PORTLAND – In Tuesday’s Democratic primary in House District 119, two candidates are competing with different brands of identity politics.

Jill Barkley, a prominent activist for gay and lesbian issues, faces Mohammed Dini, a Somali refugee who says his impoverished background allows him to be a voice for the lower middle class and working poor.

They are running to represent the Bayside, East Bayside and Parkside neighborhoods, the most densely populated and ethnically diverse square mile in Maine. Rep. Herb Adams is vacating the seat because of term limits.

Megan Sanborn is the lone Republican on the ballot. Two Green Independents, Christian McNeil and Kris Eckhardt, are on the ballot as well, although McNeil says he has dropped out of the race.

Barkley, who was endorsed by the League of Young Voters for her activism on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, is making gay marriage the defining issue between the two Democrats.

Barkley points out that Dini doesn’t support gay marriage. That could hurt Dini, in a district that voted by a wide margin last year to reject a citizen-initiated repeal of the state law legalizing gay marriage.

Dini, however, said his stance on gay marriage shouldn’t define him as a candidate. While his Islamic faith requires him to support traditional marriage, his personal views wouldn’t affect his votes in the Legislature, he said.

He said same-sex marriage is an issue for voters to decide, not legislators.

From Dini’s perspective, the biggest difference between the candidates is their background. His life story would make him a better representative for the district, he said.

A refugee of Somalia’s civil war, he moved to Portland with his family when he was about 12 and grew up Parkside and Kennedy Park.

He dropped out of Portland High School and later earned his general equivalency diploma. He is now a student at the University of Southern Maine, where he is president of the student-run College Transition Assistance Program, which provides services to at-risk high school students in Greater Portland.

He said Barkley has had a more privileged life.

“She doesn’t know anything about the lower middle class and working people in general,” he said. “She is well educated, which is a good thing, but she is somebody who moved here with a professional job lined up.”

Dini said his district is the poorest in the state, and plagued by crime. The best way to reduce crime is to create jobs, he said, and education is critical, particularly in reading and writing.

He said many high school and college graduates leave the state to pursue education and careers. He said Maine must give them incentives to stay at home or return home.

Barkley, who has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Colorado at Denver, has worked for six years for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. She said her job has opened her eyes to the struggles that many Mainers face.

She said she’s a big supporter of early education and increasing access to higher education. She described recent cuts to school budgets as “very damaging.”

She opposes the people’s veto of the tax reform law on Tuesday’s ballot, calling the changes to the tax system a step in the right direction.

Besides balancing the budget by cutting services, she said, the Legislature should look for other revenue sources, such as a beverage tax, a snack tax or a higher tax on tobacco products.

“I would be in favor of a fair approach to cutting and also looking to certain revenues, to make up for the huge gaps,” she said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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