SOUTH PORTLAND — Two political neophytes are competing in a Dec. 11 special election for a two-year term representing District 5 on the City Council.
Deqa Dhalac, of Red Oak Drive, and Donald Cook, of New York Avenue, each hope to complete the remainder of former City Councilor Adrian Dowling’s three-year term.
Dowling unexpectedly resigned in September after serving less than one year of his term, which expires Dec. 31, 2020.
Voters in all districts may vote the day of the special election at the Community Center, 21 Nelson Road, from 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
Absentee ballots are available at City Hall or by calling the city clerk’s office at 767-3201 to have a ballot mailed. Absentee ballot application forms can also be downloaded and mailed or dropped off at 25 Cottage Road, or faxed to 767-7620.
Ballots must be requested by Thursday, Dec. 6, and returned to the city clerk’s office by 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 11.
A lifelong resident of South Portland, Cook said he decided to take his first crack at an elected office because he “gets the temperature” of the city’s residents and believes he understands what they think and care about.
“South Portland has protected me … educated me … and I’ve made a living here,” he added. “I think it’s time to give back.”
Cook said he doesn’t have an agenda, but would aim to simply listen to everyone.
“I love South Portland and its people. I wouldn’t go in with an agenda on anything. I will listen,” he said. “The biggest asset the city has is its citizens and if we all put our heads together, we could come up with a solution to anything.”
Cook said the most pressing issues facing the city are improving school and municipal buildings, in part by building a new middle school and fire station that will last.
“We need to make sure they’re built so they don’t fall apart … even if that means spending a little more now rather than later,” he said. “I think we can do that without breaking the budget.”
He also said he’d like to see more support for city employees by providing adequate training and equipment to ensure their success, as well as the success of their departments.
Cook said he’d particularly like to see the infrastructure in District 5 maintained.
“We’re the busiest end of the city with the (Maine Mall) and everything,” he said. “We take the brunt of businesses and traffic.”
Cook also said he’d like to focus on how to keep the city’s transient population “under control.”
“Crime-wise, we need to take care of that, while compassionately taking care of them,” he said.
Cook said ordinance amendments passed last month that ban unhosted short-term rentals in the city’s residential areas were handled well by the council. He said the measures balance the needs of those who want income from their properties and those who want neighborhoods maintained.
To help the council recover from the divisions stoked by the short-term rental debate, he said he would simply be a good listener.
“I don’t play the political game,” he said. “I will listen earnestly to the citizens. I may not always vote the way they want, but their concerns are important to me.”
Like Cook, this is Dhalac’s first campaign for elected office. If she wins, city officials said they believe Dhalac would be South Portland’s first black councilor – although she is not unfamiliar with council politics.
In 2016, former Councilor Brad Fox nominated Dhalac to serve on the Civil Service Commission over the incumbent, Phillip LaRou. The nomination was overruled by a vote of 5-2 to reappoint LaRou, which resulted in Fox angrily leaving the meeting and contributed to questions about diversity in city government.
Councilors at the time praised Dhalac’s qualifications and said their vote had nothing to do with race, but rather the candidates’ specific qualifications for the commission.
Kathy DiPhilippo, director of the South Portland Historical Society, this week said the organization’s records suggest there has never been a black person elected to the council. But she couldn’t say definitively because the society doesn’t keep detailed account of councilors’ backgrounds.
“Having grown up in South Portland in the 1970s, I can tell you that this community was not as diverse community as it is today, and the council typically reflects that,” DiPhilippo said.
Dhalac emigrated from Somalia to the United States in 1992, and said she hopes she can set an example and be a voice for everyone in the community, specifically immigrants.
“A lot of young people who look like me or are from another country … even my own kids, do not believe they can run for office and give back to their community,” she said.
Dhalac said she saw this while volunteering for a get-out-the-vote initiative, where she focused her efforts on greater Portland’s immigrant community.
“A lot of people don’t know their vote matters,” Dhalac said. “I’m very outspoken when it comes to the democratic process.”
This year she was one of 26 women to graduate from Emerge Maine, a Democratic Party program that encourages and trains women to run for elected office.
If elected, she said, her top priority would be improving communication within and from the council.
“I think we lack that right now,” she said. “I think I can help by having more open dialogue with councilors and reminding them that (this is) a privilege … We’re here to serve the people.”
Dhalac said she’s already been meeting with councilors one-on-one to talk about issues.
“Social workers love to bring people together to heal,” she said. “There are not a lot of bad people in the world, it’s just misunderstanding.”
Further, she said the public should be more engaged and encouraged to attend civic events, such as council meetings, to create a more diverse audience.
Dhalac said she’d also like to focus on environmental sustainability, and providing the same caliber of education to all of South Portland’s children, no matter where they live.
“Some schools (in the city) have better resources than others,” she said. “We need to make sure every child has access to quality education.”
An issue specifically important in District 5, Dhalac said, is the need for affordable housing.
“We should bring in developers who can make that happen and incentivize (the work) for them,” she said, noting how happy she is that the West End Apartments, a 64-unit building being developed by Avesta Housing at 586 Westbrook St., will receive low-income housing tax credits through the Maine State Housing Authority.
Like Cook, Dhalac said she supports the city’s short-term rental regulations.
“The ordinance passed and I am behind it,” she said. “That’s the power of democracy.”
Residency: New York Avenue
Family: Two children, one grandchild
Education: 1970 graduate South Portland High School
Occupation: owner, Rolando’s Redemption Center
Political/civic experience: Former member Lottery Advisory Council for Maine
Website/social media: None
Residency: Red Oak Drive
Family: Three children
Occupation: Social Worker
Education: Master’s degree in development policy and practice from the University of New Hampshire, master’s in social work from the University of New England.
Political/civic experience: Get-out-the-vote volunteer for immigrant communities; Emerge Maine 2018.