Kate Snyder begins her four-year term as mayor and Tae Chong begins his three-year term representing District 3, which includes Libbytown, Stroudwater, Rosemont, Nason’s Corner and part of Woodfords Corner. Pious Ali, who was uncontested in his re-election bid, was sworn in for a second term as an at-large councilor.
It’s the first time a woman has been popularly elected as mayor in Maine’s largest city, though previous councils have appointed a handful of women to serve as chair in Portland’s 233-year history. Snyder and three female councilors – Kim Cook, Jill Duson and Belinda Ray – all wore white scarves to mark the centennial of women’s suffrage.
In addition to four women now on the City Council, the two male councilors sworn in are both immigrants – Ali was born in Ghana and Chong in South Korea. Ali, who was sworn in for a second term, was believed to be the first Muslim to win election to public office in Maine and Chong is believed to be the first Asian-American elected to serve on the Portland council. And there are two other people of color on the council – Jill Duson and Spencer Thibodeau, who placed second in the mayoral race and has two years remaining in his second term as councilor.
Ali highlighted the significance of the moment by wearing a traditional African hat and robe, or Agbada, to Monday’s inauguration.
“It’s something I have never worn as a city councilor,” Ali said after the ceremony. “It’s a way of expressing who I am as an individual and to send a message to other people who are immigrants or ethnic minorities that it doesn’t matter who you are or what your culture is: You are welcome here and you have a place in the larger public discourse.”
Chong said he doesn’t reflect much about the fact that he’s likely the first Asian-American to be elected to the City Council, though it he conceded it means a lot to older members of his community, especially his parents.
Chong said his 84-year-old father and 80-year-old mother have only an elementary school education and had survived the Korean War, World War II and the Japanese occupation. His parents worked blue-collar jobs and never imagined their son would be living the American Dream, he said.
“I feel blessed that my parents were able to see it,” Chong said. “For my community, they’re really proud. It brought tears to my dad’s eyes and for a lot of elderly Koreans who were here it was a big deal.”
Snyder, 49, takes office at a time when the city continues to look to increase the amount of affordable housing, make the city more affordable to service-industry workers and build a new homeless shelter.
During her inaugural address, Snyder largely stuck with a campaign theme, which called for balancing civic ambition with financial capacity.
She did not unveil any major policy proposals. Instead, she noted that the council will meet next week to set its priorities, and highlighted the major issues facing the city, including housing and affordability, as well as losses in state revenue that add to the property tax burden.
“Our job as elected officials is to work with the community to identify and prioritize the issues we face and get to work,” she said. “Which is precisely why I ran for mayor and what I am eager to do with you all.”
Snyder said the city ne to continue advocating for a local-option sales tax at the state level, which would help Portland capture more tourism dollars for infrastructure upgrades. She said “reliable, frequent and affordable” public transportation is needed to address traffic congestion, climate change and affordability issues.
Though she campaigned on building consensus, Snyder acknowledged that there will continue to be areas of disagreement.
“There’s an appetite for healthy and fair debate and decision-making in Portland – for process that includes all voices and respects a range of opinions,” she said. “We won’t always agree, but listening to the whole debate with an open mind to learning and understanding will, I believe, allow for responsible and durable outcomes.”
Snyder replaces Ethan Strimling, who served one term and placed third in his re-election bid behind Snyder and Thibodeau. Snyder credited Strimling for leading with “passion and conviction,” especially in welcoming hundr of asylum seekers last summer. His response, she said, “helped to ground our community’s strong and immediate response as welcoming, inclusive and compassionate.”
Strimling delivered brief remarks Monday that focused mostly on his achievements, including making significant investments in schools, banning pesticides, providing property tax and rent relief to low-income seniors, and overseeing the installation of a solar farm on the city’s old landfill on Ocean Avenue. He called on his supporters to support Snyder, saying “she is the right person for the job.”
“As the economic divide in our country and city grows to unprecedented levels, nothing less than the economic and social equality of all Portlanders is at stake,” Strimling said.
“On a personal note, thank you again for a remarkable four years leading an incredible city,” he continued. “I don’t know what comes next for me. But I know I will always stay committed to the work of those who are on the margins of our community; those in the middle struggling and not wanting to fall backwards; and those who are successful and want to use their success to help others rise up.”
Snyder is the third mayor since the city switched in 2010 from a ceremonial mayor appointed by fellow councilors to serve a one-year term, to a full-time position, chosen by voters citywide every four years. The job comes with a City Hall office and a salary of $76,615 a year.
The mayor’s duties include working with city councilors and the city manager to establish and implement citywide goals, providing comments on city budgets, delivering an annual State of the City address and advocating for the city at the state and federal levels. The mayor has the power to veto any budget passed by the council, which in turn has the power to override it. All of the executive duties remain with the city manager.
While the full-time presence and citywide constituency give the mayor the opportunity to develop policy and build support, the mayor is just one of nine votes on the City Council. And although most city councilors represent specific parts of the city, three of the eight councilors also are elected at-large and serve a citywide constituency.
Snyder’s campaign centered around her promise to operate within the confines of the position, rather than trying to expand the powers of the office to pursue personal political goals.
Snyder said she would work with the council to address key issues facing the city, including the lack of affordable housing and high property taxes, which were among the issues most often raised during the mayoral campaign. The council will meet for its annual goal-setting workshop on Dec. 10.
Chong will replace Brian Batson, who did not seek re-election to the District 3 seat after serving one term.
Chong is a 50-year-old a former school board member and a social services administrator who earned 43 percent of the vote in a five-way race. He’s the manager of social enterprise and workforce development for Catholic Charities Maine, a nonprofit that oversees the state’s refugee resettlement program.
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