Sam Spadafore, Pine & Roses reporter and District 2 voter, spoke with City Council candidate Victoria Pelletier about policing, the housing crisis, and community-driven change.

Victoria Pelletier has lived in Maine her whole life, and Portland for the past five years. She has been an active community member in the West End of Portland, hosting regular chats where West Enders can come together to learn, share, and explore ways we take care of our needs and wants.

Racial equity and community conversations have been a focus in Pelletier’s campaign. She believes that community needs to be put above institutions that have historically done harm. A major plank in her platform is supporting the Alternate Crisis Response Model brought forth by the Racial Equity Commission, to form an “organization to take on the role of responding to non-violent incidents within communities related to homelessness, substance use, and mental health.” Such an organization would be independent from the Police Department, and be “housed within a community-based organization that already provides social services to marginalized communities dealing with homelessness, mental health crisis, and/or issues related to substance use,” according to the Racial Equity Commission’s report

Pelletier says when it comes to handling issues with substance abuse and with mental health, it can make people nervous to talk about leading with de-escalation. But she wants to tap into the knowledge of social workers and mental health professionals that already work in Portland and pay them for what they already do. “These things have been studied by these professionals. They’re here to really give back to the community in such a way that they could provide their expertise for a lot of these issues that we’re seeing here in Portland,” Pelletier said. “If we don’t have professionals leading those conversations and interventions out in the streets, then we’re just perpetuating a society of harm by these organizations that really aren’t versed in a lot of these issues,” she said.

The Charter Commission has been looking into the Citizen Police Oversight Committee as part of their response to public demands in the wake of the Black Lives Matter most recent uprising. The current Portland Police Citizen Review Subcommittee has little to no power when it comes to disciplining police for misconduct in investigations. Beyond that, there’s not much they can do. They only act when citizens make a complaint, and a majority of Portlanders don’t even know the committee exists.

Pelletier has been keeping up with the conversation about citizen oversight. “I think [a Citizen Oversight Committee] is another great step in making sure that we are a community-based city and really removing this bias that I think exists in the police department. We’re saying, ‘We are going to have citizens reviewing what’s happening. They’re going to be as tapped in as the police officers.’ They’re going to be – if we do need police here – to be the liaison between the community and the police.”

There was a hint of abolition looming over our conversation and I was curious what the Defund the Police movement meant to her. The modern abolition movement refers to calls for deep structural changes to the policing and carceral systems and even more fundamental conceptual shifts required to move from a society that controls and punishes crime, to one that prevents crime through supportive services, and rehabilitates people who have committed crimes within their communities, in order to restore peace and promote justice. Abolition has roots in the movement for the abolition of slavery, and has been given new voice though demands to defund the police in the wake of the George Floyd uprisings. I asked Pelletier if the Defund the Police movement would mean that the money that currently goes to the police would go toward alternative policing sources. 

“What a concept, right?” Pelletier laughed, and her smile told me she was ready to make real substantive change in Portland. “We need to look at, and be transparent about, funding allocation in Portland. I think for so long we’ve said, ‘Whelp, they’re the police and they get this amount of funding every single year,’ and it just continues to increase.” Now, Pelletier really wants to question where that money is going, if it’s really being used, and if it’s necessary for the safety of our city.

She’s not ready to rip the funding out from under the police department, but she’s ready to have a conversation about it because she has the vision of a world without policing in mind.

image1As a Black woman, Pelletier grew up knowing not to rely on the police to keep her safe, “This goes back to subjects of bias, lived experience, and privilege. I can imagine a world where the police don’t exist because, for me personally, my interactions with them have not always been positive and there has been a lot of bias and feeling like I am a target.”

She questions why the police are put on a pedestal when we have community leaders and experts that could be taking care of the community. She imagines a world where those who are already doing the de-escalation work are embedded into the community and seen as equals and neighbors.

“I am in full excitement mode when I think about what this could look like and how Portland could set the tone,” she said.

Her excitement persisted when I asked about how to address the housing crisis Portlanders are facing. Her platform targets rezoning laws, short term rentals, and ending exclusionary single-family zoning to ensure affordable housing in the city. 

Affordable housing is a term she wants to redefine. For Pelletier and many in her district, $1,000 per month for rent is not affordable. Black and Brown Portlanders are affected the most and she’s willing to make policy changes to ensure they’re not priced out. Not just performative policy, but real policy, including a hard look at the city’s policy on short-term rentals.

A citizen referendum restricting short-term rentals to owner-occupied units and raising the registration fee narrowly failed at the ballot last November, but Pelletier doesn’t think the conversation around banning unhosted Airbnbs should end there, or be a difficult one. “That is on the top of my list in terms of affordable housing,” Pelletier said, “That should be an easy thing to do.” She believes that by talking about the issue authentically people will come around to understanding how short-term rentals contribute to pricing people out of living in Portland. 

Portland’s activist group Black P.O.W.E.R. made a list of demands after a summer of rallies and marches to protest police brutality, including several demands around housing, public health and education. She is fully behind their demand for increased funding for minority health.

“Maine had the worst racial disparity for COVID-19 with the least number of people of color in the country. That’s embarrassing,” she said. “But what are we doing about it? How are we providing resources for people of color and how are we providing additional funding to these organizations? Especially ones that are owned and operated by immigrants.”

She wants the city to create a realistic pipeline for people of color, immigrants, and new Mainers to become leaders through funding opportunities. Not just in City Council but as teachers, doctors, mental health professionals, substance abuse professionals and social workers. 

Bravery is what she believes our elected officials need in order to get the job done, “We can’t continue to do the status quo. A lot of the Black P.O.W.E.R. demands are attainable, it’s just going to take power in City Council to push it forward.”

Gentrification in District 2 has brought in wealthier, more conservative voters over the last decade. Pelletier lives in the “forgotten part of District 2” known as Parkside, which has a large population of immigrants and people of color. She wants to bridge the gap between all parts of the West End community: Parkside, Western Prom, and Libby Town.

“When you have grown up marginalized and under-resourced, you’re actually better at seeing the bigger picture because you don’t know what it’s like on the other side.” Pelletier explained. She’s not afraid to work across class lines because she has already been working and having conversations with people who are more privileged than she is.

She wants her conversations to be honest about fulfilling each other’s needs, “At the end of the day, we’re all not getting something. And a lot of the time it’s the same thing, it’s just we’re living different lives and we have different ways of talking about it.”

Her conversations won’t just be about feelings. Pelletier is going to put data alongside those lived experiences to make educated decisions on policy change. She wants to be able to show the historic and systemic disparities of District 2 alongside the personal stories.

She hopes that with her lens as a Black woman living in one of the whitest states in the country she will be able to resolve conversations in a way that shifts perspectives and advocates for those who need it.

Pelletier plans to make sure Portlanders who work here can thrive here and part of that comes from civic engagement and education. Increased access to public comment, meetings that are in multiple languages and live captioned, and accessible technology for remote participation are on the list to bring the conversations to the community.

“I look forward to redefining the definition of ‘experience,’” she said. “I have lived experience. I’m not reading about the lives you’re talking about, I’m living it in real time. When we talk about leaders, I want the ones that have lived experience, that are worried about the next paycheck, that are worried about having the roof over their head, and are worried about being able to be here and be seen. That’s who should be the leaders of Portland.”

There’s still time to request a ballot or vote in person before the election on November 2nd.