Local politics in Portland typically follows a well-worn path. The city is run by Democrats, there are some ongoing debates, a certain amount of mudslinging, and generally two sides are pitted against one another for political power: monied interests vs. Portland’s diverse working-class. But over the last two weeks, Southern Maine’s largest newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, helped create a crisis so intense it has been forced to backtrack. After publishing unfounded allegations and blaming progressive Portlanders of being uniquely rude when it comes to expressing their politics, the Press Herald claimed that the left’s supposed attacks on political niceties were damaging the city. How dare oppressed people speak truth to power so plainly!
Despite professing to deliver the daily news independent of picking sides, the Press Herald has become increasingly open in siding against the interests of Portland’s poorest and most marginalized people. In some ways, this is nothing new. Most recently, the Press Herald called for a “No” vote on all five People First Portland referendum questions and it has endorsed developer-backed candidates like Nick Mavadones, Spencer Thibodeau, Kim Cook, and Kate Snyder. However, it usually tried to couch these positions in common-sense arguments. This illusion has come undone with recent events. Let’s briefly recap.
In June, 2021 there was a city-wide election to select commissioners for a Charter Commission. Among the results, Shay Stewart-Bouley won District 1 and Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef won one of the four At-Large seats. One of the At-Large losers was William Bailey. That’s how democracy works.
Except, William Bailey’s wife, Robyn Bailey, then assistant Principal at King Middle School, wrote an inflammatory email to Mayor Kate Snyder, targeting Charter Commissioners Nasreen Sheik-Yousef and Shay Stewart-Bouley criticizing various social media posts from the new Commissioners. Bailey asserted that if the Commissioners— both of whom are people of color—had been white, “they would be done, gone and trashed.”
Bailey also asserted that Portland doesn’t “have the same racially charged issues as big cities,” showing an embarrassing and dangerous lack of local awareness. When Superintendent Botana proposed Robyn Bailey as the new interim Principal at King Middle School some members of the school board, who were aware of her email, raised concerns that Bailey was not in support of their school equity goals, and therefore might not be the right fit for the job. In a closed session to protect personnel confidentiality, Board member Roberto Rodriguez read the email out loud and encouraged the Superintendent to change course.
Said and done, right? Most folks would look at that email and agree that maybe this isn’t the best person for the job. But that’s not what happened. Bailey was promoted, and then, three months later, School Board member Jeff Irish broke confidentiality rules in an October surprise tell-all statement which the Press Herald’s news desk published, and then columnist Bill Nemitz penned an October 8 opinion piece taking the city’s progressives to task for creating an environment hostile to free speech, referencing Bailey’s letter and the unfounded allegations therein. In his haste to criticize progressives, Nemitz ignored business-friendly City Councilor Tae Chong’s ridiculous claim in an Op-Ed published by the Press Herald on September 24 in which he declared that progressive school leaders were “responsible for about 85 percent of all the property tax increases in Portland, escalating rents and hurting Black and brown people in poverty.” Later, on Facebook, Councilor Chong doubled down by declaring, “Ask the white school leaders, Emily, Adam, Anna and Roberto – Hispanic but does not identify with black therefore technically still white, why they want to do this?”
All this passed without comment from the Press Herald. Then on October 10, the paper doubled down on their defense of the status quo by publishing a news story—not an editorial or an opinion piece— by Randy Billings laying most of the blame for recent political divisiveness at the doorstep of progressives by accusing them of being responsible for a small number of conservative and moderate city officials leaving their positions. But, Billings only quickly glossed over the dubious and divisive actions of Mayor Kate Snyder when she used her official City email account to blast out endorsements of particular candidates.
After a storm of criticism—including a sharp defense of Board member Roberto Rodriguez’s actions by Pious Ali, Ben Grant, and Erica King in a Special to the Press Herald—Nemitz penned an apology for how he had treated Commissioner Shay Stewart-Bouley in his article. He admitted he had been too careless in passing on unfounded allegations, and he would do better moving forward. And so the Press Herald, after carelessly exposing its biases for all the world to see, is hoping to pull that mask back up and act as though nothing big had happened.
Today, the Press Herald published letters from Botana and Bailey who both expressed the need for reflection and change, but while Botana links that change to the equity goals that form the bedrock of the Portland Promise, Bailey’s letter is very careful to avoid the subject of race. Clear and forthright, heartfelt, with plenty of mea culpa for the divisiveness of her words, she turns a blind eye to the divisions that her words revealed and inflamed. Bailey’s letter, is in effect a doubling-down on her previous statement that Portland does not have the same racially charged issues as other cities.
All of this raises three issues Pine and Roses feels it’s critical to highlight:
- Maine is not immune to racism: from systemic racism reflected in populations of incarcerated residents and the treatment of Black and immigrant folks during the Coronavirus pandemic, to individual acts of racism committed by too many white Mainers. Bailey’s and the Press Herald’s decision to target two women of color in their initial campaign against the left is part and parcel of this reality.
- Just because Portland is a “Democratic” city, it doesn’t mean it’s leaders are progressive. In fact, a lot of local Democrats continue to be very friendly to large developers and businesses to the detriment of workers and the climate. So we must ask ourselves: if every would-be politician knows they need to run as a Democrat to win, does it even matter? It’s merely a label, there are no demands placed on anyone to be a Democrat. What we need to do is know every local candidate’s platform.
- The dog whistle of “political divisiveness” only serves to silence marginalized voices and hide the apartheid caused by institutionalized racism. It’s as though leaders in the political mainstream only want to live in a democracy so long as no one being unfairly treated speaks up too loudly. How else can we explain Maine’s Black Lives Matter protests, Portland’s successful push for working-class referenda, and the left-wing majority elected to the Charter Commission provoking such an outcry from Portland’s powers that be?
The divisions conservatives and moderates decry were, in fact, inflamed long ago by their ilk ignoring marginalized voices, the growing gap between rich and poor, and a political system dominated by big money. Our Black and Brown neighbors have taken it on the chin for far too long. Many of our friends are thrown behind bars when what they really need is assistance. Our LGBTQ+ community has spent decades fighting for basic acknowledgement under the law. Twenty-five percent of Maine women have experienced sexual violence or stalking. Our working-class comrades are being squeezed out of cities with low wages and high rents. Our immigrant friends are made to feel ashamed for celebrating their culture and language. Our Indigenous allies are slowly but surely losing sovereign rights to their lands. Many of us intersect with more than one of these groups, and almost all of us feel the squeeze between food, rent, or medicine. All of this has been inflicted on us by bosses and politicians who insist on “civility” and “playing by the rules.” Well, we know one thing for sure: now is not the time to pipe down. If resistance to business as usual ruffles some feathers, so be it.