Pious Ali makes history as first African-born Muslim elected to Portland School Board

Pious Ali
Pious Ali
Posted Nov. 06, 2013, at 10:26 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Legalization of marijuana wasn’t the city’s only first on Election Day.

Pious Ali, winner of an at-large seat on the School Board, is very likely the first African-born American to win a publicly elected office in Portland. He may also be the first Muslim to do so.

Ali and Anna Trevorrow both won at-large seats on the School Board in a crowded field of six candidates. In a separate race in District 3, incumbent Laurie Davis held on to her uncontested seat.

The unofficial results put Trevorrow in the lead with 5,965 votes and Ali in second with 5,073. The remaining four candidates trailed the leaders by wide margins: political newcomer Deb Brewer, with 3,011 votes; former mayoral candidate Ralph Carmona, 2,960; newcomer Gene Landry, 2,541, and former state House District 117 candidate Fred Miller, 1,406.

Trevorrow and Ali will replace Kate Snyder and Jaimey Caron, who are stepping down after six years each on the board. Caron and Snyder were first elected in 2007. Both have chaired the panel. Both are also parents of school-age children.

Herb Adams, a longtime Portland state legislator and historian, said Ali likely scored a pair of firsts with his victory Tuesday.

“I believe Pious Ali shall be the first African elected to public office in the city of Portland,” Adams said Tuesday night. “He is not the first Muslim to run in Portland, but I believe he is the first Muslim elected to office.”

Ali, 44, was born in the African nation of Ghana. He attended high school in Nsawam, Ghana, where he graduated in 1989. Later, Ali worked as a photojournalist in Accra, the nation’s capital, for Ghana’s English-language weekly newspaper People & Places.

In 2000, Ali moved to New York. Two years later, he moved to Portland.

On Tuesday evening, Ali stood among a small group of supporters at b.good burger on Exchange Street and anxiously checked his smartphone for election returns. By 10 p.m., he held a substantial lead in the polls, but he was unwilling to declare victory, even as the restaurant workers closed the business for the night and gently ushered the party onto the street.

Nonetheless, Ali said it’s likely he’ll be the first African-born Muslim to be elected to public office in Portland and the entire state of Maine. He added that he may be one of only four or five African-born Muslims to hold an elected office in the entire country.

Ali made a name for himself by connecting with members of the immigrant and refugee community and helping them integrate into the United States. He ran for School Board to help immigrants connect with Portland’s education system, he said early in the campaign. Approximately 30 percent of Portland students come from refugee or immigrant communities.

Ali has two school-age children: a son at Casco Bay High School and a daughter at Lyseth Elementary School.

Ali is a full-time temporary counselor for the city’s Refugee Services. He is also the founder and executive director of Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance, director and co-founder of the King Fellows and has been involved in several different organizations including Seeds of Peace, Preble Street’s Lighthouse Shelter, Volunteers of America and more.

He has no previous political experience and had never sought an elected position.

Ali said his goal is to steer the School Board toward broader engagement with the community. Currently, the board meets at Casco Bay High School, far removed from the peninsula and many other city neighborhoods. As a result, many people feel disengaged from the process, particularly families without transportation, Ali said.

Ali said he would like to see the School Board hold Town Hall-style meetings on a Saturday every quarter, in a different neighborhood.

That message seemed to resonate with District 3 residents at the Italian Heritage Center on Tuesday evening. Several voters said Ali would provide fair representation to students and families from the immigrant and refugee community.

Voter Robin Watts, 44, said she voted for Ali because he has ambitious ideas.

“They might be a little ‘pie in the sky,’ but you always need somebody like that on the School Board,” Watts said. “He’ll probably have some other good ideas that might get through, like maybe he’ll support the arts.”

Ali said he hopes his victory might teach foreign-born American children to recognize opportunity in their new country.

“Hard work pays,” he said. “If you work hard and put a lot of time into it, anything is achievable.”

Ali’s win is not the first time a naturalized U.S. citizen has held a publicly elected office in the city; Korean-born Tae Chong has served on the School Board, but Ali’s victory is still significant, Adams said.

“The moral of the story? It is a diverse, changing and fascinating little city,” he said. “Portland is actually a big town, and that means we all get to know our neighbors and value them as people. It makes it possible for good folks of all these different backgrounds to have a real chance to serve in public office and contribute to Maine’s changing society.”

Trevorrow

The School Board will be Trevorrow’s second publicly elected position. In 2009, Trevorrow was chosen for the city’s Charter Commission.

“I’m excited and also very tired after a long campaign,” she said after spending 13 hours greeting voters outside the polls at the Italian Heritage Center.

Trevorrow, 31, is originally from Monmouth. She attended secondary school at Evergreen Sudbury School, a nontraditional, self-directed school in Hallowell, then earned an English degree from the University of Southern Maine.

She works as an aide for three unenrolled legislators in Augusta. She is also the founding member and director of Green Initiatives Education Fund, a nonprofit group “dedicated to a just and sustainable future,” according to her website.

Trevorrow ran unsuccessfully for School Board in 2008; her live-in partner, Anthony Zeli, ran unsuccessfully a year later. In 2010, she ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, as a Green Independent candidate.

Trevorrow worked for seven years as a banker, and said she hopes to someday serve on the School Board’s finance committee.

Trevorrow has no children, but said she developed a passion for education from her parents, who are both public school teachers. She was endorsed by the Maine League of Young Voters.

Trevorrow said she feels the city is losing too many families to school systems in Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth or Yarmouth. Within the city, families are also moving to neighborhoods based on individual school reputations, she said.

Leveling the playing field between Portland’s many schools is her primary goal, Trevorrow said.

Did pot cloud the results?

At least two School board candidates believed the ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana use in Portland may have skewed the results in the victors’ favor.

Landry, a political newcomer and father of four, joined the race because he felt parents of young children need to be represented on the School Board. Trevorrow, he said, is a politician who likely sought the position as a pathway to attain higher offices.

Her victory, he said, was buoyed by the voter turnout for the marijuana question.

“The marijuana vote played a heavy hand in who was going to the polls,” Landry said. “The more youthful electorate was skewing toward the more youthful candidates.”

Miller, who said he has sworn off politics in the wake of this defeat, agreed with Landry’s assessment of the turnout.

“If there’s a really compelling issue, it’s going to affect the candidates,” he said. “The pot question may have helped [Trevorrow].”

Trevorrow said her victory was earned through hard work and experience.

“We knocked on a lot of doors and made a lot of phone calls to voters,” she said. “I think my experience, having served in office before, played a part, but overall, we ran a very well-rounded campaign.”

Voters in District 3 cited Trevorrow’s youth and energy as reasons for their support. Some, who said they were less engaged in the race, voted for Trevorrow because of her campaign signs.

“I honestly don’t know much about her, but I liked her apple signs,” Jessica Russell, 32, said with a laugh.

The handmade, hand-painted wooden campaign signs were cut in the shape of apples and mounted near prominent thoroughfares at 60 locations. The signs stood in stark contrast to traditional rectangular signs and Trevorrow acknowledged that they were popular.

“I think they resonated with voters,” she said. “I certainly got a lot of comments at the polls saying that they loved my signs, so I think that definitely helped.”

Ali and his campaign manager, Wesley Grover, said their victory was proof that political signs have no bearing on the eventual outcome of an election. Their signs were printed on nonweatherized paper and would droop and slough off in the rain.

“Signs don’t matter,” Ali said. “It’s knocking on doors.”

Candidates Brewer and Carmona couldn’t be reached by press time.

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