The Maine Republican Party is hoping to make inroads into the Democratic Party’s liberal base by opening a political multicultural center in the heart of Portland on Tuesday, using voter education and mobilization to establish a foothold in Maine’s newest communities.

Located in a former real estate office next door to Hilltop Coffee, the center will provide political training to amplify new voices in the Portland community and throughout Maine, and also will offer job training, immigration assistance and language classes, party spokesman Jason Savage said.

“The center is a volunteer-driven effort created by a number of volunteers of varying backgrounds that are energized about reaching new communities to assist them and show them that the GOP is active in their communities,” Savage said by email on Monday.

The number of active Republican voters in Portland is growing – from 5,528 in 2014 to 6,246 in 2018 to 6,844 in 2022 – but is still just a fraction of the Democratic voting bloc, which in 2022 numbers 36,451. Republicans still would be outnumbered even if all 16,685 unenrolled voters in Portland were to join their ranks.

That makes Portland a very friendly place for top-of-the-ticket Democrats and a tough spot for the GOP.

In 2014, then Republican Gov. Paul LePage won a second term in a three-way squeaker despite losing big in Portland to Democrat Mike Michaud, 20,833 to 6,724. In 2018, Democrat Janet Mills handily defeated Republican Shawn Moody in a three-way race after clobbering him in Portland, 26,237 to 5,675.

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The opening was welcome news to Reza Jalali, the executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. While his nonprofit is decidedly nonpartisan, they share many of the same goals, such as voter education and registration, which are key parts of promoting civic engagement, he said.

“As an advocate for immigrants, I feel really very good about this,” Jalali said. “It highlights the power and the influence that new Mainers’ voices can have. It means we are finally becoming visible. People are paying attention to the power we have in terms of potential voters.”

Some people like Jalali were surprised to learn the Republicans and LePage were venturing to Portland, but upon reflection it made both short-term and long-term sense to Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine.

Courting Portland voters and the state’s communities of color could help soften LePage’s image as he seeks election this fall to an unprecedented third term in the Blaine House, Schmidt said. And, it only helps the Republican Party over the long run as even Maine demographics begin to gradually diversify.

“Don’t forget that some of the most incendiary stuff LePage said as governor was about race,” Schmidt said. “This may be Republicans saying: we’re going back to LePage, but we’re not going back to talking about African Americans from New York named Shifty coming to Maine to sell drugs.”

In 2016, LePage made racist remarks in Bridgton at one of his regular policy town halls about African American drug dealers with names such as Shifty and D-Money driving to Maine to sell drugs and impregnate local white girls. He was talking about his strategy to end the opioid epidemic.

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The GOP may be trying to return to its roots, Schmidt said. For decades, from the mid-20th century until the Olympia Snowe era, the Maine Republican Party held a liberal position on the party spectrum, one that appealed to many socially conservative immigrant groups, Schmidt said.

LePage and Party Chair Demi Kouzounas will attend the grand opening of the center, which is located in the former F.O. Bailey Real Estate office. The owner, David Jones of Falmouth, is a big Republican Party donor and LePage supporter who has previously given the candidate use of his properties to campaign.

The center will be led by Suheir Alaskari, an Iraqi native who came to Maine in 2014. She has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Southern Maine. She sits on the city’s economic opportunity advisory council and teaches self empowerment and career development classes to immigrant women.

The co-chair, Aqeel Mohialdeen, is a Baghdad native who came to the U.S. on a special immigrant visa through his work in USAID projects in 2010. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from USM in 2021. He works as a caseworker at Preble Street and volunteers for the League of Women Voters.

“This is about people working to improve their community and country, and the resonance of Republican values like freedom against the backdrop of failed policies of the left,” Savage said. “In contrast, we’ll be talking about our ideas to improve Mainers’ lives.”

Savage believes the Republicans’ interest in cutting the government red tape that drives up energy and housing costs and stifles the private sector growth that creates good employment opportunities will resonate with immigrant voters.

“A strong private sector provides opportunity for everyone and a stronger social safety net for those who need it,” Savage said. “It also offers dignity, purpose and hope for a life most people can only pursue in America.”

 


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