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. 

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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