People First Portland’s Campaign: A Perfect Storm
“Woah! Something’s not right.”
I don’t remember who saw it first. It seemed like we all saw it at once. The vote tally on the City Clerk’s spreadsheet seemed way off compared to the other races.
“Could we see those last results again?”
It was Election night, 2020. COVID had nixed any chance of a campaign party, so I was home with my laptop, phone, and tablet open to several different group chats. As a City Council candidate, I had VIP access to the City Clerk’s livestream tally of each precinct, the last of which would come over late from Peaks Island. I already knew that I’d lost my own race, but I’d spent just as much time campaigning for Maine DSA’s People First Portland (PFP) campaign to pass five municipal ballot initiatives, and PFP hadn’t received an invitation to the clerk’s livestream, so I volunteered to stay and relay the results.
The clerk flipped back to the previous screen, and I saw that there was an error in the vote totals for the ballot initiatives. It appeared that the totals for the ballot questions had been added twice, which meant we weren’t as far behind as we thought. We also knew votes cast early by absentee ballot would lean strongly in our favor, as polls showed liberals and progressives were more likely to vote early during the pandemic. Things suddenly started looking up.
People First Portland, a project of the Maine DSA Electoral Committee, consisted of a coalition held together by a demand simple enough to pose a real threat to the political establishment: that our city should put the needs of people before the demands of corporate profit.
The single most important factor in the campaign’s success was the coalition itself. Portland is a small town with some very big personalities and a lot of ugly political history. It was not an easy task to build a coalition and get everyone working together. To this day, some of us would still rather cross the street to avoid speaking to one another, but we managed to recognize the urgency of the opportunity and we built and kept the coalition together under tremendous pressure. It wasn’t love or friendship that carried us across the finish line. It was solidarity, a word that many people use, but don’t know the meaning of. Acting in solidarity requires you to put aside your own individual needs, grudges, and judgements in service to something more important. It’s about loyalty and trust, and you give it of your own free will.
The Portland Greens, Maine People’s Housing Coalition, Fair Rent Portland, dozens of trade unions, the Southern Maine Labor Council, Progressive Portland… the list of coalition partners goes on and on, and for each one there is a story, but it would take an entire book to tell them all.
The Portland Democrats City Committee (PDCC) was just one strategic battleground in the fight to build a meaningful coalition that would sway voters. Portland is a city of Democrats. The Party was turning out its base to defeat Trump and Collins, so we decided to seek their endorsement on the ballot initiatives in the hope of riding the “blue wave.”
The endorsement meeting was happening just as Bernie was endorsing Biden. Disillusionment with the Democratic Party among DSA members who had campaigned hard for Bernie was at its peak, so we knew that getting them to attend a PDCC meeting was going to be a heavy lift. In the end, we managed to turn out a fair number of comrades, but the linchpin was having coalition partners outside of DSA who showed up and helped us get a majority of votes for endorsement on three out of the five ballot questions, and we prominently displayed the Portland Democrats logo on our campaign website.
Political campaigns don’t just drop down out of the sky. They’re built strategically by organizers who must read the conditions on the ground, make use of forces already at play, and work with events that arise concurrently, which are often unpredictable and out of anyone’s control.
Planning for the PFP campaign began at the January, 2020 Maine DSA Convention as a workshop presented by the Electoral Committee. The forty-minute session asked participants to consider a campaign to pass a slate of ballot initiatives in Portland, and generated a list of two dozen or so possible referenda that participants rated based on how likely they would be to work on them.
Over the next few weeks, we narrowed the list down to 6 or 7 referenda, forming subcommittees to research their viability, looking at similar legislation in the surrounding area, as well as comparable laws in effect around the country. In the end, we settled on five ballot initiatives to Increase the Minimum Wage; Ban Facial Surveillance; Implement Rent Control and Tenant Protections; Implement a Green New Deal, and Restrict Short-Term Rentals.
The Green New Deal brought Portland’s outdated green building standards current; increased the affordability of housing built with public funds, required that workers on publicly funded building projects be paid the prevailing wage, and much more. Coalition building with unions was a significant factor in the overall campaign’s success, as the trade unions donated the bulk of our campaign funds. Union labor also helped build and place large wooden signs around the city, and brought a non-partisan, working class cohesion to the campaign, as many trade union voters in Maine are Republicans. We made a strategic choice not to include a fossil fuel infrastructure ban in this referendum because we knew it would divide Labor and bring the full force of the oil and gas industry down on the campaign. That was a hard choice for many of us, but it allowed us to keep our coalition with labor and ultimately to move the fight one step forward.
The fight for $15 saw similar compromises to avoid dividing workers. Legislation attempted in Portland several years before had met strong resistance over the tipped wage. Not wanting to risk losing restaurant workers, we included language to bring the tipped minimum wage along on the same schedule as the base minimum. When the pandemic hit we also included a provision for hazard pay in a declared state of emergency, which increased the minimum wage to time-and-a-half.
Rent Control had been tried before in 2017 by Fair Rent Portland, and the leadership of that campaign joined PFP to run the same ordinance again, making strategic adjustments to the previous language based on analysis of what had failed the last time. They also brought invaluable organizational resources to the campaign, having had done all of it before, from signature collection to GOTV. Their power analysis and opposition research put us ten paces ahead of the landlords and developers, giving us the gift of foreknowledge of their strategy and tactics.
The push to ban the use of facial surveillance technology by police began as a project of the Maine DSA Prison Abolition Committee, making it an easy decision to include it. Then in May, the murder of George Floyd by police gave rise to some of the largest street protests Portland had ever seen, and the newly formed Black Lives Matter Portland (now Black P.O.W.E.R.) became a strong coalition partner in the campaign. The protests and rallies meant people were suddenly out of their homes and on the streets demanding justice which, in conjunction with our online-based signature campaign, allowed us to set up successful signature collection stations at these events and ensure PFP’s place on the ballot.
The Restriction on Short-Term Rentals had been independently written by a newcomer to the campaign, a landlord connected with a NIMBY neighborhood group fighting against the rise of luxury vacation rentals on Munjoy Hill. She decided to join forces and added her formidable research and data analysis skills to the whole campaign. AirBnB corporate was able to organize their local base of rental hosts effectively and it was the only referendum that we narrowly lost, after a recount.
People First Portland was a “perfect storm” of sorts. The particular conditions that gave rise to our campaign and pushed us to victory will never happen again, but other perfect storm conditions are occurring right now, all across this country. As our socialist movement builds, campaigns will arise that have the potential to rearrange everything in different ways.
It was well past midnight when my phone started ringing with comrades from all over the city calling to offer congratulations. We didn’t just win, it was a blow-out, with margins so wide that the newspaper called our campaign “a forceful rebuke of the city’s political establishment.” The fight isn’t over yet, and probably never will be, but that’s what organizing is all about.