This Small City Is Proving That Left-Wing Ideas Can Triumph at the Ballot Box

Socialists just helped pass a slate of progressive ballot measures in Portland, Maine—signaling that voters are hungry for bold policies that favor the working class.

Meaghan LaSala

(Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

As the country wrestles to make meaning of the 2020 election outcomes, many are looking to Florida, where a supermajority of voters passed a $15 minimum wage, while a smaller majority delivered the state for President Trump. Examples like Florida demonstrate that voters across the political spectrum will turn out for ideas that benefit working-class people. 

Portland, Maine — where I live — also passed a $15 minimum wage ballot measure along with a slate of other left-leaning policies, but hasn’t received the same level of national attention. As a city dominated by Democrats, Portland could point the way toward a more progressive direction that’s both popular and helps to grow the Democratic Party in the coming years. 

In what the Portland Press Herald called a forceful rebuke of the city’s political establishment,” Portlanders overwhelmingly passed four out of five progressive ballot measures — voting to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, ban the use of facial surveillance technology in the city, enact a Green New Deal that includes training and protections for workers alongside environmental policies, and enact rent control. A fifth ordinance to ban short term rentals lost by just 222 votes, and is headed for a recount.

Leo Hilton, a former union stagehand in Florida, moved home to Maine after losing his job during the pandemic. Not long after, he got involved in the Southern Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, one of the coalition groups that organized the ballot measure campaign under the banner People First Portland. According to Hilton, the most important thing to keep in mind is that this campaign was about a set of coherent, interconnected issues that present a new vision for what a people-led city might look like. Portland voters showed they understood that.” 

In the spring, Hilton plans to go back to school to receive an electrician certificate, and is excited about the doors that will open under the newly approved Green New Deal policy. “‘I’m planning to work in building and construction trades here in Maine in the future, and with that ordinance passed, knowing that I’ll be able to get training on the job in Portland working in a field I’m excited about — that’s a total game changer.” 

The tensions being placed on the poor and working class have been rising in the city for years, with Portland ranking 2nd and 3rd in the country for fastest rising rents in 2015 and 2019, respectively. Struggles over bold, progressive ideas have played out at the city council level, where representatives have consistently prioritized business interests over those of working class people. For just a few examples, the city council narrowly rejected a paid sick leave ordinance in 2019, explored moving homeless services to the outskirts of town, and dismantled public health infrastructure, all while consistently increasing police funding and failing to address the cost-of-living crisis. Nearly the entire council, made up of all Democrats, came out in opposition to the slate of ballot questions. 

But it wasn’t just the city council. In 2015, voters rejected a $15 minimum wage at the ballot box, and did the same with rent control in 2017. But former Portland mayor and People First Portland volunteer Ethan Strimling didn’t see those losses as a signal of lack of popular support for progressive ideas. 

Do I think the ideology of the city has shifted since the minimum wage in 2015, or rent control in 2017? Absolutely not,” says Strimling. The fundamental difference, he says, is that the city saw much lower voter turnout in those years. This election was more representative of our city. This is where we had our moment to say to the council, We’re going to show you that people are interested in bold change.’” Strimling says. There’s no doubt this was a powerful rebuke, and I hope the council hears it.”

Hilton believes these local wins should be taken seriously in the national narrative about the traction of progressive policies. The victories demonstrate a way to effectively use this kind of people power to win big for the working class,” while also demonstrating the impact of such policies in order to win more people over for the wider cause of racial, social and economic justice.”

Strimling agrees. Cities and towns become the place where people can see these policies work. Portland will see that the world won’t end when you give hazard pay to workers. Or when you pay the prevailing wage. Or when you require luxury housing developers to build more affordable housing, or when you require that buildings are environmentally sound to reduce their carbon footprint. We know that these policies will work.” 

While moderate Democrats make the misguided argument on the national level that left-wing ideas cost the party seats this election, city-based campaigns like the ones here in Portland, Maine are providing the laboratory for implementing progressive policies — and point the way toward even larger wins for the working class. 

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Meaghan LaSala organizes for health care justice with the Southern Maine Workers’ Center. Her writing has appeared in Dispatch, Alternet, and YES! Magazine.
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