Pious Ali, 54, is currently serving his third term on the City Council after three years on the school board. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The last of five profiles on Portland’s mayoral candidates.

Pious Ali has been up all night. On a brisk September morning, he hurries into the lobby of the Press Hotel, briefcase in hand.

He has been out putting up campaign signs all over Portland. In an hour, he will be chairing a meeting of one of the many nonprofit boards he is on.

“I’m tired,” he says. “But life goes on.”

Ali doesn’t rely on coffee to wake up. He stopped drinking the stuff in 2020 when the pandemic closed down coffee shops. He didn’t own a coffee maker and couldn’t find one at the store.

“So I just stopped. Now I drink tea,” he says.


Perhaps it’s a sign of his decision-making style and his ability to adapt.

In the seven years Ali has served on the City Council, he says he’s become increasingly motivated to create a culture of inclusivity in Portland.

“The big cities are cities that have been molded already,” said Ali. “Portland is small, it is still growing and has a lot of potential and opportunities. I feel like Portland has an opportunity to create a community that we want to see.”

As mayor, Ali says, he wants to build community and listen to create the inclusive city he envisions.


Ali, who is 54, was born in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, to Hawa Jibril and Ali Munkaila. His parents divorced before his first birthday and he was sent to live with his grandmother, Rahmat Mohammed, in Nsawam, a smaller city about two hours north. He has six siblings, four on his mom’s side and two from his dad. In Nsawam he lived in a madrasa, a community Islamic boarding school run by his great uncle.


“I grew up with lots of kids and other students around, lots of aunts and uncles and cousins. It was a big, loving environment,” he said.

He moved back to Accra for high school, where he got involved with theater and developed an interest in photography. When he was given a camera, he started capturing friends, family, and landscapes; he couldn’t spend enough time behind the lens.

“I wanted to draw, but I’m not good at drawing. I could create scenes in my head, but I could never transfer it to a paper,” said Ali. “I took that imagination and started taking photos.”

After graduation, Ali took more photography classes before starting a newspaper, People and Places, with a friend. He spent years traveling around Ghana as a photojournalist. He published photos in his paper and national outlets including The Daily Graphic and The Mirror.

In September 2000, he flew to New York, where he crashed with friends in Mount Vernon and the Bronx. He planned to stay for about a year – long enough to save up money for some new camera equipment.

“I photographed everybody in Ghana and I wanted more people to photograph, so I went to New York,” said Ali. “That’s a joke,” he said with a wry smile.


Ali was in a friend’s apartment in Mount Vernon on 9/11 when the World Trade Center towers fell.

“I vividly remember watching it on TV,” he said. After that, he realized he couldn’t go back to Ghana. “I knew I would never get back in (to the United States) with a Muslim last name,” he said.

A few months later, Ali came to Portland to visit a friend from home. He was struck by how laid-back and friendly the city was. He moved north a few months later and has been here ever since.

In Portland, Ali took the first job he could find, washing dishes at G’vanni’s, an Italian restaurant on Wharf Street. Most days he would flip through the Press Herald’s classifieds, looking for other work. That’s how he happened upon an ad for a job at Peer, an after-school program for teenagers run by a group that would later become the Opportunity Alliance. He applied on a lark and was hired.

The decision changed his life, he says. He discovered a new passion.



Ali loves working with teenagers and being a mentor to them. Before long, the teens at Peer were calling him about issues that had nothing to do with the program.

Soon he started getting involved with more community organizations. The list is long, but it includes Seeds of Peace, King Fellows, and Preble Street. His work with them ranged from counseling homeless teens to facilitating dialogue between people from warring nations. His commitment grew to build community and connection between people from vastly different backgrounds.

He eventually started his organization, Portland Empowered, which has been his full-time job for 12 years now. The organization works with immigrant parents to help them learn more about the local education system and overcome language and social barriers so they can be involved in their kids’ education.

“People find their calling differently. I didn’t come here to make anything better. I came here to look for money,” said Ali. “However, in the process, a new passion came up that I never even knew I had.”

