Deqa Dhalac is the first Somali immigrant to become the mayor of a U.S. city, but she describes her rise in local politics as very old fashioned.
Dhalac, 53, became mayor of South Portland the fourth largest city in Maine, on Monday. She fled Somalia in the early 1990s as war broke out and settled in the coastal city of about 25,000 in 2008 after finding a job in social work.
Voters elected Dhalac to the South Portland City Council in 2018 and the seven-member board this year chose her to serve as the city's mayor. She said her election came after years of volunteering and building relationships in the community — the same kind of door-to-door campaigning that has launched the careers of countless politicians before her.
"It's an amazing feeling, but I don't think it's a milestone you can get unless you build relationships with all kinds of people," Dhalac said. "That contributed to where I am today."
Jaylani Hussein, Minnesota executive director for a Muslim civil rights organization has tracked the rise of Somali politicians in the U.S., confirmed Dhalac is the first to become mayor of a city.
Her election follows a trend of increased political participation from Somali immigrants over the past decade, Hussein said. It is also significant that Dhalac was elected in a city that lacks a large Somali voting bloc, which has benefited some political newcomers in Minnesota, Hussein said.
"Her victory is extremely unique, and it also shows that Somali Americans are taking part in the democracy, not just voting," he said.
There are now about 30 elected officials of Somali heritage in the U.S., though as recently as 2006, there were none, Hussein said. The highest to rise is Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who was elected in 2018.
Somali immigrants are slowly growing in influence in Maine, which has had a small Somali population for the last two decades. Currently numbering more than 10,000, the state's Somali population is mostly based in Lewiston, where Dhalac lived for a few years, and Portland. South Portland, which is 90% white, has a smaller Somali community than those cities.
Safiya Khalid was the first Somali American elected to Lewiston City Council in 2019 and Pious Ali was the first African-born Muslim elected to office in the state in 2013 as a member of the Portland school board. Ali, who is originally from Ghana, is now a member of the Portland City Council. He said the steady growth of participation among Maine's African immigrant community is inspiring.
"It's a very good milestone, not just for the cities but the state," said Ali.
As for her tenure as mayor, Dhalac said she plans to focus on diversity, environmental protection and affordable housing.
"We are an inclusive city and we want people to feel that way when they are here," Dhalac said.
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