Around this time last year, Kate Snyder was cruising to a decisive victory in a four-way race to become Portland’s mayor.
She took the reins in December with a goal of making a fresh start after a period of infighting among the her predecessor, Ethan Strimling, City Manager Jon Jennings and the City Council.
But, instead of easing into her new position and enjoying the benefits of a strong local economy, her first year was totally upended by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced businesses to close, people to stay home and blew a $12 million hole in the city’s budget. That was compounded by angry protests against police brutality and systemic racism and a worsening homelessness crisis marked by a two-week long protest encampment on the steps of City Hall.
Through it all, Snyder says, she has spent the year focusing on her original goal: building relationships and trust among the council, the manager, staff and the community at large.
“Sometimes the harder the challenge, the quicker you can build relationships with people,” she said.
Snyder will deliver her first State of the City address on Monday via Zoom. She does not plan to announce any new policy initiatives, but will talk about the challenges and what she sees as reasons for optimism.
“The state of Maine and the city of Portland has done a phenomenal job responding to a very difficult environment driven by a pandemic,” she said. “We have lots of reason to be proud about the way we have responded and optimistic about the path forward.”
Snyder said she has the rest of her four-year term to move other priorities forward, although she sees her role as pursuing the collective goals of councilors rather than pushing her own policy agenda. Those goals include securing more state funding for schools, building a new homeless shelter and addressing the affordable housing shortage.
“This to me isn’t a political job – it’s a public service job,” Synder said. “I don’t want people in the community or people on the council or city staff to think I have an agenda that goes beyond working together for good things for Portland. My agenda is not paramount here. What’s paramount is achievement of the goals we have set together.”
Outgoing City Councilor Kim Cook, who was an early supporter of Snyder’s mayoral run, gave the mayor high marks for her first year in office. Cook, like others interviewed, described Snyder as a hard worker who has gone above and beyond to keep councilors informed and agendas focused on the city’s priorities.
One metric Cook cited as a measure of Snyder’s success is that people no longer approach Cook wanting to talk about the mayor.
“I used to hear it a lot under the previous mayor,” Cook said. “I don’t think people realize all the work she does. On the other hand people appreciate that she’s looking to work on ways to facilitate positive outcomes for the community without being the one to have to take credit for any of the work that gets done.”
Unlike her predecessor, Snyder has not generated headlines or sought the media spotlight. She embraced the tedious, behind-the-scenes work to ensure councilors – all of whom serve part-time and most have full-time jobs – have all of the information they need to make decisions at meetings. She convened the council early to set shared goals, primarily to address the affordable housing and homeless issues in the city.
Only three months into her term, however, the pandemic hit and changed nearly every aspect of everyday life. Emergency orders were declared and curfews adopted. Businesses closed, some permanently. Workers were furloughed, or laid-off altogether. City Hall was shut down, forcing Snyder and everyone else to work remotely from their respective homes since March.
Then came the summer of unrest. The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, sparked protests across the nation. Portland was no exception. During two especially tense protests, Portland police used pepper spray and arrested more than two dozen protesters who refused to disperse late into the night. Some protesters threw fireworks and other objects at officers, and some downtown businesses were damaged and burglarized.
A two-week homeless encampment added to the unrest. After Preble Street, a nonprofit social service agency, closed its day shelter and the Portland Public Library closed its doors, dozens of homeless people had no where to go. After first gathering in Deering Oaks park, many of them set up an encampment at City Hall for two weeks.
Organizers of racial justice demonstrations and the homeless encampment both issued a series of demands, which included firing City Manager Jon Jennings and defunding the police.
Snyder said those demonstrations were learning experiences for her. She remains in contact with one of the homeless encampment organizers and said she hopes that people protesting racial injustice will engage the city in a long-term conversation about structural inequities in city government.
In response, Snyder proposed forming a Racial Equity Steering Committee, which was approved by the council. That group is expected to make a series of recommended policy changes and proposals early next year. Councilors also approved funding for an independent review of the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests in early June.
