These last two years have been historic in terms of political representation. Across the country, Americans elected firsts to local, state, and federal seats. Our country’s leadership is slowly making its way to reflecting the diversity of its population. In another first for America, South Portland’s newest mayor Deqa Dhalac is not only the first Somali American mayor in the state but in U.S. history, the Associated Press reported.
After making history as the city’s first Black person and first Muslim to be elected to City Council, Dhalac makes history as South Portland’s first Black, first Muslim, and first Somali mayor. According to CNN, Maine is the whitest state in the country, with South Portland being 90% white.
Dhalac was formally elected on Monday as mayor of Maine’s fourth-largest city by six of her fellow councilors, whom all identify as white. She served as District 5 city councilor for three years prior to her election. A former refugee, Dhalac came to America over 30 years ago, when Somalia was on the verge of civil war.
The first person she shared the news of her confirmation with was her mother, who reminded her of a prayer she recited to her at the start of high school; the prayer told Dhalac to always be a leader in a community of people of all backgrounds and to use her father’s light to guide her.
“It was so beautiful,” Dhalac said before Monday’s ceremony. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
According to the Portland Press Herald, Dhalac grew up in a middle-class family with two brothers. Her father was a former petroleum engineer who lost his job because he was a vocal supporter of Somalia’s fight for independence from colonial rule in the 1960s.
“My father really introduced us to the world,” Dhalac told the Portland Press Herald, “in reading books and telling us stories about the world and making sure that we were not stuck only in what’s happening in our country, in Somalia, but also telling us there’s a broader world out there. We were really groomed to understand how politics works, how our country was oppressed.”
Dhalac’s father died in 1989. As a strong advocate for education, he urged family members to make sure his daughter received the education she deserved. She left Somalia before her life was put in danger.
“Girls are seen as the honor of the family in Somalia,” Dhalac said. “My father was a strong believer in girls’ education and empowerment. I think he was a feminist in his own way.”
Dhalac’s story is one of resilience; leaving Somalia was not easy, and as a young adult she continued to travel in an attempt to find a place to settle, until she finally arrived in America. Her journey in the U.S. began in Georgia, but after encouragement from distant family members, later brought her to Maine.
“I loved it,” Dhalac said. “It was beautiful. I knew Maine was the place for me.” Dhalac and her children moved to Maine in 2005, where she began a new life working various jobs that impacted and gave back to the local community. Eventually, this led to her becoming a city councilor.
Dhalac was elected to the City Council in 2018, in a special election that was held to fill the last two years of a three-year term of a councilor who resigned suddenly. She was then re-elected in 2020 to a three-year term that runs through 2023.
“I am so proud and humbled that the voters of South Portland have placed their trust in me. It’s a privilege and a responsibility, and I’m ready to go to work for them,” Dhalac said when she was first elected.
She added that being a woman of color in politics also brought a sense of satisfaction.
“I’m glad that a little girl who looks like me will see me and think, ‘I can do that, too,’” she said.
As mayor, Dhalac takes on the additional duties of running council meetings and heading citywide initiatives for the same $3,000 annual stipend that each councilor receives. Dhalac currently works for the Maine Department of Education on family engagement and cultural responsiveness.
In her inaugural address Monday, Dhalac promised to keep an open mind as mayor “and listen with empathy, compassion, grace, and understanding, so we can serve South Portland together.” As mayor, Dhalac said she plans to focus on diversity, environmental protection, and affordable housing.
The Council of Islamic American Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, praised Dhalac’s election “as a sign of the increasing civic involvement of the American Muslim community.” Spokesperson Ibrahim Hooper said: “We hope Mayor Dhalac will help inspire a new generation of American Muslims as they take an increasing role in building a better society.”
Dhalac hopes her election as mayor will inspire others to follow in her footsteps despite the background they come from.
“I’m […] really proud of the fact that I’m going to be opening a lot of paths for other folks who look like me, especially our young community members, to say, ‘If this woman can do this, actually I can do that,'” Dhalac told the City Council last month after her nomination.
“And also not only for immigrant, first-generation, or Black people, but also young, white individuals who may have been afraid or don’t want to be a part of the civic duties that we all have. […] I say, ‘Yes, if I can do this, yes, you can do it. We really, really need you, each and every one of you in this beautiful city of ours, to step up.’”