Deqa Dhalac wins big in special election for South Portland council seat

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SOUTH PORTLAND — An experienced social worker soundly defeated a longtime local business owner in Tuesday’s citywide special election for the District 5 City Council seat.

Deqa Dhalac, intercultural program manager at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, beat Donald “Cookie” Cook, owner of Rolando’s Redemption on outer Main Street, 1,418 to 700.

Dhalac, 52, is believed to be the first African-American and the first Muslim to be elected to the council, said Kathy DiPhilippo, a city historian.

“This is absolutely wonderful,” Dhalac said after hearing the results Tuesday night. “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.”

A single mother of three, Dhalac said her campaign was a labor of love and she would have been proud of her effort even if she had lost. But she admitted to a particular sense of satisfaction having succeeded as an immigrant and a woman of color at a time when hateful political rhetoric is common.

“I’m glad that a little girl who looks like me will see me and think, ‘I can do that, too,’ ” said Dhalac, a native of Somalia who became a U.S. citizen in 1998 and moved to South Portland in 2008.

Cook didn’t respond immediately to a call for comment.

City Clerk Emily Scully said voting at the South Portland Community Center was steady all day, topping the 2013 special election for the District 1 council seat, which drew a total of 641 voters. About 560 residents voted early this time, using absentee ballots, with a total voter turnout of 2,118.

“This is a phenomenal turnout,” Scully said. “It’s the highest voter turnout for a council special election in recent memory.”

Besides the growing trend toward early voting, social media and active campaigns likely contributed to the higher turnout, Scully said. The city has about 20,000 registered voters.

The District 5 seat has been vacant since Sept. 15, when former Councilor Adrian Dowling resigned 10 months into a three-year term representing the city’s western neighborhoods. His departure came amid heated council debates over short-term rental regulations and the city attorney’s performance.

An election to fill the remainder of Dowling’s term couldn’t be held Nov. 6 because the regular fall election process already was underway. The city’s five district councilors must live in the districts they represent, but all seven councilors are elected citywide.

Cook, 68, said he ran because he wanted to contribute to the city where he has lived and worked all his life. He said he didn’t have any particular issues he wanted to address if elected to the council, but he knew what residents were concerned about and he had the city’s best interests at heart.

Dhalac said she wanted to promote unity on the council and in the community. She also wanted to make schools safer for students and more supportive of teachers, she said. And she believes the city should continue its efforts to protect the environment and offer incentives to encourage development of affordable housing.

Most of all, Dhalac said, she wanted to make municipal government more accessible to all residents, especially members of the immigrant community who may feel alienated from the rest of the city.

Dhalac grew familiar with City Hall in 2016, when former District 5 Councilor Brad Fox nominated her for a spot on the Civil Service Commission.

Instead, the council voted 5-2 to reappoint Phillip LaRou, whom Fox had appointed nine months earlier to fill an unexpired term on the commission. LaRou, a Portland firefighter who is white, had asked to be reappointed to a full five-year term, but Fox said he wanted to increase diversity on city boards and committees.

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, which she said was a “wonderful” result.

Kelley Bouchard