November 08, 2019
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Many communities cast a vote for diversity on Election Day

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Bangor residents cast their votes at the Cross Insurance Center Tuesday afternoon.

Too often, people who aren’t originally from Maine are labeled “from away.” Several years ago, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce warned that the phrase was a detriment to attracting new people and businesses to the Pine Tree State.

Tuesday’s election results show that many Mainers may be heeding that message and are welcoming of new residents and ideas. These new Mainers — and their ideas and service — are vital as the state faces the dual demographic challenges of an aging and shrinking Maine-born population.

Statewide, seven first and second-generation immigrants were elected to municipal offices in Maine on Tuesday, according to Amjambo Africa. There are likely more, as no group keep definitive records on the birthplace of candidates and elected officials.

“I am over the moon with joy and gratitude. The people of Maine showed their support for those who want to serve regardless of their ethnicity and background,” Deqa Dhalac, who was elected to the South Portland City Council last year, told Amjambo. Dhalac, who is from Somalia, is the city’s first African-American and Muslim councilor. “I am so proud of my immigrant brothers and sisters who stepped up to the challenges of serving their communities.”

In Bangor, Angela Okafor is believed to be the first person of color elected to the City Council. Okafor, an immigration attorney and owner of Tropical Tastes and Styles, an international store in Bangor, became a U.S. citizen this year after emigrating from Nigeria more than a decade ago.

“A lot of people don’t understand that having diversity is a major economic driver,” she said before the election.

Marwa Hassanien was elected to the Bangor School Committee. She is an adjunct faculty member at Eastern Maine Community College, where she teaches English. She is a strong advocate of public education because that is what drew her parents to America from Egypt decades ago.

“When you bring a different voice to the table and champion all identities, I think that’s really important,” Hassanien said before the election. “I might look a little different, but I want students to look at [me] and say, ‘She represents us, and represents everyone.’”

In Lewiston, where Somali refugees have helped revive the former mill town’s economy but where two former mayors made disparaging and unwelcoming remarks about them, Safiya Khalid is the first Somali-American elected to that community’s City Council.

“There wasn’t any representation on any committee, on any level, in any position of power, from the immigrant community,” Khalid told the Bangor Daily News of why she ran for a seat on the city’s school board in 2017. “Their voices weren’t heard.”

Although her 2017 campaign was unsuccessful, she remained engaged in politics, knocking on hundreds of doors in her section of the city.

Khalid, who grew up in Lewiston after her family left Somalia, brings another form of diversity to the Lewiston City Council — youth. She is only 23 years old.

Tania Jean-Jacques of Hampden, a nurse and founder of the Maine Haitian network, was elected to the RSU 22 school board. The native of Haiti spoke to the board earlier this year about the need for diversity training in the school district to address concerns about cultural bias and racism.

Soubahn Phanthay, a commercial photographer who came to Maine in 1980 from Thailand, was elected to the Brewer City Council.

Tae Chong, who works for Catholic Charities of Maine, is the first Asian-American elected to the Portland City Council. Pious Ali, who is from Ghana and was the first African-born Muslim elected to public office in Portland, was re-elected for another term on the City Council.

At a time when our country is mired in a sometimes unproductive and hateful debate about immigration, Tuesday’s election results are a welcome reminder that Maine people value diversity and new ideas. A diversity of backgrounds and perspectives among elected officials makes for better policies and a government that is reflective of all of Maine’s residents, no matter if they were born here or have decided to move here and be part of our communities.

 



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