A Maine city that’s 90% White now has a Somali mayor
By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
Deqa Dhalac saw it in their faces when she started campaigning. Some people, she says, seemed scared to open their doors when she knocked. Others saw her hijab and assumed she didn’t speak English. But Dhalac kept knocking and telling her story. And she says a lot has changed since those days back in 2018, when she first ran for City Council in South Portland, Maine — and won. On Monday she became the first Black mayor of the small city on the state’s Southern Coast. And she’s believed to be the first Somali American mayor in the United States. South Portland’s other city councilors, who are all White, elected her in a unanimous vote, heaping praise on Dhalac for her dedication to the community and thoughtful consideration of issues.
Dhalac, 53, says her election shows what can be accomplished when people find ways to connect with each other instead of putting up walls.
“People will always have some kind of reservation…but will get to know you, listen to you and see who you are through that,” she says. Given that Maine is the whitest state in the country, and that South Portland is 90% White, Dhalac knows her election sounds surprising to some. But she says that it shouldn’t be. And that’s one reason she ran for office in the first place. She hopes her election as mayor will inspire others to follow in her footsteps.
“I’m…really proud of the fact that I’m going to be opening a lot of paths for other folks who look like me, especially our young community members, to say, ‘If this woman can do this, actually I can do that,'” Dhalac told the City Council last month after her nomination. “And also not only for immigrant, first-generation or Black people, but also young, White individuals who may have been afraid or don’t want to be a part of the civic duties that we all have. … I say, ‘Yes, if I can do this, yes, you can do it. We really, really need you, each and every one of you in this beautiful city of ours, to step up.'”
Her election marks multiple milestones
Dhalac’s inauguration is a milestone for Somali immigrant communities that have grown in size and become more established in states like Maine, Minnesota, Ohio and Washington. As that’s happened, more Somali Americans are taking on roles on local school boards and city councils — and also serving as lawmakers, like Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota.
Dhalac is the first Somali American mayor in the United States, according to New American Leaders, an organization that trains and encourages immigrants to run for office. But the organization says they hope she won’t be the last.
“Her leadership will certainly make a big difference not only in South Portland, but around the country,” said Ghida Dagher, the organization’s president. “She’s going to serve an example for Somali Americans across the country to step up and step into their own leadership journey. … It’s about owning their own power and potential in our democracy.” Dhalac’s election is also a historic first for South Portland, which has never had a Black mayor before, says Seth Goldstein, vice president of the South Portland Historical Society. Goldstein, who teaches history and leads historical tours in the area, says he’s happy to watch this new chapter in his city’s history unfold. “It’s very exciting, I think that it is reflective of the way that the community here is gradually changing,” Goldstein says. About 6,000 Somalis live in Maine, Goldstein said, thanks to a wave of migration that began in the early 2000s.
Their arrival hasn’t always been met with open arms. In 2002, the mayor of Lewiston, Maine, drew national media attention when he wrote an open letter telling Somali immigrants not to come to his city.
But Dhalac says the people she’s met in Maine have been welcoming, and in recent years she’s seen more Somalis and other immigrants taking on leadership positions in the state. In the past, she says, immigrants were more hesitant to run because they were focused on making ends meet and supporting their families.
“I think we were always kind of afraid to get involved. … We were waiting on somebody (else) to do something,” she said.
In 2018, Dhalac got tired of waiting.
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