Pious Ali spends a lot of time in coffee shops. The irony is that he barely drinks coffee.
In an interview last weekend, the two-term at-large councilor and mayor pro tem of the council said he gave up coffee during the coronavirus pandemic but still likes to hold meetings in informal, public settings like Coffee By Design on India Street. He said he prefers this shop to the larger, busier one on Diamond Street.
“It’s easy for me to sit here and do my work or meet with people,” Ali said.
Beyond being Portland’s longest-tenured city councilor, Ali, 52, is a well-known public advocate and voice for its immigrant communities.
Originally from Ghana, where he worked as a photojournalist, Ali came to the United States in 2000 and arrived in New York. In 2002 he moved to Maine, where he married and started a family. The oldest of his two children will graduate from high school this year.
After settling in Portland, he began work aimed at helping marginalized communities and especially young people from those communities. He worked with the Preble Street Teen Shelter, the Oxford Street Shelter, Seeds of Peace, and with programs in neighborhoods like Kennedy Park, Riverton Park, and Sagamore Village. Eventually, he founded an organization called Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance, which brings kids together to talk about public service.
At the time, Ali said, he had no thoughts about seeking elected office. He had no interest in politics, or at least organized politics. But after prodding from a friend, he “reluctantly” took out papers to run for the School Board in 2013. He said his work involving youth in the community helped him win the seat, and he discovered a calling.
“I was accessible to a lot of people across the city,” Ali said. “Even though I was on the School Board, sometimes I would receive emails from people about city-related issues. Then I would forward the email to whoever I should, or meet with people to talk and help them find solutions to whatever issues they were bringing forward.”
When it came time to decide about seeking reelection, he started weighing whether he should run for the City Council. He said he put out a feeler on social media, and the outpouring of positive responses was “overwhelming.”
“At the core of what I do, I think that elected office is an elevated platform and an elevated opportunity to look at some things or the way I look at the world, the type of community I want to live in,” Ali said. “Being on the council gives me the opportunity to look at things through the lens that I want to see.
“How can we bring people who are on the extreme end of every issue together and talk about these issues? How can we bring people who traditionally do not have access to power access to that decision-making table, who the system does not engage when the system is making a decision? How can we equitably share opportunities that this amazing city brings forward?”
‘I don’t count scores’
Ali, who is up for reelection this fall, said he views the council as collective work, so he doesn’t focus on individual issues he might want to bring forward. He said every issue the council works on, whether he supports it or not, is important: either it has to happen, or it’s important for someone to stand up in opposition.
“I don’t count scores,” he said. “Even on some of the initiatives I took the lead to bring forward, I would not have been able to do it by myself. So working collectively both with those I agree with and those that I don’t agree with is what I see as success.”
Ali chuckled when asked about a potential campaign for mayor, but didn’t rule it out. He said he’s focused on running for reelection to the council now, although he acknowledged his original goal was to run again for the School Board when he ended up seeking election to the council.
After a long pause, he said the most important thing is to work on what is in front of him now, which is the council agenda.
“I’m a firm believer if things are bound to happen, they will happen,” Ali said. “… When I feel there’s an opening … if I’m bound to do it or if the feeling comes that it’s the right thing for me to do, I will do it.”
Ali said the time he spends in council and committee meetings is worth it. He said everyone is looking for something to fulfill their lives, and for him, it’s public service.
“The work to make things equitable, the work to change things, is not going to go away anytime soon,” he said. “Because there’s always something that needs to be changed or something that needs to be improved on. We’ve come a long way as a country, as a state, and as a city. But we still have a lot of work to do.”
Ali is the first person from the African immigrant community to be elected to office in Portland, and probably in Maine. He said while he was not the first person to run, his victory in 2013 helped create the path to today’s political landscape, where the mayor of South Portland and City Council president of Westbrook are both immigrant women.
‘I love watching him work’
Ali has had many colleagues since his first election in 2013. One of Portland’s longest-serving elected officials, former City Councilor Jill Duson, said he was one of her favorites.
“Pious is a deep, caring soul, and you tap into that every time you interact with him,” Duson, who retired from the council in 2020, said. “He manages to put that together with a commitment to engagement and being involved with our community that I haven’t seen … in anyone else. I try to be a listener myself, but Pious is king of being wholly in front of whoever he’s talking with. I love watching him work.”
Duson said Ali had several areas of policy he worked on or issues he was passionate about while she served with him on the council. She said he was on the committee that worked through finding the Riverside Street location for the city’s upcoming emergency services center.
“His ability to stay in the conversation, no matter how emotional the speakers got, he’s able to listen past the negative energy and the positive energy to see what’s the core of driving people to come talk to the council,” she said.
She also noted Ali’s demand for an independent investigation into the Police Department’s handling of the June 1, 2020, Black Lives Matter protest.