The city continues to address homelessness, Snyder said, including placing people in hotels who are unable to access the shelter and working on a plan to use Community Corrections Center at 50 County Way as additional shelter space when a temporary shelter inside the Portland Expo closes later this month. Councilors also approved funding for additional bathrooms for people who remain unhoused and on the streets.
Snyder’s experience as a former school board chair appears to have helped her understand the mayor’s roles and build trust among the eight councilors, said Ben Chipman, a state senator and former member of the charter commission that drafted the mayor’s job description.
It’s a full-time position with a four-year term and a roughly $76,600-a-year salary. But it carries no executive authority and it’s the city manager who oversees city staff and day-to-day operations.
Snyder embraced the role as advocate for the city at the state level and quickly went to work with the city’s legislative delegation to increase revenue for the city, Chipman said. Those bills failed to advance once the coronavirus forced lawmakers to adjourn early.
“She was literally, right after being sworn into office, was up in Augusta meeting with the governor and shortly after that meeting with the delegation,” Chipman said. “When the session started in January, she hit the ground running on things with us up in Augusta.”
Progressive activists, however, have been less impressed with Snyder’s performance.
Several organizations that led protests or advanced citizen referendums, including the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America, Black POWER and the Maine People’s Housing Coalition, did not respond to interview requests. But several of those groups have aired their critiques on social media.
After Snyder and eight councilors announced their opposition to five referendum questions on the fall ballot, Black POWER said the elected officials were “resorting to Reagan-esque anti-socialist propaganda to instill fear in Portland voters.” That group also criticized the city budget for not defunding the police and panned the Racial Equity Steering Committee formed by Snyder and the council to study institutional racism in public safety.
“This Steering Committee is crumbs compared to what you could have done and should be doing as Mayor of Portland,” the group wrote in an Aug. 13 Facebook post.
Jill Duson, the first Black woman elected to the council, defended Snyder and the council’s response to the protests, saying they were organized by groups that would not identify any leader for city officials to have conversations with. She said Snyder and councilors were trying to find a balance between “speaking for the voiceless and getting out of the way so other voices could speak.”
“It doesn’t make sense for the mayor to go sit in a chair and be the focus of some of the more vitriolic expressions repeatedly,” said Duson, who also praised Snyder’s relentless outreach to councilors. “What did we want the mayor to do? That is what I have trouble seeing.”
James Cohen, the president of the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce and a former councilor and charter commission member, praised Snyder’s leadership style and the way she has responded to the rapid-fire crises of the pandemic. He said she has brought “amazing stability, thoughtfulness and collaboration to City Hall,” while following through on her promise to listen to the myriad of constituencies in the city.
“As a citizen, I can’t help but appreciate the work she has done,” Cohen said. “From the perspective of the chamber, the mayor and the council have worked incredibly hard. They have worked collaboratively with the business community. They have been responsive and doing whatever they can to keep Portland moving under incredibly difficult circumstance.”
Workers, however, aren’t feeling the same love.
Jason Shedlock holds a variety of union positions, including being regional organizer of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, a delegate to the Southern Maine Labor Council and an affiliate to the Maine State Building and Construction Trades. He also served as an assistant to the mayor under Strimling for about a year before the council eliminated the position and supported his re-election effort.
Although he described Snyder as a “heartfelt person who wants to do a good job,” Shedlock criticized her for not doing enough to listen to and address the needs and concerns of workers in the city, saying the council was suffering from “paralysis by analysis.”
He was disappointed that Snyder and eight councilors came out against the DSA‘s referendum questions. And he said it took Snyder months of prodding before she would agree to meet with union leaders.
“I hope the first year isn’t a harbinger of the next three,” Shedlock said. “I hope the first year can be taken as a learning experience as to how to pivot from that and perhaps do things differently.”
Snyder said she appreciated her conversation with Shedlock last month, which she described as information-sharing, rather than a discussion of any specific council action or policy initiative. And she looks forward to continuing that dialog into her second year.
“We’re a small city in a relatively small state and the work we do together has to be inclusive of all sorts of thoughts and opinions,” she said. “That really matters to me. I don’t think we need to make decisions in the City of Portland based on political soundbites.”