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PORTLAND, Maine — After swearing in a new councilor and mayor on Monday, Portland’s nine-member City Council is decidedly less male and less white.
It’s a notable distinction considering the disparity in diversity between elected leaders and the overwhelming amount of white voters who elected them. Maine’s largest city is nearly 84 percent white, but will for the first time in history be represented by a “minority majority” — five of the nine leaders identify as non-white and four are women.
“We’ve made great strides,” said District 2 Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who became only the fourth person of color to serve on the City Council when he was elected in 2015.
Other people of color on the council include black representatives Jill Duson and Pious Ali, an immigrant from Ghana who was re-elected to a second term last month; Justin Costa, a Hispanic representative from District 1 whose father hails from Spain and Puerto Rico; and Tae Chong, who in November became the first Asian ever elected to City Council.
While it’s a historic political milestone for the city’s Asian-American community, Chong largely dismissed the designation.
“I would have thought about it 20 years ago, but look how diverse the city is now,“ Chong said.
Actually, Portland is still pretty racially homogenous, but its demographics are shifting. Today, 16.1 percent of the population identifies as something other than white, according to census data. That’s twice the percentage of the population that identified as non-white in 2000.
And many in the city now identify as multicultural because of their immigrant ties. For example, at-large Councilor Nicholas Mavodones’ grandparents were born in Greece.
The makeup of Portland’s council makes it one of the most diverse in the U.S.
Comparing Portland’s leadership to some of the country’s most diversely populated and large cities, only 15 of them — Honolulu; San Jose, California; Vallejo, California; Oakland, California; Long Beach, California; Seattle; Kent, Washington; Las Vegas; San Antonio; Austin, Texas; Detroit; Alexandria, Virginia; Miami; Jersey City, New Jersey; and New Haven, Connecticut — appear to have city councils with as small or smaller percentage of white men as Portland.
Boston now holds a similar “majority-minority” distinction after last month’s elections. Seven of its 13 councilors are persons of color.
Women also are more visibly represented in Portland politics this year. In addition to at-large Councilor Duson, the council’s female caucus now comprises District 1 Councilor Belinda Ray, District 5 Councilor Kimberly Cook and newly elected Mayor Kate Snyder, who beat incumbent Ethan Strimling and two other male opponents in a four-way race for the city’s top seat last month.
In her inauguration speech Monday, Snyder pointed out that she and other women on the council were wearing white scarves in honor of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
While other women have been appointed to the position, Snyder is the first woman to be elected mayor of Portland.
The first woman to serve as mayor of Portland was Helen Frost. Elected in 1944, the mayor in those days was the title given to the chair of the Portland City Council.
“Frost carried 16 of the 17 city electoral districts [at that time]. Snyder carried all 12 of them,” said Herb Adams, a Portland historian and former state representative. “Traditionally, Maine and New England have been known as the land of steady habits. And change comes slowly here. But change does come.”
In 2018, Maine made history with the election of Janet Mills as the state’s first female governor. That election cycle also brought more women lawmakers to power in the state than ever before. Still, some are working for a future where headlines about women and minorities winning elections don’t dominate the newscycle.
“We believe that if enough women run for office and win, eventually the number of elected women in office won’t be a noteworthy news story,” said Ashley McCurry, executive director of Emerge Maine, an organization that trains Democratic women to run for office.
“We are still working to make sure we have diverse representation in every aspect of elected leadership — and as an organization, we are committed to making efforts to support immigrant women, African-American women, and women of diverse socio-economic and community backgrounds. Voters are hungry to see elected leaders who actually represent them — and we’re here to provide the tools and support to get them elected.”