“He was clear that we needed to do more than we were proposing to do, which was establish the Racial Equity Steering Committee, and have the department do a full report,” Duson said.
Ali’s history of public service beyond the City Council, particularly his work advocating for families, hasn’t gone unnoticed either.
“He’s a unique person in bringing other people to the table in a setting where people feel comfortable to speak their minds,” Duson said. “We all keep walls up to protect ourselves. He has the unique ability to have people lower those walls.”
Others, however, see Ali as less involved in the governing process. Former School Board member and City Councilor Justin Costa, who worked with Ali on both bodies, called him “a pretty quiet overall figure,” but one who brings a unique background to serving in Maine.
“I’m not sure of the policies and programs that he’s done, honestly,” Costa said.
Costa said while Ali has been a public voice on various issues, most of those – such as immigrant rights, job skills training, and aid for asylum seekers – were issues the city had already been working on.
“I would characterize him as a quiet public figure,” Costa said.
“I think it’s more around his willingness and availability to be a voice for some of those communities,” he said. “But how that has translated to programs? He’s been supportive but not necessarily the lead on those things.”
‘A three-legged stool’
Ali sees potential for change in Portland.
While he said he did not want to tell the Charter Commission what to do, he hopes its members are listening to the public. And one thing Ali said needs their attention is the division of power between the city manager, mayor, and City Council.
He said the city needs a governing structure that lets elected officials be elected officials and have the autonomy to do their work. He said the system as written in the existing City Charter allows the city manager to dictate the process; if the manager does not agree with what a councilor proposes, chances are the issue will die before it reaches the council.
But the city manager is not the root of the problem, he said. The trouble is the way the positions are described in the charter: There is ambiguity and things are left to interpretation, particularly the power dynamic between the manager and the mayor.
“I don’t believe in giving, whether it’s the mayor or the council, unbridled power,” Ali said. “There should be some checks and balances. If you have two individuals with very strong personalities who don’t see policy in the same way, then you are going to have a dysfunctional governing body.”
He said these conflicts were manifested during the administration of Mayor Michael Brennan when there were disagreements between the elected mayor and the council, and during Strimling’s term, when the mayor clashed with former City Manager Jon Jennings and with councilors.
Ali said the relationship between Jennings and Strimling became “toxic,” and said he tried unsuccessfully to bring in a mediator to work out their differences.
Jennings knew how to get things done, Ali said, and although they didn’t always agree he had a good working relationship with the former manager. However, Ali, who is now on the city manager search subcommittee appointed by Mayor Kate Snyder, said he recognized that was how the system worked, so whether it was Jennings or someone else, the results could have been the same.
Ali said he considers Strimling a friend – someone he didn’t always agree with but whose heart “was and still is in the right place.” He said he has a previous working relationship with Strimling – a benefit that other councilors didn’t enjoy.
“It’s a three-legged stool,” Ali said. “If at any given time one of the legs is broken, when you sit on it you have to adjust. Which is why it is important for the current Charter Commission to make sure they have clear language on the role of the city manager, the council, and the mayor.”
Creating an ‘exemplary city’
Ali said the exodus of professional leadership in the city – Jennings and former Police Chief Frank Clark both left in November, and Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana has announced he will depart in 2024 – creates an opportunity for the city in the coming years.
He said cities evolve, Portland’s evolution is ongoing, and this is an opportunity to create the type of city those who live here want it to be. He said this is a time for the city to find leaders who share the values of what makes Portland a strong city and reflect the values of those who live here.
Specifically, regarding the city manager, he said he hopes whoever takes over will be able to balance all the challenges while also creating a structure where immigrants and new arrivals have places to live and work when they arrive.
“Whoever the city manager is, she or he will need to have the ability to engage the state government and federal government,” Ali said. “And that’s somebody who should be able to balance things and also who will know they are administrators and not politicians.”
The issues facing Portland in the years to come, Ali said, include housing and better-paying jobs, but also ensuring people who work in the city can afford to live in the city. He said there is a need to continue to improve public transportation, and most importantly, all the work must be centered around racial and economic justice, and serving marginalized communities.
“Yes they are difficult issues, but they are solvable,” Ali said. “City leadership, whether it’s elected or appointed, that leadership will have to tackle it. It’s doable. We have a lot of opportunities to create an exemplary city that other parts of the country can look at.”
Not surprisingly for a public servant who spends a lot of his time in coffee shops, Ali’s day started to fill up while he chatted in Coffee By Design. During the hour-long interview, Deering High School Co-Principal Abdullahi Ahmed walked in, greeted Ali, and waited to talk with him.
Standing to stretch at the end of the interview, Ali joked that sometimes he felt like he is running a doctor’s office.
“Dr. Ahmed,” he said, waving his friend over, “you are next.”