On Monday night, Mayor Ethan Strimling will have the opportunity to use Portland’s approximation of the bully pulpit to set the tone for politics in Maine’s largest city over the next year.
The State of the City address will be an important indicator of whether 2017 will prove a more cooperative year in City Hall — or if the clashes between the mayor, city council and city manager will continue.
In recent weeks, the mayor has made a big show of appearing conciliatory with his City Hall colleagues — even literally extending olive branches when new council members were sworn in.
But over the last year, Strimling has often used public statements to push his left-leaning — even for Portland — policy agenda. It’s a strategy that’s won him little support or trust from city councilors. And given the mayor’s limited powers under the City Charter, he needs more councilors in his corner if he hopes for movement on a policy wish-list that includes a number of items city council declined to pass or deferred in 2016, including borrowing about $60 million to renovate four elementary schools and requiring a longer notice period for landlords to end month-to-month rental agreements.
In his first State of the City address, shortly after his election, Strimling set out an agenda that was largely in line with the council’s pre-existing priorities, with goals like changing the city’s zoning code and expanding access to high-speed broadband, which had also been pushed by his predecessor, Michael Brennan. Many of those items remain on the city’s to-do list, although some of Strimling’s specific proposals have been realized, including the creation of a new office to help immigrants integrate into the Portland economy.
Council voted to establish the Office of Economic Opportunity during its last meeting of 2016, after a year of committee work. The new office “will do more for the city than, perhaps, anything we have done in my first year,” Strimling said at the time.
The mayor went on to profusely thank Councilor David Brenerman for his leadership on the issue, striking a conciliatory chord that he’s been sounding since it was revealed that his efforts to wrest more power from City Manager Jon Jennings cost taxpayers $21,000 in legal fees.
But in a recent letter to the Portland Press Herald, Strimling also pledged that this year he will “use the bully pulpit more effectively” and hinted that he remains convinced that he’s being denied the full powers of his office.
Which of these messages dominates his Monday speech will be a portent of the year to come.