People First Portland rallying at City Hall for rent control, a local Green New Deal, and more. (Photo by Em Burnett)
I should know.
In 2019, as the unapologetically progressive incumbent mayor of Portland, Maine, I got my ass kicked, in part, because of a Republican-operated, Chamber-backed, landlord-funded, law-breaking attack PAC.
Bitterness. Anger. Sadness. It all boils up after a loss like that. If you aren’t careful, it can make you act out in ways that are unhelpful and damaging.
Thankfully, I was able to channel my “acting out” by joining and supporting progressive activists to achieve results as good, if not better, than what we were able to achieve from inside City Hall.
I tell you this because it might help you understand the reactionary antics of conservative power structures when progressives actually start winning. It has certainly helped me.
Here in Portland, through years of hard work, we’re on the verge of gaining a progressive majority on our city council, we have passed broad policy initiatives transforming the power balance of the city, and we’ve re-opened our charter with the chance to finally rid ourselves of 100 years of governance designed and imposed by the KKK.
In response to these victories, city councilors have ramped up calling progressives “divisive” and three of the most conservative members have chosen to not even stand for re-election. Two similarly ideological school board members are also taking their balls and going home. Business interests have filed lawsuits to invalidate progressive laws enacted at the ballot box (and lost every time) and allies of the Chamber of Commerce have spent absurd amounts of money producing negative mailers and social media ads to try and stem the tide.
Even the Press Herald has joined the elite to oppose most of the change being demanded in our city. In just the last month, they wrote two opinion pieces sympathizing with reactionary forces—one by the editorial board, and one by Bill Nemitz. The Nemitz piece attacked a Latino city council candidate for privately questioning the fitness of a potential school principal after she sent a racist missive attacking two newly-elected Black women.
And finally, in just the last week, our current mayor, Kate Snyder, lashed out at progressives calling us “unhinged,” and our behavior “untenable.”
So what, specifically, is all this backlash in response to? Since November of 2019 here is just some of what we’ve achieved:
• In July 2020, 72% of Portlanders voted to open our charter so our current form of government could be made more democratic and humane.
• In November 2020, we passed four ballot measures, by an average of 60%, that reset the balance of power by instituting rent control, a $15 an hour minimum wage with hazard pay, a facial surveillance ban, and a Green New Deal.
• Also in Nov. 2020, two conservative councilors were replaced by progressive alternatives (this fall most expect similar results).
• In June 2021, Portlanders elected a charter commission made up of 40% people of color (compared to zero people of color in the last commission) and a majority who publicly declared support for a stronger elected executive, clean elections, immigrant voting, police oversight, and stronger labor standards.
• Our school board, under the leadership of progressive Democrat Emily Figdor, has succeeded in getting cops out of our schools, paying hazard wages during the pandemic, expanding our universal Pre-K program, and switching the vast majority of their energy needs to solar.
So what does all this mean? Remember, this is nothing new. Every time those out of power begin to demand a seat at the table, demand equity in power, cries from the powerful for “civility” over “divisiveness” have been used to dismiss the marginalized.
Women’s suffrage. Bus boycotts. BLM. Every time.
That’s because power cedes nothing without a fight. And when you start using the tools of change as effectively as we have been able to in Portland, name calling may be all they have left.
So, if, in your city, you are fighting for progressive change, as I hope you are, remember that when you start winning, be ready for the establishment to become “unhinged.” And when they do, double down on your work.
Because, while they will not go quietly into that good night, go, they will.
Photo via Progressive Portland
Author: Ethan Strimling served ten years as Mayor and State Senator for Portland, Maine.
Source: Maine Beacon, October 12, 2021, https://mainebeacon.com/opinion-progressives-are-being-attacked-in-portland-because-theyre-winning/