As Maine Goes

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From the Mainer Project by Orson Horchler, whose street artist name is Pigeon. Horchler has mounted the large ink and charcoal portraits of non-traditional Mainers around the state - and has spoken at scores of schools - to explore what it means to be an integral part of Maine's communities. Photo by Horchler.

Maine's election of 23-year-old Safiya Khalid as the first Somali-American to sit on the Lewiston City Council made national news, as it should, especially given that Khalid's victory in a city with thousands of Somali refugees came despite racist, anti-Muslim backlash. But her election is only part of a heartening trend in the country's whitest  state, where "from away" once meant hailing from the next town. Tuesday, a total of nine black or brown, first-or-second-generation immigrants also won office across a state that has recently seen and largely welcomed a huge influx of African asylum-seekers. In Bangor, to the north, Angela Okafor, a Nigerian attorney and business owner, won a seat on the city council; Bangor also elected Marwa Elkelani, born in Ohio to Egyptian parents, to the school board. In nearby Brewer, first-generation American Soubanh Phanthay, who was born in Laos but as a refugee fled to Thailand, was elected to city council; in neighboring Hampden, Haiti-born Tania Jean-Jacques was elected to the school board. Says Jean-Jacques of the overdue trend toward diversity, "It's just people who look different realizing that we need a seat at the table. And if there's no seat, then maybe we should bring a folding chair. Because it's worth it for our children. Because we live here."

Further south, Tae Chong, who came to the U.S. from Korea as a child with his family, was elected to the Portland City Council. Victor Chau, a second-generation immigrant from Vietnam, was re-elected to Westbrook City Council, and Claude Rwaganje from the Democratic Republican of Congo was newly elected there. Rwaganje focused his campaign on issues important to most Mainers, notably affordable housing in a market increasingly skewered to the rich and workforce development in an economy of largely low-wage jobs. But he also cited the toxic national rhetoric "when you see, from the top to the bottom, people calling immigrants criminals." His and the others' victories, he says, show Maine voters reject that racism; they also recognize, as many experts argue, that immigrants represent badly needed labor for Maine's aging economy: "That's why they came, en masse, to really say, we need to support you." Pious Ali of Ghana, who was re-elected to Portland's City Council, celebrated Tuesday's electoral wins as "historic." But Ali also led the way, making history in 2013 as the first African-born Muslim to hold public office in Portland when he won a seat on the school board. He was elected to City Council in 2016, the year of Trump. In his work for the city and as a youth specialist for the Muskie School of Public Service, Ali is determinedly inclusive, collaborative, forward-looking. “When we collectively put together the social capitol that we have," he has said, "we will all rise together.”

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The indefatigable, ever-dapper Pious Ali. Photo from Ali

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Safiya Khalid of Lewiston. Photo by Andree Kehn/Sun Journal via AP

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