Ashanti Williams was appointed to the Biddeford City Council on Tuesday night. He is believed to be the first Black councilor in city history. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Ashanti Dwight Williams wasn’t planning to run for office, and he didn’t set out to make history.

But on Tuesday evening, Williams became what is believed to be the first Black member of the Biddeford City Council when fellow councilors voted unanimously to approve his appointment to fill an unexpired term.

After his appointment was confirmed, Williams was sworn in and he posed for a group photograph. Then he was welcomed by the mayor and at-large City Councilor Doris Ortiz.

“As a man of color he can be a voice for a population that has never been represented on this council before,” Ortiz said. “As a person of color, his life experiences will shape his voice and his perspective.”

Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant chose Williams, a 45-year-old bar manager and actor, to replace Ward 4 Councilor Robert Quattrone, who recently resigned to move out of state. Williams will serve the remainder of Quattrone’s term, which ends after the November election.

Casavant told the City Council that he vacillated between nominating someone with prior political experience and someone with none. He chose the latter to represent a community that has changed dramatically in recent years.

“Biddeford has changed from a Franco community to a much more diverse cultural community” Casavant told councilors. “Ashanti can be a symbol to all those minorities, who can see that Biddeford is a welcoming place.”

Williams said in an interview Tuesday that he immediately agreed to serve when Casavant approached him because he wants to show how grateful he is to be in Biddeford and give back to the community. That Biddeford had likely never had a Black council member didn’t really hit him until this week, he said.

“I want to say it’s not a big deal and I’m just an individual who wants to go out there and do right for Biddeford, but there is an elephant in the room,” he said. “I know there is going to be a responsibility that I’m going to have to own. I’m not going to look at it from the standpoint of being the first Black councilor. I’m just going to do my job and be as open as possible. It just so happens I’m a Black man.”

Casavant said he met Williams last year at a Black Lives Matter rally at Mechanics Park where Williams performed a spoken word piece. Casavant was immediately impressed, met with him several times and hoped to to appoint him to a committee when there was an opening.

“It’s really important to me to put somebody there who is going to help us as a council move the city forward,” Casavant said. “He loves Biddeford and brags about it all the time.”

When the council seat opened up, Casavant said, he thought of Williams and what he could bring. Casavant said he is keenly aware of the changing demographics of Biddeford – the population is younger and more racially diverse than in past generations – and wanted to appoint somebody new instead of a former councilor.

“It’s time Biddeford has a Black man on the City Council because it’s never happened before,” Casavant said. “We’re not like we were 10 years ago. It’s really important for me and the council that we are inclusive and make sure that whether you migrate here, whether you’re old or new, that you feel you belong here. It’s important to be able to have diversity in point of view and experience.”

Biddeford is a former industrial city, where old textile mills are now being transformed into housing and commercial uses, including restaurants and breweries. An influx of young residents seeking a lively downtown and affordable housing helped earn it the title of Maine’s youngest city in 2019, when the median age citywide was 35, and just 29 in the downtown area.

It is Maine’s sixth largest community, with about 21,500 residents, 91.3 percent of whom are white and 3.2 percent whom are Black or African American, according to a 2019 Census estimate. In 2011, the city’s population was 95.8 percent white and 0.4 percent Black or African American, according to the Census.

Williams, who was born in Seattle, spent most of his life in New Jersey before moving to Biddeford six years ago with his now former wife.

“I was really enamored with this place, even though I was intimidated by it because it’s a very white state,” he said. “When I saw the beauty of Maine, there was this calm that came over me … Then I had the opportunity to move here and didn’t hesitate.”

Since moving to Maine, Williams has worked as a bartender, with Dirigo Talent Agency in Portland and as a reserve officer at the York County Jail. He became the manager of The Martini Bar on Main Street last fall.

Before Casavant approached him about serving on the council, Williams said, he had not thought about running for local office. He said he has been focused on giving back to Biddeford in other ways, including getting to know people in the community and running a business he says is an inclusive and thriving neighborhood bar.

Williams said he comes into his role as a city councilor with no agenda and is looking forward to working with and talking to residents.

“I hope the community will embrace me as an individual with ideas and aspirations to make this city great,” he said.

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