “forced” city administrators to “backpedal regarding the public works site.”
Suslovic later said he was only questioning how and where public works facilities should be relocated, not the wisdom of moving them out of Bayside, but that’s exactly the kinds of talk that drives his colleagues batty.
“He can be quite good and bring a lot of insight and breadth of perspective,” said Councilor Anton, “and he can be dreadful.”
An unabashed policy wonk, Suslovic’s “long-term view” can complicate efforts to achieve short-term goals: like fixing the Maine State Pier, building a new elementary school, or making way for new development in Bayside. His wonkiness tends to sidetrack discussions and “bog us down on matters,” Anton said.
Which doesn’t necessarily make Suslovic wrong. Just annoying.
Suslovic correctly points out that a lot has changed since the city struck a complex deal over two years ago to move public works operations and two scrap-metal-recycling businesses to land out on Riverside Street. For one thing, the city no longer has a Department of Public Works. It was combined this year with the Parks Department to create what’s now known as the Department of Public Services.
That merger may have created new and better options to consolidate and relocate city facilities, Suslovic said. A parcel of city-owned land out by the jetport could make a good public works site for Portland, South Portland and Westbrook, he added. Only one of the two scrap recyclers has agreed to move, fuel costs are way up, property values and the economy are way down, and so on. In sum, it’s “irresponsible” not to reconsider the original plan, he said.
Suslovic defends his vote to hold up the school bond by saying it was necessary to call attention to the fact there is no comprehensive plan for Portland’s elementary schools. Amid the furor his vote created, he was able to get school board members to agree to form a committee charged with developing such a plan by the end of this year. (School officials had previously suggested work on that plan could wait until the new school on Ocean Avenue opens two years from now.)
But the mayor was also trying to get the public to see the bigger picture. By approving state money for the new school, Portland voters may have inadvertently doomed at least two other elementary schools — perhaps even the one in their neighborhood.
“If you’re building a school for 450 students to replace a school with 270 [Nathan Clifford Elementary School], and you’ve already got considerable excess capacity in the elementary schools, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to look at the math and see that there are at least two schools that would be [closed],” Suslovic said.
He said some city officials involved in the process knew building a new school would sentence others to the wrecking ball, but sought to hide that fact from the public for fear it would lead to the bond’s defeat. “I’ve often said real leaders need to tell people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear,” said Suslovic.
The mayor’s critics claim he had far baser motives.
Suslovic lives in the Nathan Clifford neighborhood, near the University of Southern Maine; his three kids have gone to Clifford, and one has been attending the school during debate over its fate; his wife, Jen Southard, was president of the Nathan Clifford PTO (she stepped down during the firestorm that followed her husband’s vote on the bond).
“Turning down $20 million from the state for a new school, then trying to disguise it as anything but ‘my kids go there,’” snorted Gorham, who currently serves as president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization and has declared his intent to run for the Council again next year. “Everyone knows from day one he tried to derail the new school.”
Cloutier sees the possibility of a political conspiracy at play: that Suslovic agreed to vote for Olympia’s pier plan in exchange for the support of Donoghue and Marshall, Greens who both favored Olympia, when the school bond vote came up. (Council rules require a super-majority of seven votes to put bond issues on the ballot, so a minority of just three councilors can nix borrowing proposals.)
Marshall and Donoghue have heard that rumor before, and dismiss it as nonsense. A Donoghue-Suslovic alliance seems particularly unlikely in light of their sparring over the megaberth. “Ed Suslovic started returning my phone calls after I cast my vote on the school bond,” said Donoghue.
(In a sign of bona fide nuttiness, Suslovic brought a container of Kool-Aid to a City Council meeting after Donoghue’s comment appeared on our Web site, and offered cups of it to colleagues and reporters. This reporter had a sip — it tasted terrible. Suslovic had neglected to add sugar.)
In any case, the megaberth was hardly Suslovic’s idea. An earlier incarnation of the Council had approved plans for Ocean Gateway that included a megaberth nearly a decade ago. Only after then-Portland Ports and Transportation Director Jeff Monroe dusted off the old plans and explained that the city had run out of money to build the berth did Suslovic suggest one of the two developers pay for it.
Both readily agreed to do so, and when the results of Olympia’s protracted negotiations with the city are made public this summer, a megaberth built on their dime is expected to be part of the deal.
“Bill Nemitz called me ‘monkey wrench’ for my stance on making sure the megaberth is factored into the planning for the waterfront,” Suslovic recalled. But he also recalled getting a spontaneous high-five from an architect unaffiliated with either pier development team while jogging around Back Cove the morning after he cast the deciding vote.
“The pier vote and my stance on the megaberth — I’ve never experienced that kind of outpouring of public support,” Suslovic said. “I think I really touched a chord with a lot of folks who said, ‘You know, he’s got guts.’
“The easiest thing in the world would have been to just muckle under, go along,” he continued. “I wish I had a tape recorder [during] some of the conversations prior to the pier vote, both in terms of implied promises and implied threats.”
