Lalah “Layla” Kargar talks a lot about her out-of-the box ideas while campaigning for the District 3 seat on the Portland City Council: Free lunch for school kids, health care funded by a state-run bank, and renewable energy funded by the fossil fuel industry.

She also thinks the city manager’s position should be eliminated and the current occupant fired.

Lalah “Layla” Kargar Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

What sets Kargar apart most, however, is a complex life story. She’s an immigrant who says she experienced racism growing up in Maine. In her 20s, she served time for felony convictions that she says were tied to a drug addiction that she has since overcome. She is a businesswoman who owns a payment processing firm and publishes a local magazine.

Kargar’s parents escaped Afghanistan in the 1980s. She was born in Tehran, Iran, and came to Maine with her parents as refugees. They all became citizens when she was 10 years old.

She began attending school in Portland, where she says her parents have built “a real estate empire” of more than 60 units of low-income housing. But shortly after they moved to Falmouth, she experienced racism as a high school freshman after the 9/11 attacks, she said.

“We were still very new, brown (and a) somewhat wealthy family in the country club,” she said. “When you mix that with 9/11, a lot of people create their own idea about who we are.”

After high school, she said she got into a bad relationship and became addicted to pills and then turned to snort heroin. And that’s when her legal troubles began, she said.

Kargar is much more comfortable talking about her business experience and policy ideas than her criminal history. When asked to help sort out the details of criminal records obtained from the state database and court system, Kargar became defensive and combative, involving her lawyers in an email string and suggesting at one point she might hire a private investigator to look into the reporter’s background.

“You should be ashamed of yourself. Maybe I should hire a private investigator to look into your past (to) see what you’ve been up to,” she said.

The Portland Press Herald routinely screens the criminal histories of candidates.

Kargar was arrested on five different occasions between July 2010 and December 2012, resulting in a total of 14 charges, including five felonies and nine misdemeanors, according to a criminal background check.

She pleaded guilty of two felonies in March 2011: burglary and theft by unauthorized taking. The other three – theft, burglary and stealing drugs – were dismissed by the district attorney as the result of pleading to lesser charges, records indicate. She also was found guilty of eight misdemeanors, including violating probation or condition of release, operating under the influence, a false report, theft and receiving stolen property.

All of these crimes, Kargar said, were intertwined with the addiction she battled for six years.

In 2010, the Press Herald reported that Kargar allegedly forced her way into a home in Limington and stole an elderly cancer patient’s prescription of Vicodin. Kargar said that incident was not accurately reported, but she did not want to provide additional details. “You are not going to find it on my record because it’s not what happened at all,” she said.

No conviction appears in her state criminal record related to that allegation.

Kargar spent at least 60 days in jail after pleading to felony burglary and theft related to a break-in in Gorham, according to state records.

Kargar said her time in jail allowed her to get sober. After, when she had difficulty finding work, she decided to start her own business.

“I believe there is life after recovery and I don’t think isolating addicts and making them (feel) like they will forever be an addict is helpful,” she said.

Dr. Noah Nesin, the chief medical officer of Penobscot Community Health Center, said the elements of Kargar’s story are common among people recovering from substance use.

“It’s very common,” Nesin said. “Once their disease is stabilized, they become super-productive members of society as a population.”

She now owns Express Solutions, a payment processing firm she said serves 300 Portland businesses, including many owned by immigrants. And she publishes Incomer Magazine, which features success stories of immigrants in Maine.

Kargar said she was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June, after Express Solutions was sued for a breach of contract in Illinois. Her attorney said the voluntary bankruptcy filing was necessary to give the company time to reach a settlement in the contract dispute, and that he hopes the bankruptcy will be dismissed next month.

“Express has at all times denied that there was merit to the initial lawsuit but was hamstrung by the default judgment and the prohibitive cost of trying to fight it in Illinois,” David Johnson said in an email.

If elected, Kargar said she would like to create a rewards program at stores, where people can donate their rewards points to local schools, so they can provide free lunch to kids. She would like to create other voluntary programs for businesses such as auto dealerships, which could add a $35 or so fee on each car purchase and donate it to the city’s efforts to add solar energy to schools, libraries, homes and hospitals. And she wants to create a state bank and use the profits to provide health coverage to bank members.

Kargar said she believes she can use the City Council seat as a catalyst for change beyond Portland.

“You put ideas on the table and hopefully those ideas will be picked up by the people who can do things like that,” she said, adding that she had the payment technology to make rewards programs work.

To address housing, she would crack down on unhosted short-term rentals, such as those advertised by Airbnb. She would also like the city to create a vacancy fee for apartments, storefronts and condos that are left empty for long periods of time. She says that some property owners ask for exorbitant rents, so they can write off the losses on their taxes. And her program would push property owners with vacant units to lower their rents or pay a penalty of 20 percent of their asking rent.

She also thinks landlords who are not providing affordable housing should subsidize their tenants, either by paying their utilities or by providing either a shuttle service or setting up a transportation account for ride-share services like Uber so tenants can commute to work without a vehicle.

And she wants to add a fitness center for seniors to the Kiwanis pool.

“I believe in the right causes and I think I am the strongest candidate to make sure everyone is heard,” she said. “I’m not here to make friends. I’m not here to pick sides. I’m here to pick the side of the people and that’s the people of District 3.”


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