City Council President Anna Turcotte is the first refugee and more than likely the first woman to hold the seat. She was first elected to the council in 2015. Chance Viles / American Journal

The Westbrook City Council made local history last week in unanimously selecting Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte as its president, the first refugee and by all accounts the first woman to fill that role.

The growing population of refugees needs representation and it’s important for them to see a fellow refugee in a leadership position, Turcotte said. “As a council, we had decided we wanted a woman. We wanted someone to represent those constituents who haven’t had that representation.”

“I look forward to being the facilitator of the discussions,” she said. “One of my major goals is to work more closely with the schools on budgets, so we aren’t surprised when we see it.”

A lawyer specializing in international law, Turcotte has long been involved in advocacy work around her birth city of Baku, Azerbaijan. She wants to do more for Westbrook.

“I am a Mainer,” Turcotte. “This is my home, and at this point, I’ve lived here for 30 years, longer than my home country.”

Turcotte’s Armenian family fled Azerbaijan when she was a child because of attacks on Armenians there. The family spent three years in Armenia before moving to the United States.

After graduating from the University of Maine School of Law in 2003, Turcotte worked as a clerk at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. In 2012, she published “Nowhere, the Story of Exile,” a collection of her diary entries as a child fleeing from her homes.

Her political career in Maine began to take shape in 2013 when she successfully worked to get the Legislature to officially recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, an autonomous state home to many Armenians in Azerbaijan.

A few years later, she ran for the Westbrook council in Ward 3 after realizing she knew more about Armenian border conflicts than the city where she was raising her children.

“I am blunt, I wasn’t sure I’d be good, but it was an important time to run,” Turcotte said.

She ran during what she describes as the height of anti-immigrant sentiment in the city. Hate messages written on immigrants’ doors in the city spurred city-wide investigations and meetings.

What she found while out among residents campaigning was pleasantly surprising.

“I was really surprised by actually how accepting my community was. I underestimated it,” she said. “I had never realized that until I was out there running, and we were working as a community against this sort of hate.”

She won the 2015 election with 64% of the vote, defeating incumbent Councilor Paul Emery. She was unopposed in her reelection bid in 2018 and became the council’s vice president.

She was quiet on the council for the first few years, watching and learning. In the past few years, she has been more of a driving force in city government and makes her voice heard.

Six years from her first election, she’s the first refugee to be council president, and according to City Historian and former Mayor Mike Sanphy, she’s the first female president on record.

“This is an exciting time, and I know Anna will do great in the job, she is down to earth,” Sanphy said.

Turcotte replaces Ward 4’s Gary Rairdon as the council leader.

Councilor David Morse, who said at the Dec. 6 meeting that it was time for a change in leadership, is now the vice president.

Rairdon, who will head the council’s Finance Committee, said he supports Turcotte as president.

I knew the council wanted to change and I am OK with that. I am pleased to have been appointed to the finance committee. The qualities I had as a president will lead nicely into this role,” he said.

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