Journalism: Urbanism: Urban Conditional: Urban conditional: Who is Simon Thompson and What is He Doing in City Hall?

Jul 19, 2018

Who is Simon Thompson and What is He Doing in City Hall?

by Zack Barowitz

Can you name the campaign manager for Lucas St. Clair’s District 1 congressional campaign? How about the Maine Northern District Organizing Director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid? Or the manager of Ed Suslovic’s City Council comeback in 2010? Or the campaign manager of Portland City Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Jill Duson? What about the man currently volunteering for incumbent councilor Nick Mavadones?

If you answered 26-year-old Portland native Simon Thompson, you win.

Campaign Managers are the jockeys of political horse races and in Maine’s political circles, Thompson is being crowned. Despite his age, he has been doing campaign work for almost a decade, starting with the first Marriage Equality campaign in 2009.

Campaign work is often an endeavor of youth. The hours are brutal and the hustle requires long stints of travel to far-flung districts. Unless you have a family that you’d rather not see, or a home you’d rather not live in, the job is largely for people who have not set down roots.

These days, you can find Thompson at City Council meetings. He is perhaps the only working lobbyist in City Hall and the de facto eyes and ears (and sometimes mouth) of the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce. Considering his relationship to the Councilors whose campaigns he has worked on and his job at the Chamber Thompson is centrally positioned to political power in Portland.

On the job only a month, Thompson has been busy on several issues. He is tracking a proposed $5,000-per-room fee that would be collected from new hotel construction. The funds would be set aside for the city’s housing fund. He also has his eyes on an initiative — led by the Southern Maine Workers’ Center and the Maine Women’s Lobby — that would mandate paid sick leave for all Portland workers. The Chamber has not taken an official position on either issue, but it would be surprising to me if they fully endorse either. Thompson did take a position on the Chamber's behalf opposing Councilor Batson's amendment to increase the required number of affordable apartments (‘inclusionary zoning’) in new developments. (For their part, the Chamber is sponsoring the city’s Portland Opportunity Crew, which is a job-fare program.)

Council meetings are not places for thrill-seekers. The gallery chairs in city chambers get hard pretty quickly during council meetings. But Thompson describes himself as “a total local politics nerd” and the Chamber is smart to have someone watching over City Hall. Other organizations would be wise to follow their lead. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of local entities (particularly progressive ones) who can afford to pay someone to attend City Council meetings on a regular basis.

Thompson’s politics are progressive on social issues, but economically he is somewhat more conservative. His take on Portland’s relative development boom is that the current economic uptick is finite – and the city should be taking advantage of the moment to build a foundation for sustained growth. Accomplishing this depends on your political outlook. To a progressive liberal, schooled in Keynesian economics like me, this might include things inclusionary zoning, better worker benefits, and increased fees for developers. But these are the very issues that Thompson is, if not opposed to, then somewhat wary of.

I’m skeptical of the socially-liberal-but-fiscally-conservative tagline because I think it begs the question of by what means are social issues addressed. How do schools get funded? Health care provided? The rights of poor and most vulnerable protected? For his part, Thompson sees at least a partial solution in “socially responsible (or impact) investing,” of which micro-lending or Portland’s Garbage to Garden compost pick up could be seen as examples.

Thompson’s faith in capital may have been shaped, in part, by his other vocation as an administrator for foundations run by children of the very wealthy. Thompson worked for the Foundation for Civic Leadership, which donates several million dollars annually mainly to projects intended to increase civic and voter engagement among young people. (Thompson landed that gig through a connection he made on the Obama campaign.) In Portland, he was a consultant for Lucas St. Clair’s (child of Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby) new Portland Parks Conservancy. The initiative is a an umbrella foundation meant to raise and distribute money to Portland’s parks and open spaces. St. Clair’s own Elliotsville Foundation has pledged a modest $180,000 over the next three years, which means that the Park’s Conservancy board (which Simon helped assemble) and future staff person have their work cut out for them in raising an endowment.

Thompson eventually plans to attend law and/or business school and he hopes that the children of the 1 percent will come to see the social imperative of philanthropy and socially responsible investing. The historical precedent for this is somewhat shaky, but these are uncertain times and the future all the more so. Thompson seems willing to take on the challenge.