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'You're ready': How South Portland's mayor knew when to run for office

She is the first Somali American mayor in the country and the first woman of color to serve as South Portland’s mayor.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — In 2018, Deqa Dhalac ran for the South Portland City Council and won. In 2020, she was re-elected. Last December, when she was unanimously elected mayor by her fellow councilors, she made national news.

Dhalac is the first Somali-American mayor in the country and the first woman of color to serve as South Portland’s mayor.

After working for years supporting voter registration and educating many immigrants about voting, she had built a community of supporters who urged her to step into city government. 

The team at 207 talked with Mayor Dhalac about her decision to seek public office and the impact she is having in South Portland politics. 

"I’ve seen there are voices that are missing on the table," she said. "We have a lot of good legislators, city councilors, school board members, but they might not understand the lives of immigrant people, of Black people. So I said we need a voice here. I said, ‘It’s time. It is time.’ And I also have a lot of community members who were saying, ‘You’re ready. You’re ready.’"

Her friends and supporters may have believed she was ready, but Dhalac also wanted input from her children. 

Her oldest son was not enthusiastic about the idea.

"He said, 'You have so many identities that are negative now,'" she said. "We’re talking about in 2018. He said, ‘You are a Muslim. You’re Black. You’re a woman. You’re an immigrant. And you have accent. All those things don’t really work, and I don’t want you to do it.' I said, 'OK.' That’s one concern, you know. But the other two young ones, who I call my two rebels, said, 'No, you have to do it, because a lot of kids who look like us, a lot of kids who look like you, a lot of women, a lot of youth are gonna say, "If she can do this, we can do this as well." You're gonna be opening a lot of doors for a lot of people.' I say, 'OK. It’s a democratic house. Majority rules. We gonna go and run.'"

Democracy intrigued Dhalac from an early age. 

She grew up in a middle class home in Somalia, East Africa with a well-educated father who was engaged in politics. She described her mother as extremely smart and she remembers always talking about politics in her household.

"My father would tell us, 'There is a whole lot of different world out there. There are countries in the world that have democratic ... presidential, governors,'" she said. "We were really fascinated by that because we’d never seen it. We were born in a country where we had only one president and one cabinet, and everybody is staying in that position like forever. So we were really fascinated by that."

RELATED: South Portland inaugurates first Muslim mayor

Like many local politicians, she started her campaign the old-fashioned way: by knocking on doors.

"As women, we do not step to public service or leadership positions because we don’t usually believe ourselves, even though we have the education, the experience, you name it," she said. "What really made it easy for me was I had a community of people that came for me: Mainers, new Mainers, and people from all walks of life. The higher number were the people who would say, 'It’s about time to see different faces, different people stepping up, different people wanting to run for office.' All in all the positive that I get was bigger than the negative."

Dhalac holds two masters degrees and is a full-time social worker for the Maine Department of Education. She’s a leader in the Somali Community Center of Maine, all in addition to serving as serving as mayor of South Portland.

Councilor Linda Cohen has been around South Portland government for decades and was there the night Deqa was unanimously elected.

She remembers that night. "I told Deqa when she was nominated, 'You’re not getting this because you’re a black woman, or anyone’s trying to make a statement. You are getting this because you’ve earned it and because you have the respect of your council peers.' I think that that’s really important for the public to know. And I think that was a big moment. Not just because we were putting a black woman in to the position. But because she had the unanimous support of the council. There was never a question there," says Linda. "I definitely feel that she is where she was meant to be."

The news of her becoming Mayor has of course traveled back home to Somalia, where she still has family, and Deqa tells a story that makes her smile. "So, it’s funny. My mom called me and she said, 'People are lining up in the house, saying that your daughter owns half of the United States so you have to give us money.'  I'm like what?"

Mayor Dhalac actually did send money home to her Mom so they could throw a big party and celebrate her newfound fame.

Now that she has settled into the job, she says her goals are the council goals. Mitigating climate change, providing affordable housing, bringing diversity and inclusion to running city government.  

Does she see herself running for an office beyond South Portland?

"If the chance comes? I have to look at it! I cannot say yes, I cannot say no, but if the opportunity comes, I will get with my group of people that are confidantes, and my kids, ask them what they think and always majority will rule!"

She ended our conversation with this thought. "I always think about this. It’s not about me. It’s about everybody. And I always have this African proverb that says, Ubunto. Ubunto means – ‘I am, because we all are.’ Because we are all in this together."

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