PORTLAND, Maine (AP) – Deka Dhalak is the first Somali immigrant to become mayor of an American city, but she describes her rise in local politics as very old-fashioned.
Dhalak, 53, became mayor of South Portland, the fourth largest city in Maine, on Monday. She fled Somalia in the early 1990s when war broke out and settled in a coastal city of about 25,000 in 2008 after finding social work.
Voters elected Dhalak to the South Portland City Council in 2018, and a seven-member board this year selected her as mayor of the city. She said her election came after years of volunteering and building relationships in the community – the same late campaign that kicked off the careers of countless politicians before her.
“It’s an amazing feeling, but I don’t think it’s an important milestone that can be achieved if you don’t develop relationships with all kinds of people,” Dhalak said. “It has contributed to where I am today.”
Ceylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR, a Muslim civil rights organization based in Minnesota, traced the rise of Somali politicians in the United States and confirmed that Dhalak became the city’s first mayor.
Hussein said her election follows a trend towards increased political participation by Somali immigrants over the past decade. It is also important to note that Dhalak was elected in a city that lacks a large Somali electoral bloc, which has benefited some political newcomers to Minnesota, Hussein said.
“Her victory is extremely unique, and it also shows that Somali Americans are taking part in democracy, not just voting,” he said.
According to Hussein, there are now about 30 elected officials of Somali origin in the United States, although there were none in 2006. The most to rise will be Democratic Party member Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, elected in 2018.
Somali immigrants are gradually gaining strength in Maine, where a small Somali population has lived for the past two decades. The state’s current Somali population is over 10,000, mainly Lewiston, where Dhalak lived for several years, and Portland. South Portland, where 90% of the population is white, has a smaller Somali community than these cities.
Safiya Khalid was the first Somali American to be elected to the Lewiston City Council in 2019, and Pious Ali was the first Muslim of African descent to be elected to the state in 2013 as a member of the Portland School Board. Ali, who is originally from Ghana, is currently a member of the Portland City Council. He said the steady increase in the participation of Maine’s African immigrant community is encouraging.
“This is a very good milestone not only for the cities but also for the state,” Ali said.
South Portland is located across the Fore River from Portland, the state’s largest city. It has long been a blue-collar community, but the rapidly rising value of property has raised concerns that it is becoming unaffordable. It also houses the Maine Mall, the largest mall in the state, and a working waterfront.
Regarding her tenure as mayor, Dhalak said she plans to focus on diversity, environmental protection and affordable housing.
“We are an inclusive city and we want people to feel the same way when they are here,” Dhalak said.