Longtime Portland City Councilor finally faces a real challenge

Nick Mavodones

Nick Mavodones is facing something he hasn’t had to deal with in a decade and a half: a serious challenge to keep his seat on the Portland City Council.

One of three “at-large” councilors elected to represent the entire city on the nine-member body, Mavodones has been there since 1997. He’s currently seeking a sixth three-year term. In 2000 and 2009, he ran unopposed. In 2003 and 2006, Mavodones faced inexperienced challengers who lacked the energy and organization necessary to run, much less win, a citywide race.
That’s not the case this time around.
Mavodones’ challenger is Wellington “Wells” Lyons, a 30-year-old attorney and activist who works for a small start-up that makes accessories for iPhones and other devices. Lyons is smart and personable, and he’s running a real campaign. For example, unlike most candidates for municipal office around here, he has a campaign manager. Unlike Mavodones, Lyons has a Web site (wellslyons.com) and a Facebook page dedicated to his campaign. And he’s already mustered a small army of volunteers (over 100 people so far) to do outreach on his behalf.
Lyons said he and his crew knocked on over 400 doors during Labor Day weekend, surprising many residents who’ve never encountered a candidate for city office on their doorstep. The fact Lyons really wants the job — despite the long hours, the low pay, and the boatload of hassles — may be the deciding factor in this race, because other than that, most of the two candidates’ positions aren’t much different.
City council races are officially nonpartisan (candidates’ party affiliations do not appear next to their names on the ballot), but those affiliations are an open secret. Lyons touts the fact he’s a “progressive Democrat” atop the home page of his campaign Web site.
Mavodones is a liberal Dem too, but he’s of the old school variety, backed by what’s left of the city’s unionized workers and its working waterfront. Now in his early 50s, he’s been in charge of operations at Casco Bay Lines about as long as he’s been on the council, and has long been active in waterfront issues. Last summer, when Mavodones was serving his fourth term as Portland’s then-ceremonial mayor, he confronted Gov. Paul LePage over allegations the governor was determined to ignore the needs of Portland’s port out of political spite.
Lyons is new school. His most prominent affiliation is with the League of Young Voters. When Mavodones takes to the streets, it’s to march in a parade and wave to babies. When Lyons hits the bricks, it’s to rally against tax cuts for the rich and their backing of Mitt Romney’s campaign. Last February, Lyons led a group called Billionaires for Romney that protested during the candidate’s appearance in Portland.
Most of Lyons’ platform is pretty innocuous stuff — attract entrepreneurs, improve public transportation — though he’s got some innovative ideas within those broad positions, like providing free wireless access throughout downtown and making it possible to track city buses via GPS and other technology so riders know when their bus is actually going to arrive.
The most significant policy difference between the candidates is their approach to tax breaks for wealthy developers. Mavodones has generally supported them, including the two tax deals passed earlier this summer for projects that include swank office space, high-end apartments and condos on the city’s East End. Lyons said in a recent interview that he would have voted against both tax breaks and supports a moratorium on all future property tax deals until the city tightens up its policy for granting them, restricting such deals to projects that improve blighted areas.
That position will win over a decent slice of the 99 percent in Portland, but again, it’ll mostly be the amount of energy and engagement each candidate puts into this race that will determine its outcome.
Mavodones has taken a laissez-faire approach to campaigning in those years when he’d had to make any effort at all. When he ran for the position of full-time mayor last year, his pitch was essentially that things are pretty good in Portland already, and as mayor he’d keep the ship on the same steady course. That approach earned him a third-place finish and about half the votes the winner, Mike Brennan, received.
Lyons lacks Mavodones’ extensive experience in city government, and that’s a major disadvantage in this race. But if Lyons and his minions can out-knock, out-talk and out-network Mavodones over the next two months, that may be all the experience he needs.
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. His column appears here weekly.
Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.