There’s a big, dirty secret why Portland doesn’t have an elected mayor,
and it goes back to the Ku Klux Klan. Will a new charter commission finally put this behind us?
by Donna Stuart
Out in left field: August 28, 1926: The Klan gathers in Portland at what is now Hadlock Field. The Portland Expo building is to the right rear.
A national concern about traitors, spies, and subversive agitators led to immigrants being closely watched. This sentiment carried into Klan activities. The Klan sought to influence politics and promote its ideas of ‘nativism’ and ‘Americanism,’ explosively protesting against non-Anglo immigrants, particularly Franco-Americans, Italians, and Irish Catholics.
In 1923, over 7,000 Klansmen rallied to change city government structure from having an elected mayor to hiring a city manager. The Klan had a huge headquarters on Forest Avenue. Klan influence reached an all-time high here in 1924, when Maine had 50,000 members–6.2 percent of the state’s total population.
"Klan Wins Victory At Portland Polls,” trumpeted The New York Times on September 11, 1923. “Vote Breaks All Records, Disorder Marks Election.”
The headlines marked the dark day when Portlanders surrendered the right to have their own elected mayor.
Led by F. Eugene Farnsworth, “King Kleagle of The Imperial Satrapy of Maine,” the Ku Klux Klan, headquartered in Portland at an expansive klavern on eight acres at the corner of Forest Avenue and Coyle Street, had succeeded in lobbying for this change. Formerly the Ricker Estate, the enclave included a mansion, a huge auditorium, and a 60-foot electric cross whose incandescent light was designed to be seen from miles away. More than 7,000 klansmen rallied to promote the move from an elected mayor form of government–which had invigorated Portland since 1823–to the present city manager charter plan.
Fast forward to 2009. This spring, Portland voters will select nine new members of the charter commission to join three city-council appointees to review the city charter. One of the most anticipated and most watched debates will be over whether Portlanders will be able to choose a mayor by popular vote.
“People are really excited about this,” says Portland city councilor Dave Marshall of the November 2008 vote that created the charter commission. “We have a chance to shape our government [in a way] that suits us for the 21st century.
“Just as we elect our state governor and our nation’s president as chief executives of those branches of government, the largest city in Maine should be able to elect its mayor. Currently, all the executive power is in the hands of the city manager, who is hired by the city council. He’s good as a manager, but because he isn’t elected, he doesn’t have a citywide mandate so he can’t take a leadership position.” Marshall feels the result across the years has been a leadership vacuum at the very top. “The council has nine members. If you have a diverse group on the council–which is very healthy–you’re not able to speak with one voice clearly.”
Under the current system, the mayor is elected for a one-year term from and by the council, and is essentially the council chair. According to councilor-at-large John Anton, “If not changing things is what’s needed, our system serves that well. If what’s needed is strong leadership and policy-setting, our current system seems to be failing us there.”
The origins of the present form of city government lie in a dark chapter in the state’s history–when crosses burned all over the state, and white-robed members of the Ku Klux Klan marched down Main Streets all over the state. It was the early 1920s, and Maine had the largest, most active KKK outside the south.
When the Klan first darkened Maine’s doorstep–in about 1921–the state was in a post-World War I economic slump. To get a foothold here, the “Invisible Empire” fanned the flames of economy uncertainty and fears that Catholics–especially French-Canadians and other immigrants–as well as Jews and blacks were taking jobs away from native-born Protestants. By 1923, the Klan had an estimated 20,000 members, many of whom were doctors, ministers, politicians, and other prominent members of the community. The KKK’s agenda spilled out from pulpits, newspapers, well-publicized meetings, and in The Maine Klansman Weekly, published in Portland.
While Maine saw no lynchings, the Klan threatened a Cumberland County sheriff, a Jewish doctor, and African-American women in Portland. When Republican Gov. Percival P. Baxter blasted the KKK as “an insult and an affront to all Maine and American citizens,” ‘KKK’ was stamped in the snow on the Blaine House lawn.
“Certain parts of the city–generally the eastern wards–were largely Democratic. That was primarily where the immigrant populations lived,” explains Earle Shettleworth, Jr., director of Maine Historic Preservation Commission. The fewer positions these wards elected, the more power would lie with the Republicans. “Diffusing the power of the Democrats was a way of getting at the immigrant political base.”
Still, Shettleworth cautions, “There were some very ‘high-minded’ and prominent people involved in the charter change who weren’t doing it for the same motives as the Klan. In Portland politics in the early 1900s, things had gotten partisan to the extreme. I think there was a desire to remove a lot of the graft that was part of the partisan system.”
In the end, the voters had their say. The Klan-backed change was adopted by a vote of 9,928 to 6,859. The new government without an elected mayor went into effect January 1, 1924.
The Klan was also credited with the election of Ralph Owen Brewster as Maine’s governor. While Brewster stated emphatically that he wasn’t a member of the KKK, Shettleworth maintains, “I think it can be said that he actively sought their support.” Although his association with the KKK cost him support with liberal Republicans, Brewster went on serve in the U.S. House and Senate, and became a close confidant of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. As chairman of a special Senate committee investigating defense procurement during World War II, Brewster came out in opposition to Howard Hughes. In the Martin Scorsese film, The Aviator, Brewster (played by Alan Alda) is portrayed–by many accounts accurately–as corrupt and in the pocket of Pan Am, the rival of Hughes’s TWA.
Councilor Anton says that, while the history of the KKK in Portland is troubling, “Sometimes it distracts people in terms of the current dialogue.” He hails the creation of the charter commission as a positive move. “It’s good practice to look at the structure and how you do business. We may as a community decide to make extensive changes, or we may make changes on the margins, or we may make no changes, but the dialogue is healthy. The act of having the discussion challenges everyone to think about how we do things, which I believe is always to the good.”
What does the current [non-elected] mayor, Jill Duson, a woman of color, think of all this? “It’s weird, because I’m sure, if not for this system, I wouldn’t have been mayor [the first time] as soon as I was. But with the turn-taking every year, it was set up that the longest-serving councilor who hasn’t been mayor assumes the position.” While Duson leaves it up to the voters to decide if they want an elected mayor, she admits, “ If there ever were an elected mayor, where it was a strong [full-time] position, I’d probably consider running for it, because I love what I do and I love serving Portland.”