Jill Duson, the incumbent in this year’s race for City Council At-Large, has served on Portland’s City Council since 2001, and it’s time for her to go.
Duson grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania in the sixties, and after graduating from the local public schools, attended Antioch College where she studied Literature and Political Science. She went on to earn a law degree from U Penn, beginning her practice as an advocate for the elderly, moving to Maine in 1984 and taking on a leadership role with the Maine Council on Aging.
In 1987, when she was in her early thirties, however, Duson switched focus and took a job with Central Maine Power as one of their top lobbyists in Augusta, and for the next couple decades, she made her living lobbying for different corporate fossil fuel interests. Since getting elected to the Portland City Council back in 2001, for the most part, Duson’s continued to further those same private interests.
In 2012, Duson tried to sell off Portland’s central public space, Congress Square, to a wealthy out of state developer who wanted to turn it into a corporate ball room. In 2015, when local activists put pressure on the City Council to raise Portland’s minimum wage, Duson tried hard to limit the increase to a mere $8.75 an hour, a far cry from the $10.10 the City Council eventually agreed to. Last year, when City Manager John Jennings suggested that the municipality close the City’s wildly popular, publicly funded health clinic on India Street, Duson strongly supported the effort.
Duson’s record on the Portland City Council simply isn’t the record of an activist. It’s the record of a corporate lobbyist.
Justice never happens automatically. The only time governments ever behave fairly is when the people in charge of them are willing to take a stand and risk confronting the big employers and property owners who are benefiting from the current arrangements of things.
It’s time for her to go.
Bree LaCasse grew up in the West End, on the same street where she lives today, and even went to the Reiche public elementary school, which her son currently attends.
Her folks have been Portland fixtures for decades. Her mom, Pandora LaCasse, does the elaborate holiday light installations that go up across the city every winter, and her dad, David LaCasse, is an engineer who’s been helping out around town for decades.
Much of the discussion that I’ve seen over the last few months about her candidacy has dealt with her being wealthy and out of touch, but while I have no way of gauging her personal net worth, my sense is that Bree and her husband aren’t outlandishly wealthy, at least not by the new Portland standards. What is clear, however, is that much of what Bree does professionally in the world revolves around the close relationships that she maintains with people who are incredibly wealthy.
In the nineties, Bree attended Bowdoin and graduated toward the top of her class with a degree in French. In the years since, she’s worked on a number of things around Portland, including helping the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project raise money, helping the Portland Museum of Art raise money, helping Friends of Congress Square raise money, and now at Community Housing of Maine, her current source of employment, one of her primary responsibilities is, you guessed it, raising money.
To be clear, I think those are all good causes, and I’m grateful that she helped them all get the funds they need to serve our community in the ways that they do. I too went to a small liberal arts school. For better or for worse, almost all progressive political causes and community organizations rely on the charitable beneficence of the wealthy to survive, and it’s the people like Bree who keep that money coming in.
Bree’s smart. She’s well organized. Donors must like her and find her trustworthy, or she couldn’t possibly do what she does. When Congress Square was in danger of being sold out from under the city, Bree did admirable work to help save it, and after the campaign was over, she stepped up as the executive director of the newly formed Friends of Congress Square, coordinating all the different people in our community, from tango dancers to classic cinema buffs, who wanted to bring the space to life in their own way.
But, what I’ve never seen Bree do is speak out against injustice in a way that required her to risk any of the relationships that she has with wealthy people. Rich people, in general, like art museums, public parks, reduced barriers to immigration and government sanctioned “affordable housing” programs that enable them to get out of paying taxes. I like those things too, but being willing to fundraise for them isn’t much of a litmus test.
What the wealthy don’t tend to like is paying their workers any more than they have to, getting any less in rent than they might otherwise, or having to foot the bill so people who don’t have money can access social services. Those things require fights, and Bree simply has never done that work. She stayed miles away from the India Street and minimum wage campaigns. She’s been in Portland her whole life, and as far as I can tell, this campaign is the first time she’s had anything to say publicly about the struggles facing low income tenants. I appreciate her current support of the Paid Sick Days bill currently being discussed by Council, but if faced with a tension between a private interest that she had a personal connection with and the greater good of her own constituents, I just don’t trust that she’d be willing to make the riskier vote.
Bree has also taken a fair amount of heat for some of her campaign tactics, including raising $50k for a race that usually takes half of that, associating with aspiring political terrorist Steven Biel, and sending out a mailer that seriously looked like it was an endorsement from the Portland Press Herald, which the newspaper immediately loudly renounced.
I honestly think most of this stuff has been kind of funny, but what it does speak to, I think, is a certain weird aloofness that often comes with wealth. I just have a hard time imagining anybody who had their nose to the grindstone at a typical job would think that the fake endorsement mailer was going to fly. If you spend too much time around the wealthy, it’s easy to start feeling like the rules no longer apply to you, and that’s not a state of mind that any community leader should be in.
So why do I think you should vote for Joey?
While it’s true that he hasn’t earned his living as a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry nor made his life in the wacky stratosphere of affluent hobnobbing, and that alone might be reason enough to vote for him given the competition, I also genuinely really like the guy.
Joey grew up in Kennebunk, went to public schools and graduated from Brown in 2007 with a BA in Art History. From there he went off to San Francisco, where he lived for most of his twenties, programming websites and producing podcasts and short films, before moving back to Maine a couple years ago, taking his programming work with him on his laptop. He makes homemade jam. He recently bought a condo on Munjoy Hill where he lives today. He believes in quoting the drag queen RuPaul.
Joey doesn’t need to be doing this.
He’s not a retired corporate lawyer sauntering into City Hall like he owns the place. I’m not sure he’s ever even been to the kind of fundraiser where you have to pay hundreds of dollars for a plate of food (neither have I).
But he’s exactly what Portland needs right now.
Joey has an inexplicable, yet profound, love of street-level political organizing. He was at the forefront of the fight to Save India Street. He put a bunch of free time into working with me to set up the Portland visual budget app. Joey seems to show up at everything, from the Bernie Sanders campaign, to the Southern Maine Workers Center, to the Portland Democrats to almost every City Council meeting. He does this not beause he has anything particularly to gain from it, honestly a lot of it is pretty boring, but because he truly cares a lot about people who are suffering in our community, and elsewhere, and really wants to help them in a meaningful way.
I’m confident that, even if Joey doesn’t win tomorrow, he’ll keep showing up and working hard to stand up for what’s right. But I’m also confident that if he does win, it’ll be because he really wants to be there, and he will have arrived there on his own steam. He isn’t reckless, but he won’t shy away from a fight either. He lives for this stuff.
Portland has some significant challenges, for sure, but we aren’t the first city to face any of these. There are solutions out there that work. There’s got to be. Joey’s a voracious reader. He’s a techie. His approach to public policy is more worldly and well-informed than than that of the vast majority of our current council.
We’re living at a moment where so many of us are furious at what’s happening in this country, but, while most of us are quick to talk about how much we hate Trump, what do we do? For folks like Joey, the answer is simple. You jump in to the fray with both feet. Now it’s on us, the voters, to see that he wins.