50 Reasons We Love Portland: Reason No. 28: The city finally elected a mayor

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By Jeff Clark
Photographed by Nathan Eldridge

For almost nine decades, the city of Portland got along without an elected mayor. Each year the city council chose one of its own for what was widely considered an honorific position that had more symbolic than actual power. Portlanders amended the city charter to return to an elected mayor in 2010, although the post still lacks much in the way of direct influence. For example, the job comes with one part-time administrative assistant and no independent staff.

Despite that, former state legislator Michael Brennan was one of fifteen candidates for the job last year. Born on Portland’s Munjoy Hill fifty-nine years ago, his family moved to Florida when he was five after his father lost his job when Union Station closed. He moved back to Portland in 1975, two months after graduating from Florida State University, taught school, served in the state legislature, and found a home as a policy associate at the Muskie School of Public Service.

Given the still undefined role of the mayor’s position, Brennan argued during his campaign that the position would require a consensus builder, someone skilled at collaborating with diverse interest groups, someone who could use the powers of persuasion rather than the powers of the office to accomplish his goals. Not coincidentally, he became widely known during twelve years in the legislature between 1992 and 2006 as someone with all those skills. He will need them, and more, as he carefully maneuvers through a period when Portland’s civic power structure is being rearranged to accommodate a new and potentially unsettling player.

With the first year in his new job behind him, the avid runner sat down with Down East writer Jeff Clark to talk about what he has learned and what he hopes to accomplish in the coming years. Brennan still seems exuberant about the job, praising its strengths while at the same time pointing out that it has a number of flaws — its lack of power being chief among them.

The obvious question first: Why run for mayor? You had been in the legislature. You had a successful career with the Muskie School of Public Service. Why run for a brand-new office with questionable influence? What were your expectations?

The opportunity to be the first [elected] mayor in eighty-eight years was a significant and exciting possibility. The other thing was to be in a position for four years and really be able to identify some issues and have the opportunity to follow through with those for as long as possible. I’ve lived in Portland for more than forty years; I care very deeply about the city. I can’t imagine having a better position than being mayor of the largest city in Maine.

Jeff Clark is an award-winning journalist whose work has been published in Down East since 1985. He lives in Bath with his wife.

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