Meet Ethan Strimling, the macher mayor of Portland, Maine
It was a surprise to everyone in Portland, Maine — including Mayor Ethan Strimling — when 250 asylum-seekers from Angola and the Congo arrived in the New England city over a single week in June.
The only advance notice Portland received had been a call from a Catholic Charities worker in San Antonio, Texas, who had put the asylees — who had crossed into the U.S. through the border with Mexico — on a bus headed for the coastal city, Strimling said in an interview with Jewish Insider.
Though it created a housing crisis for officials in the municipality that The New York Times described as one of the “oldest and whitest states in the country,” Strimling and others welcomed them.
In April, when President Trump tweeted that he was considering sending immigrants to sanctuary cities, Strimling tweeted in response, “If Trump wants to send more immigrants our way, I say, ‘Welcome Home!’”
Asylees who arrived in June were given temporary shelter at the Expo Center, a city-owned basketball arena. “The city’s response made me so proud that I was a member of this community, let alone the mayor,” Strimling told JI. “I went to the shelter every night and talked to the families, made sure they were safe. “It gave me great joy to be down there every day.”
About half of the unexpected African asylees have settled in Portland, with the rest having been set up with housing in surrounding communities, said the mayor.
His city is “without question the most diverse in the state,” Strimling told JI, and he expects the 2020 census to reveal that 15 to 20 percent of its residents are people of color – a major shift from 20 years ago.
Now, three weeks from Portland’s mayoral election, Strimling hopes voters will elect him to a second term. Despite having three challengers, including one who interned for Strimling’s last campaign, “we are feeling cautiously optimistic” about winning, he told JI.
Strimling, who will turn 52 this week, was born and raised in New York City and was an acting student at Julliard when he decided to take a left — or northern — turn and move to a farm owned by his mother’s best friend, near Maine’s Acadia National Park. He earned his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Maine and a Master’s degree in education at Harvard before going to Washington to work as a legislative aide. He returned to the Pine Tree State to run a congressional campaign.
In the late 1990s, Strimling turned to working with at-risk kids, eventually running Learning Works, a community-based education organization, and joined the board of the NAACP. Later he was invited to join the board of the Maine chapter of the ADL. He stepped off of all boards when he ran for mayor. He lost his first race in 2011, but won his second attempt four years later.
Now he hopes to win a second term and address what he describes as Portland’s most pressing problems, primary among them a local housing crisis. He is pushing for a $10 million bond issue that would raise money for affordable housing, wants to increase the number of affordable housing units developers provide, and to “crack down on Airb&b,” which has taken 400 homes off the rental market since their owners began listing them on the short-term vacation stay site.
“When those migrant families arrived we needed just 100 units of affordable housing to not open up the gymnasium, and we didn’t have it,” said Strimling.
His city has become a tourist destination on the Maine coast, with developers building triple the number of hotel rooms as they did two decades ago. But that doesn’t mean it has been a total economic success for Portland, said Strimling, noting that “tourism industry jobs are low-paying.”
A pop-up organization calling itself Unite Portland has been running Facebook attack ads against Strimling in the past several weeks — not for another candidate, just against Strimling. The individuals behind it are real estate developers, he said, though organizers are not complying with mandatory disclosure reporting rules.Strimling said that his campaign filed an ethics complaint against them last week in an effort to force them to disclose more details.
The son of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father, Strimling identifies as Jewish, but it is a cultural rather than religious association, he said. His father, Arthur Strimling, is a theater director and midrashic story-maker based in Brooklyn. Most of his close friends from high school were Jewish, he noted. His girlfriend, who also works as his campaign manager, is not.
In July, an article in the local Portland Press-Herald about donors to his campaign highlighted the contributor with the most overtly “Jewish” name. In addition, there have been some anti-immigrant and anti-Strimling signs posted around Portland, he said.
However, antisemitism has not been an overt issue in his race for a second term, he said.
“I get a lot of ‘go back to NY’ — code for ‘New York values,’ you know what that can mean,” Strimling told JI. “But overtly antisemitic stuff, where they’re really identifying my ethnicity, I haven’t gotten that.”