Ali said he was reluctant at first to make the jump from community organizer to elected leader. But in 2013, a friend told him that a seat had opened up on the school board and encouraged him to run. He was surprised by how fulfilling he found working in politics.

A few years in, he said, his inbox was full of messages from residents about citywide issues that fell far beyond the purview of the school board. So he decided it was time to run for City Council. He won his seat as the first African immigrant on the council in 2016, the same year Donald Trump was elected president.


“His rhetoric is against everything that I am. I’m a Black man, I’m a Muslim and I’m an immigrant,” said Ali. “I joke that we have one thing in common: We both got elected on the same day.”

Getting elected was surreal for Ali. “I asked myself how did I get here? My story, where I find myself, can only happen in this country, and in this city, and this state,” he said.


While he was building a career he loved in Portland, he also started a family. Ali, who is now divorced, met his wife soon after he arrived in the city. He adopted her son from a previous relationship. Then they had a daughter, named Rahmat after Ali’s grandmother. He was married for eight years.

His son Troy taught him to play video games, he said. “Growing up I never played any video games, and I’d see him playing these games by himself so I’d say, ‘Hey, can I play this?’ And he’d teach me.”

Rahmat has always loved to cook with her dad. He taught her to make Ghanaian food when she was young; Jollof rice is a favorite. “She grew up here so she only knows to cook with measuring – but I don’t measure anything, I just cook it,” said Ali.


His children are grown now and live in Boston, but they remain at the heart of his life.

“I knew I would stay here for good once I started having kids,” he said. He became an American citizen in 2008.

“It was a big moment for me because it made me become part of this big ongoing experiment that is America,” he said. “I get to be a part of something bigger than I ever thought.”

Erica King, a longtime family friend, says Ali approaches parenthood thoughtfully.

“He has taken raising (his kids) somewhat in the public eye very seriously,” she said, and he puts a lot of thought into helping them find their way. King said he’s also been a role model for her Black children.

“Living in a predominantly white place, it’s been important for my children to have a lot of different types of Black role models,” she said, “and seeing Pious as a leader has been so wonderful for my son.”



Ali’s approach to life and work, he says, centers on listening.

“I’m actually afraid of public speaking,” he said. When he speaks, he often takes a beat to consider what he is going to say. He says he only speaks when necessary.

“That’s why we have two ears and one mouth,” he said. “If God wanted it any other way, we would have two mouths and one ear.”

Salim Salim was a high school student when he met Ali at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, where Ali ran a youth engagement program. Salim has since moved out of Maine, but the two remain close. He has always appreciated Ali’s willingness to listen.

“We sometimes had disagreements growing up about ideas, education, and development. We had different points of view and he would challenge me,” said Salim. “I feel very grateful to have known him over time. The political landscape has changed so much, but his priorities have stayed the same.”


When Salim was at Bowdoin, he interned for Ali on the City Council. He joined him at community events and sat in on meetings.

“I see him as a big connector for a lot of immigrants in the community,” said Salim. “He really planted this seed in me to continue to drive myself and reach out to people.”

He sees the down-to-earth, funny side of Ali, who spends hours a day in coffee shops sipping tea and taking meetings, loves Afrobeat and Reggae music, and is a self-proclaimed “urban hiker.”

“There is a trail by my house,” said Ali, who lives in Bayside. “I walk from there to the West End while listening to podcasts, audiobooks, or music.” Both King and Salim said they often run into Ali out for a walk or sitting in a coffee shop.

King describes Ali as “a weaver, who brings people together.”

She says that the value he places on listening and being on the ground with the community is informed by his Muslim faith.

“His religion is a huge part of his life and a foundation for decision-making,” she said. A core tenet of Islam is to give a portion of what one has. Ali believes the greatest gift he has to give is his ability to bring people together.

“You don’t treat someone well because you expect something from them, you do it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Ali.

Next up: Justin Costa

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story