Opinion: Divisiveness simply isn’t the problem / by Rob Korobkin

Photo: Volunteers with People First Portland ahead of the 2020 election. | via Maine DSA

As Portland comes into the final weeks of the 2021 election season, there’s one word, above all others, that seems to capture how a sizable contingent of local people currently see the town’s political landscape:


There’s corporate attorney Brandon Mazer, who recently told the Portland Press Herald that he’s running for City Council in order “to help end the divisiveness that has emerged in recent years in local politics.”

There’s local conservative columnist Bill Nemitz, who published a piece last week brashly condemning Portland’s progressive leaders, whom I see as having been politely standing up for what they believe in, but whom he sees as having “come down” with “a bad case of lockstep.”

On some level, I can kind of see where people like Mazer and Nemitz are coming from. Nobody likes a jerk, no matter what political stripe. But, where I differ from them is that if you want to score points in my book, you’ve got to do more than simply avoid being divisive. A lot more.

I remember a few years ago, I was over at Portland City Hall when I ran into Nick Mavodones, a longstanding Portland City Councilor whose seat has finally opened up this year. We got to talking, and I asked him how many terms he’d been on council for. He thought for a second and said, “I’ve lost count haha. Seven? Eight?” 

“Oh wow,” I said. “Is there any legislation you’re really eager to work on this year?” And he said, “No. At this point, I’ve seen it all, and frankly, none of it works.”

Was Mavodones’ attitude “civil”? I suppose. 

Mavodones was never overtly, personally insulting. He’d never call anybody out by name. But a lot of the time, he was the dictionary definition of a stick in the mud. 

As I understand what’s gone wrong in local government in Portland over the last few decades, the problem has never been about serious malfeasance or simple corruption. The big problem has been that, year after year, as Portland’s supply of reasonably priced homes has dwindled and the city’s broad racial disparities have widened, local leaders like Mavodones have pretty much just stood by, with their arms all but held across their chests, doing next to nothing.

Mavodones was one of the councilors who in 2013 voted to sell the big park downtown, Congress Square, to private developers who wanted to build a luxury ballroom there for rich folks. Selling public parks is easier, I suppose, than genuinely making life better for the local people who use the park. It was progressives who resisted that and converted the park into the vibrant cultural space it is today.

A few years later, in 2015, Mavodones was one of the councilors who voted against raising the town’s municipal minimum wage up to a mere $10.10 an hour. I guess it’s easier, yet again, to turn a blind eye to local employers paying their staff starvation wages than it is to hold them accountable. It was progressives who passed a municipal referendum last year putting the town on a track to a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Obviously, Mavodones is not on the ballot this year. But what is on the ballot, and will probably always be on the ballot in Portland, is his style of politics: that easy, non-divisive, quietly complacent approach. It’s that political ethos that says, whenever a potential conflict comes along, don’t mobilize people against the interests of capital, just yield to their greed, again and again.

Challenging that style of governance — calling out racism in places where a lot of white people seem like they would much prefer it go ignored, speaking up for the sorts of folks whose interests often don’t seem to be factoring into municipal decision making — that takes genuine courage. 

Is doing so “divisive”? Maybe. It certainly can be. 

But, in my experience, it’s easy to avoid being divisive. Just don’t say anything. And while nothing gets done, by definition, you aren’t instigating anything. There’s a big difference, however, between not being divisive (which is easy) and actually uniting people together in a way that everybody, or close to everybody, feels listened to (which is hard). 

And yes, unfortunately, all too often standing up for people whose interests would otherwise get pushed to the margins runs the risk of ruffling tail feathers and getting maligned in the local press. 

But I know the people being attacked, and the press has gotten it totally wrong. These people, whom I keep hearing are so unreasonable and intractable, largely working class folks of color, are honestly some of the most open-minded, thoughtful, humble and compassionate people I’ve ever met. They’re doing difficult things, like bringing diverse stakeholders to the table together to discuss how best to handle youth discipline in Portland’s public schools, and they’re doing them remarkably effectively. 

Can they sometimes be divisive? You betcha. And I love and admire them for having the guts and the backbone that it takes to do precisely that.

Author: Rob Korobkin is a writer, musician and person in long term recovery who makes his living helping to operate low-barrier recovery residences across Maine. He lives by a pond in Windham with his wife and baby son.

Source: Maine Beacon, October 18, 2021, https://mainebeacon.com/opinion-divisiveness-simply-isnt-the-problem/