Two Democrats who made history last week by becoming the first Somali-Americans to win seats in the state legislature say they are ready to get to work to address significant issues in Maine, such as the affordable housing crisis.
In House District 95 (based in Lewiston), 26-year-old Mana Abdi was elected after running unopposed. Born in a refugee camp in Kenya after her family fled war in Somalia, Abdi came to the U.S. when she was 11 and to Lewison at age 13.
In House District 120, South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac easily defeated her Republican challenger to win her seat. Dhalac also made history last year, when she was selected as mayor of South Portland, becoming the first Somali-American to serve as a mayor in the U.S.
In an interview, Abdi said she’s excited to work alongside Dhalac in service of their communities. And she said she hopes their election to the legislature will inspire other Somali-Americans, as well as those from groups that haven’t been traditionally represented in the State House, to run for office.
“I imagine we will make people feel that they’re able to do it too,” Abdi said. “I hope that’s the message that resonates: the want to make our community better is within reach for all of us.”
Abdi said as a child she didn’t have a clear picture of her future when she first arrived in the U.S. and didn’t know she would end up being elected to the Maine Legislature in 2022. Still, Abdi never doubted that she could make a difference in some way and said she feels she has the energy and drive to work for her community and Mainers as a whole.
“Right now, this Mana talking to you really feels like this is my space at this moment in time and I hope to fully use it to the best that I’m able to,” she said.
Still, Abdi acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy path to go from arriving in the U.S. at age 11 not knowing how to speak English to, 15 years later, being elected to the Maine Legislature. She said more must be done to assist new arrivals with the transition to living here.
“We can always do better. We can flesh out our systems more and make the process an easier transition for folks, especially our elderly folks who come in as immigrants,” Abdi said. “I encourage everyone to travel to a place where they are the minority, where English isn’t the primary language. It’s incredibly hard.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming session
When the 131st Maine Legislature convenes in December, Abdi said one of her top priorities will be pushing for policies to address the state’s affordable housing crisis. Prices have shot up around the state and country, and Maine is grappling with a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units, with an estimated 27,000 Maine households on the waitlist for Section 8 vouchers.
Past iterations of the legislature have taken some action to begin addressing the crisis, such as reforming zoning laws to facilitate the building of more affordable housing. However, advocates have called for additional measures along with that.
Abdi said the state’s approach to addressing housing issues should focus on an all-of-the-above strategy of bringing down prices, building more affordable housing and connecting those who are unhoused with support services.
“I genuinely believe there are enough resources for everybody,” she said. “We just need to get everybody to the table and have those conversations … People’s lives depend on it.”
Abdi added that without action, more and more people will likely become unhoused in the state and the issue will continue to spiral out of control. That’s why she intends to ensure housing policy is front and center during the upcoming legislative session.
“We need to look at this as a crisis and tackle it as such,” Abdi said.
Dhalac also focused on housing crisis
Beacon could not reach Dhalac for comment about her historic victory or her legislative agenda for the upcoming session. However, in a statement to the Associated Press soon after her race was called last week, Dhalac said Somali-Americans in Maine “want to make sure we are seen as part of this society, so we’re not ‘the others.’ I want people to know we’re part of the fabric of our communities. This is what America is all about.”
As for her areas of focus in the legislature, Dhalac named affordable housing and health care, along with funding for public education, as her top priorities in a questionnaire submitted before the election.
In that questionnaire, Dhalac said that housing is a human right.
“Recently in my district my neighbors have been feeling the housing crisis and as mayor of South Portland I led the effort to pass a cap on rent increases and a temporary eviction moratorium,” she wrote. “We need to continue supporting efforts to build more affordable housing and support policies that give people the right to have housing.”
Dhalac added that she backs efforts to use government money to fund shelters for unhoused people, supports decriminalizing homelessness, and believes the government should allocate funds to build more affordable housing.
Dhalac and Abdi will be working in a favorable landscape in the Maine Legislature after Democrats expanded their majority in the House and retained control of the Senate in last week’s election. Abdi said this presents opportunities for lawmakers to introduce big ideas and push for far-reaching action.
“Going into knowing that we are holding the majority should hopefully give my soon-to-be colleagues the confidence to go in with bold initiatives and policies that they can be proud of and not be afraid of putting those ideas out there and fighting for them,” she said.