Portland’s longest-tenured city councilor faces something he didn’t see in his last election: a challenger. In fact, he faces two.
Councilor Pious Ali, seeking his third term as an at-large councilor, faces challengers Aqeel Mohialdeen and Richard Ward as he seeks another term. The Phoenix interviewed all three candidates for the at-large seat, which represents the entire city.
Ali, 53, runs the organization Portland Empowered, an education group centered on immigrant youth. He seeks a third term on the council to help preserve institutional knowledge, continue the work that he and others have started, and support newer councilors.
On the Charter Commission’s governance proposal:
Ali sees advantages and disadvantages to empowering an executive mayor (the thrust of Question Two) and maintaining the status quo. He declined to take a stance here, saying different individuals interpret the position and power in different ways, but also understands the argument that an executive mayor might have too much power.
“I will let the people of Portland decide which they want and learn to live with either of the two,” Ali said.
On the opioid crisis, homelessness and housing insecurity:
Ali was happy with the progress the city was making on the 208-bed homeless services center, which will have wraparound social services for those staying there. He looks forward to when service providers would have the resources there to help people who suffer from substance abuse disorders, and wants the city to continue working with the state for support.
Ali referenced increased funding the Council approved for the Health and Human Services Department, which sought grants to assist local service providers and organizations.
Asked about Portland’s housing crisis, Ali cited insufficient housing stock. While serving on the Housing and Economic Development Committee, he and his colleagues have worked to identify city-owned land that could be developed, like the city’s first cooperative housing project, and those with developers like Community Housing of Maine and resources like the Jill C. Duson Housing Trust Fund, a city fund for affordable housing.
“I’m a big fan of building higher to increase density,” he said.
On other issues:
Ali cites public transportation and sustainable transportation methods among other major concerns. He supports the new bike share program and electric vehicle charging stations, and hopes the METRO bus service returns to their pre-pandemic plan to add later rides for those who work in the service industry.
“The role of a municipal government is to make sure everyone is safe,” he said.
Mohialdeen, the editor and publisher of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon newspaper, Maine’s only Arabic-language newspaper, did not participate in an interview. Originally from Iraq, he is the vice chair of the Maine Republican Party’s Pomulticultural center in Portland.
According to his website, Mohialdeen believes the city wastes millions of dollars on social justice issues “while neglecting our basic city infrastructure,” and places too much emphasis on building roads instead of sidewalks, walking paths and transit systems.
He supports laws prohibiting “sexually explicit materials and other inappropriate materials” in schools – a reference to national Republicans’ coded anti-LGBTQ campaign — so parents can make faith-based decisions.
The vice chair of the state GOP’s multicultural center also believes the city should not “continue to encourage people to migrate to Portland without their own resources,” and supports laws prohibiting camping on public property, loitering and vagrancy.
Ward, 27, said he’s running to see something done about the city’s homelessness problem. He said it seems like the city’s homeless “are pushed to the back of the priority list” over the summer, despite the number of unsheltered individuals in Deering Oaks getting “pretty extreme.”
Ward, who is unemployed, opposes the strong mayor proposal that came out of the Charter Commission, saying the current system has worked, “so why bother changing it?”
On the opioid crisis, homelessness and housing insecurity:
Ward believes the city has not done nearly enough to curb the problem. He cautions that “a lot of people will die this winter,” referencing people sleeping out in the cold overdosing. If elected, he’d want that to be the council’s top priority and would lobby other councilors not to take up other issues until it is solved.
He lashed out at what he called the city’s “virtue signaling,” lambasting officials for spending money on printing Covid precaution signs and “paint[ing] rainbows on sidewalks” while they “let people freeze to death in the winter.”
Ward pledged to use various means to incentivize housing creation, floating a scenario where the city could offer developers no property taxes for 10 years if they build housing. He said he also would like to see the city look towards “micro-apartments,” a small unit that he suggested might cost $300 per month, to get people off the streets. He said he’d also like to see the city relax exclusionary zoning laws to allow for more individual units for low-income earners.
On other stuff:
Ward ran unsuccessfully for a six-month seat on the School Board over the summer. He is endorsed by the Christian Civic League of Maine and has publicly supported anti-abortion protests on his social media accounts.
Ward’s statements were at odds with his online persona. His Twitter account includes posts that read “White Lives Matter” and picture him holding a sign that reads “Democrats the party of pedophiles” on a flag of the former Soviet Union, as well as retweeted misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine. He also retweeted a post about freeing the Jan. 6 insurgents as “political prisoners,” posted anti-transgender images, and boasted about securing an autographed copy of a book by Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist and provocateur, who was recently ordered to pay nearly $1 billion to the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting after falsely telling his show’s audience that the shooting was a hoax.