Lunch with a Liberal


I’ve known Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling since 2005 when I met him at the State House during an interview with Sen. Joe Perry (I liked Joe more than any other Democrat I met in Augusta). Strimling, the former Senator, appeared in the office and Perry introduced us. I told Strimling at the time that, although I did not choose to actively socialize with blood-thirsty Bolsheviks, there was no reason we couldn’t be civil. He agreed and we went our separate ways. Some years later, he invited me to become one of his many Facebook friends. I consented and we exchanged a little raillery, parting ways until the end of June this year.

When we met at DeMillos for an event hosted by the Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC), he greeted me as an old friend. There’s no way to tell if he was faking it, but he’s a busy politician who deals with multitudes; it’s courtesy enough he took the trouble to pretend. After an exchange of courtesies with Matt Gagnon, MHPC’s genial CEO, Mayor Strimling presented his agenda for Maine’s largest city.

First, he’s counting on the passage of a $64 million bond issue for “rebuilding our elementary schools.” This will ensure facility-equality across his domain and provide 21st century learning environments for all. He explained that Portland’s elementary school population has been declining, and that this investment would reverse the trend.

Second, he aims to relieve property tax burdens on his city’s residents. This may be achieved if the state allows Portland to expand its taxation options.

Third, he hopes to move Portland to 100 percent clean energy by 2024. This goal has been incorporated in a comprehensive plan he described as a “huge” document distilled from the contributions of thousands of people, and assured us that this goal has the overwhelming support of Portland’s people.

Fourth, he aims to solve the problem of affordable housing, and added there’s a committee working on solutions. Here he admitted to falling short of his own high ideals. The organized tenantry, he told us, is unhappy and dissatisfied with the steps taken so far. It’s true that there was a lot of new building, but the new apartments were for people who could afford higher rents. Upscale housing for upscale people does not satisfy the advocates and activists, and it does not satisfy Mayor Strimling.

Fifth, he aims to impose a requirement for earned sick time on local businesses. He reasons that this benefit, along with a robust minimum wage, would draw a higher quality worker force to the city.

Sixth, he wants to make immigrants feel welcome and included. He argued that if legal immigrants were allowed to vote in municipal elections, they would feel more included.

I’m not being hypercritical in saying that there was nothing in this agenda that wandered far from the Progressive Policy Playbook. That is exactly why it was useful to attend this MHPC event. It’s fair to note a major deviation from what we would normally expect from a Maine progressive’s political lecture. He did not denounce the Governor. He didn’t even criticize him in passing. I can’t explain this. I didn’t know it was possible.

Strimling handled the questions that followed his talk well. He remained quick, composed and cordial. He was met with a good deal of skepticism, but nothing I’d call hostility. I asked Strimling about the pedigree of his economic ideas, and what books he recommends. He had no books to recommend, remarking in a light tone that it had been a long time since he had read Marx’s Das Kapital.

Now let’s examine this agenda point by point.

First, the “21st-century learning environment for all” initiative aims to fulfill the ideal of equal treatment for all. It won’t go very far in that direction because the quality of the individual teacher is the critical variable. I personally can’t imagine how a more expensive facility would have elevated and accelerated my own intellectual evolution, but that’s a puzzle every reader must address on their own.

Second, property tax relief is always the tax reduction that politicians avaricious for popularity prefer. Money taken straight out of the victim’s bank account and sent along in a check is “real money.” Money that seeps out of current income in withholding, excise and sales tax, fees, etc., is phantom money. The taxpayer never feels as if he really had it.

Third, it’s pretty well established that “huge” government plans turn to wastepaper long before the target completion dates arrive. It may be that a majority of Portland’s voters foresee lobster traps being set on Congress Street by 2024 unless the city takes urgent action, but when we read in a July 1 New York Times article that China plans to build 100 new coal-fired power plants this year, we have to wonder what difference the Portland plan is going to make.

Fourth, upscale housing and upscale tenants produce tax revenues. When middle-scale people become upscale people and move on to upscale housing, they leave behind middlescale housing for low-scale people. This is just one objection of his proposal, but a complete account of America’s “affordable housing” disasters would go on interminably.

Fifth, it’s reasonable to argue that a high-quality workforce is a magnet for business, but we have to ask whether minimum wages and benefits are decisive in building a quality workforce.

Sixth, does the opportunity to vote in municipal elections make immigrant communities feel a little more included, sort of included, or a lot included? Does anybody know?


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