One is an African immigrant who made history as the first Muslim elected to office in Portland. The other is a young male nurse who has lived in Portland for only about a year.

Together, they shook up the city’s Nov. 8 elections by unseating veteran City Council incumbents. Now they get a chance to make their mark on city government.

Pious Ali, a School Board member, and Brian Batson, a newcomer to city politics, will be sworn in Monday as members of a council that oversees a municipal budget of $236 million and sets the bottom line for school spending.

Ali, a youth and community engagement specialist at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School for Public Service, easily unseated Jon Hinck for an at-large seat. Batson, a stroke nurse at Maine Medical Center, seemingly came out of nowhere to unseat Edward Suslovic in District 3.

Both Ali and Batson ran on a progressive platform of supporting a $70 million bond to renovate the city’s elementary schools – an issue their opponents were approaching with concern and fiscal caution. The winners also supported more aggressive protections for renters, who are being squeezed out of the city by increasing rents.

PIOUS ALI IS FOCUSED ON HELPING OTHERS

Pious Ali immigrated from the West African nation of Ghana in 2000, where he worked as a freelance photojournalist for a newspaper, magazine and advertising agencies.

The 47-year-old said he went to New York City to seek new opportunities. He was staying with his cousins when he ran into an old friend from Ghana, who was visiting the city but actually lived in Portland, where he was a student at the Maine College of Art. Ali visited his friend a few times before deciding to move here in 2002. He became a U.S. citizen a few years later.

“I photographed everybody in Ghana – from the everyday people on the streets to the president,” Ali joked. “There was no one left for me to photograph.”

Ali said his first job in Portland was working as a prep cook, butcher and dishwasher in a local restaurant. He later took jobs at the Portland Regional Opportunity Program – which has since merged with Youth Alternatives to become the Opportunity Alliance – and Preble Street, a nonprofit that operates a soup kitchen and shelters. He worked with homeless and disadvantaged youth.

It was at that point, he said, that he decided he wanted to focus on helping people, especially immigrants, who were struggling to advocate for themselves and their children.

“Those two groups of young people got me interested in social issues and energized me to push for things I believe in,” Ali said. “They pushed me to learn more and open my mind to a lot (of) things and I started (to advocate) for those kids.”

Ali, who has a 20-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, helped co-found the Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance and traveled throughout the state putting on workshops about diversity for school-based civil rights groups.

Ali has gone on to help individual families and students resolve conflicts at home and at school. He has also has spoken out against local hate crimes, as well as the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump, who said during a campaign event in Portland that Somali immigrants were responsible for crimes. Ali was among protesters during that visit in August, and was a lead organizer, along with Republican consultant Lance Dutson, of a previous protest against Trump during a March campaign visit to Portland.

Ali is credited with being the first Muslim elected to office in Maine, but he is quick to point out that a Muslim in Lewiston was also elected in 2013. However, the results of the Lewiston election were challenged, delaying the officials results.

Ali said he’s humbled to be elected to the City Council as an immigrant and a Muslim, especially in this political climate. While he doesn’t want to be hemmed in by those things, he acknowledges he is positioned to help people learn more about people like him.

“It’s an opportunity to engage people and educate them on who we are as a community,” Ali said.

Three days after winning the council seat, Ali said he boarded a plane and flew to London, where he participated in the week-long Gather Fellowship Launch, which is sponsored by Seeds of Peace, a peace-building and leadership development program. He was one of 16 people worldwide selected from a pool of 140 applicants.

Ali said he is eager to get to work on a host of issues as a councilor. His top priority will be looking to increase economic opportunities for young people by opening up more internship opportunities for them while they are in high school. He is also eager to work toward passing a $70 million bond to renovate the city’s elementary schools.

“I’m very grateful for this opportunity and I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues and the residents of Portland to make Portland a place where we all want to be,” he said.

BRIAN BATSON GOT BOOST GOING DOOR-TO-DOOR

On Nov. 8, political newcomer Brian Batson pulled off a political upset. A resident of Portland for about one year with no significant involvement in any community or neighborhood organizations, the 25-year-old registered nurse from Ellsworth unseated three-term incumbent Edward Suslovic for the District 3 City Council seat.

It was an upset that not many people saw coming – not even Suslovic. Even though he has a reputation as a combative and controversial councilor who was not afraid to take unpopular positions on issues, Suslovic didn’t raise any money for his campaign against the unknown Batson and relied on leftover yard signs from previous campaigns.

Batson, meanwhile, was busy hitting the pavement and knocking on doors in the district with the help of a few high school friends. When people weren’t home, he would insert campaign literature into an envelope, on which he left a handwritten note.

“I wanted people to know I knocked on the door,” Batson said, noting that he also sent out two rounds of mailings. “I won by reaching everybody. I think that really worked to my advantage as well.”

Batson was raised in Ellsworth, where he was a state champion swimmer. He said he set both school and state records his senior year in high school, but they have since been broken. He went on to receive a swimming scholarship at La Salle University, where he earned a degree in science and nursing, before returning to Maine.

Batson said he persuaded a couple of his childhood friends – a blacksmith and a painter/cartoonist – to move to Portland last year, even though none of them had jobs lined up. Batson quickly landed a job at Maine Medical Center, where he works two 12-hour shifts a week as a stroke nurse.

Until his campaign, Batson said he swam regularly at the YMCA. He also likes to paddle-board at Willard Beach in South Portland, surf at Higgins Beach in Scarborough and otherwise stay active.

Although he had no prior political experience, Batson decided to run for a council seat after the city decided to shut down the HIV-positive care services offered at the city-run India Street Public Health Center, transitioning those services to the nonprofit federally qualified health center, Greater Portland Health. The city continues to operate the needle exchange and STD testing and treatment out of India Street.

Batson believes the council would benefit from his health care experience. He is opposed to privatizing EMS services – a move that Suslovic was interested in exploring.

Those positions likely won him the endorsement of the firefighters union. Batson, who identified himself as a progressive, also won the endorsement of the Maine People’s Alliance, which sent direct mail in support of Batson and Pious Ali, who won the at-large council seat.

Batson said he hopes to avoid political and personal conflicts that have been on display recently among Mayor Ethan Strimling, the City Council and City Manager Jon Jennings.

“I have zero interest in that,” he said. “I just want people to know that I won through hard work and I plan on making informed and educated decisions. I want to utilize my health-care background to do good work.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.