SOUTH PORTLAND — Voters Tuesday elected a woman who is believed to be the city’s first African-American city councilor.
Deqa Dhalac, a Somali immigrant who is also Muslim, out-polled her opponent, Donald Cook, by a more than 2-to-1 margin in the Dec. 11 special election for the District 5 council seat.
According to unofficial election results, Dhalac, intercultural program manager at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, received 1,418 votes; Cook, owner of Rolando’s Redemption, trailed with 700.
Dhalac, 52, will serve the remainder of former City Councilor Adrian Dowling’s three-year term. He unexpectedly resigned in September after serving less than one year of his term, which expires Dec. 31, 2020.
Cook, 68, is a lifelong resident of South Portland who had never run for political office. Before the election, Cook said he felt he understood the “temperature” of the city’s residents and what they think and care about.
Tuesday night, Dhalac said she was “humbled” by the “support and love (she) received from (her) neighbors from District 1 to all the way to District 5.” She called the past few months a “pure labor of love for community and public service” and thanked her campaign manager, Kara Auclair.
The two met while attending graduate school at the University of New England and later reconnected through Emerge Maine, a Democratic Party program that encourages and trains women to run for elected office.
“It has been so inspiring to see the amount of support for Deqa,” Auclair said at the polls Tuesday. “Everyone involved in this campaign has worked so hard, but when you’re representing someone like Deqa, it feels easy.”
State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and South Portland resident Linda Thigpen helped Dhalac greet voters at the South Portland Community Center and thanked them for showing up.
Thigpen called the turnout “extraordinary,” saying there had been a consistent flow of people coming out to vote throughout the day.
“This election generated a lot of interest,” she said. “Especially for a special election.”
A 2013 special election for the District 1 council seat drew a total of 641 voters. In comparison, 564 residents voted early with absentee ballots this time, and total voter turnout was 2,120, according to City Clerk Emily Scully.
“The total number of voters for South Portland is 20,766 … making (yesterday’s election) a 10.2 percent turnout,” Scully said. “Special municipal elections typically see around 3 percent or less turnout.”
Although this will be Dhalac’s first elected office, she is not unfamiliar with City Council politics.
In 2016, former Councilor Brad Fox nominated Dhalac to serve on the Civil Service Commission over Phillip LaRou, who was seated on the commission at the time. 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.
Dhalac filed a discrimination complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. Her complaint wasn’t upheld, she said, but the council did go through diversity training.
Dhalac emigrated to the United States in 1992, and said during her campaign that 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.
Kathy DiPhilippo, director of the South Portland Historical Society, said to her recollection, 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.
Dhalac said her top priority will be improving communication within and from the council. She’d also like to focus on issues such as environmental sustainability, affordable housing and providing the same caliber of education to all of South Portland’s children, no matter where they live.
“I (feel) so much gratitude to each and everyone who voted for me and gave me the opportunity to represent them in the City Council,” Dhalac said Tuesday night. “Now the hard work starts.”
Dhalac was scheduled to take the oath of office and attend her first meeting as a city councilor on Thursday, Dec. 13. The the council’s regular meeting, normally held on Tuesday, was rescheduled to Thursday because of the special election.