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Little by little, Maine Legislature Is Becoming More Diverse

A new generation of legislators is taking on contemporary issues of drug abuse, the lack of housing and inadequate health care.

As a student at the University of Maine in Farmington, Mana Abdi said she studied the challenges faced by many cities. Still, when she returned to Lewiston after graduating, it struck her just how tough those problems could be — problems like drug abuse, the lack of housing and inadequate health care.

"When you see it in practice, it's actually really scary," said Abdi, 26, who graduated with a degree in political science. Starting next month, Abdi will get a chance to try to address those issues as a member of the Maine House of Representatives.

She was elected unopposed on Tuesday. In Augusta, she will join what is probably the most diverse group of Maine lawmakers ever. She and another freshmen representative, Deqa Dhalac, are both Somali-American; Jill Duson of Portland will be the first Black woman to serve in the Senate; second-term Sen. Craig Hickman of Winthrop is also Black; and Rachel Talbot Ross, a veteran lawmaker from Portland, could become the first Black speaker of the Maine House.

In fact, the Legislature may turn out to be more diverse than the state. The five Black lawmakers will comprise 2.7% of the 186 members next year, while Black residents make up 1.8% of the Maine population, according to the 2020 census. Abdi said she's happy that Dhalac, who is from South Portland and last year became the first Somali-American in the U.S. to be elected a mayor, will join her in the State House. "It's going to be such a blessing to have another Somali-American there," Abdi said — someone with whom to share an inside joke or utter a phrase without having to explain its meaning.

Of course, Abdi said she doesn't expect she and Dhalac will agree on everything. "We're not monoliths," Abdi said, and she figures that's probably a good thing. Abdi was born in Kenya but considers herself a native of Somalia, where most of her family members were born. She and her family came to the U.S. as refugees in 2007. Growing up as an adult, she's confronted some of the issues facing others in Lewiston, which has a large Somali refugee population.

Health care, for instance. She was able to get MaineCare health coverage, but wasn't able to add her mother to her policy when the elder Abdi became ill. "It does not make any sense whatsoever," Mana Abdi said. Maine has a lot of bureaucratic hurdles in general and she'd like to see those eased, especially for residents in Lewiston who already must deal with a new culture and are adapting to a new home.

Abdi said she wants to see if the system can be made more flexible and also plans to spend her first term focusing on housing, education and disability rights. Abdi said she encountered one or two cases of racism while she was campaigning. She declined to go into detail, saying they were "very explosive interactions," but said she has learned how to defuse them or separate herself from them. "I try not to let it bother me," she said.

©2022 the Portland Press Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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