“The only reason for the Democratic Party to be upset with Ed is because that was the faction supporting Ocean Properties,” said Cheryl Leeman, the lone Republican on the Council, who also voted in Olympia’s favor. “To his credit, he did not cave in to the political majority that wanted that fifth vote. There’s something to say about that. It’s hard.”
A New Portland Disorder?
Suslovic’s election to the Council in 2005 signaled the end of an era during which the body was dominated by a chummy majority of moderate-to-liberal Democrats. That once-powerful group lost two members the next year, when Donoghue defeated Gorham and Marshall won the seat vacated by West End Councilor Karen Geraghty. With Cloutier’s loss to Anton last fall, the old guard was now on guard against a new “majority” made up of Leeman and the Greens and the maverick Democrat those upstarts had supported for the mayorship.
In reality, despite their common ground on the pier, there is no functioning alliance binding those five councilors. Quite the contrary, alliances of any sort are hard to come by these days. And Suslovic thinks that’s a good thing.
“There is not a dominant group of five, six or seven councilors that always vote together, or almost always vote together, and kind of run things,” he said. “In the long run, I think to have the kind of dynamic we have is healthy.”
The old guard is understandably bitter about Suslovic’s refusal to be a team player. The former Red Cross employee and real estate broker won a state House seat in 2002 by defeating a Republican and a Green, but lost to another Green, John Eder, in 2004, after the lines of his district were redrawn.
When former Councilor and Mayor Peter O’Donnell, a prominent member of the old guard, decided not to seek another at-large term in ’05, Suslovic was the first person he called. “I encouraged him strongly,” O’Donnell said, adding that he’d felt Suslovic’s term in the Legislature made him well qualified “to get things done in the city of Portland.”
Three years later, “I think even the most objective observer would say nothing’s been done in the city of Portland,” said O’Donnell. “Nothing.”
Gorham agrees. “I’d say things have fallen apart and there’s really no leadership whatsoever,” he said.
Suslovic said he would “disagree respectfully” with those assessments. He listed a series of Council accomplishments that include reforming the school budget process, passing the overall city budget this year — “the most challenging budget in the last quarter-century” — with a minimum of rancor and in-fighting, and repealing the controversial formula business ordinance limiting chain and franchise businesses downtown and in the Old Port.
Waxman, a 52-year-old mother of three, is firmly rooted in the politics of the old guard. She helped bring them to power in the mid-1990s as co-founder of the group Portland Community Action, a political organization that worked to get progressive candidates like Geraghty elected.
Waxman served a term on the school board in the mid-1990s, and chaired the Portland Democratic City Committee from 2002 to 2004. She’s been a community organizer in Bayside and was a paid lobbyist for Ocean Properties’ pier plan last summer. She currently performs lobbying and communications work for Bay State Gas/Northern Utilities — in fact, she met with Suslovic a few months ago on the utility’s behalf.
Waxman’s campaign implicitly promises the return of the old guard’s glory days. “Dory is the bridge the City Council so desperately needs right now to move beyond stalemates,” O’Donnell said in a press release announcing Waxman’s candidacy — a not-so-subtle allusion to the Maine State Pier vote. A fundraiser for Waxman’s campaign held at O’Donnell’s home last month netted over $2,000.
“I think there’s just been some great opportunities that have been missed under Ed’s leadership,” Waxman said in an interview, mentioning the Maine State Pier and Bayside. “Collaboration is a really important thing in city government. We need leadership and people who can come to the table and leave their personal agendas and the lack of vision behind.”
Councilor Leeman, who’s seeking her ninth term (which may also make history this fall), agrees the Council has been more fractious and unpredictable these days, but like Anton and others, she prefers the current dynamic to the one in play when the old guard ran the show.
“There was clearly a majority of five that had a stronghold on every vote,” Leeman said. “It’s not good for the public, not good for decision-making, and just plain not-good representative government.
Suslovic “stood up to the establishment … the established block of power that’s been out there too long,” Leeman said. “He put integrity back in the process and took the politics out of it. How can that be bad?”
Assessing his own chances, Suslovic said, “I think you have to look and say, ‘Do people want a rubber stamp, or do they want someone that is going to stand up and articulate what I would say events have proved to be essential points to bring up, then work together to make progress?”
Suslovic’s political fate will likely hinge on whether progress is made this fall on the Maine State Pier and Bayside redevelopment deals. Should either falter or fall apart before Election Day, his bid for another term could follow it down the tubes.
Then again, Suslovic is the Mayor of Portland — 24 hours a day.
With the support of his family (Southard is a director with the Maine Community Foundation), Suslovic has been able to make the part-time job of being mayor his full-time gig these days. Unlike mayors of the recent past, he uses the Mayor’s Office in City Hall as his daytime office, a perch that gives him plenty of opportunities to bend the ears of the administrators who actually run the city.
The mayorship of Portland is a largely ceremonial post, but the free publicity doesn’t hurt, either. “I never realized how many ribbons need to be cut, or keys given out, or opening comments to various conventions and what not,” Suslovic said at the start of a recent interview in his office.
His parting words: “Should be an interesting fall.”