Last Saturday, Mohammed Dini walked around Portland’s Parkside neighborhood, collecting five dollars at a time to help him get to the State House.
Dini, a sophomore political science major, is running for representative of District 119 in Portland, which runs from Washington Avenue to St. John Street between Congress Street and I-295. The district he calls home is the most diverse and densely populated in the state.
Dini is a tall and lanky 24-year-old, with an easy nature and warm smile. Last Saturday, he walked down Grant Street, meeting and speaking with potential constituents.
“Excuse me, do you live here?,” he asked a woman who was walking up to her front door on Grant Street.
She regarded him coolly at first, “you aren’t with the Census, are you?” she asked. But within a minute, she was standing with him on the sidewalk, pointing to a house where she said a sex offender lived, and speaking candidly about crime in the neighborhood. By the end of their conversation, the woman told Dini he could count on her vote.
Dini grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia. In 1991, his family fled the civil war to neighboring Kenya. Then in 1996, they moved to Roxbury, Mass. before finally settling in Maine in 1997, choosing Portland partially because of its coastal location.
“The family loves places where it has more coherence and more family, a place where you can raise kids,” said Dini.
Since moving to Portland, Dini has almost always lived in District 119. While he loves his neighborhood, and has close ties with its people, he’s also seen friends get involved with drugs, and watched violence unfold on the streets.
“Some chose better ways to handle their life and others chose a bad way,” he said. “For those who don’t do well in school at an early age, the only thing you can do is act tough and strong and look for another way to survive. It all comes back to having a good education.”
Dini says the crime problem in Parkside stems from a depressed job market and an uneducated workforce.
“It’s tough times, definitely,” he said. “Pretty much all the crimes that happen here are related to lack of jobs. People say ‘why crime happen, why these things happen?’ But people don’t have anything. I mean, this is an economically disadvantaged people. They don’t have anything, period.”
Dini says improving the quality of education in Maine could help break the vicious cycle that creates crime.
“A lot of my friends, when we tell them [to go to college] they’re like ‘we’re not smart like you.’ But they are smart, they never had that basic [education] necessary,” he said.
Dini works with College Transitional Assistance Program, a student group that provides tutoring and assistance to help at-risk youth get into college. They put on basketball tournaments in the fall and spring to recruit kids to get involved with the program. “We recruit more high school students to our universities. Then our students graduate from universities and leave to different states. That worries us also.”
Dini said he wants to bring technology jobs to Portland. Commercial real estate is cheaper than it is in New York, he said; Portland should be drawing more companies to set up shop here. “It all comes down to passing legislation,” he said. “Most of our state legislators aren’t interested in this,” he said. “You hear about casinos, but I think they lost the basic concept. Our state is really hurting”
He said he wants to give tax breaks to small businesses and develop community projects in poor neighborhoods.
“Right here on Grant Street, right there was a shooting — that wasn’t long ago. A kid — we went to high school together — got shot right on that corner. So it just goes on; the crime goes up,” he said. “There’s a hunger. You can tell, tough neighborhood.”
He said that his neighbors and friends he’s known his whole life were happy to see a neighborhood kid running for public office.
“They enthusiastic about it,” he said. “They’re like, are you serious? Congratulations, it’s about time.”
Dini is funding his campaign through the Clean Election Act: the state will fund their campaign after candidates collect $5 checks from 60 people in their district to show that they have a base of support. Candidates are allowed to raise $500 in seed money from private donors at the beginning of the campaign, but cannot accept donor money after they have requestedcertification as clean election candidates.
Dini said Herb Adams, the current state house representative for District 119, encouraged him to run for office. Adams steps down this year after eight years in office.
Dini faces democratic challenger Jill Barkley, a public awareness and policy coordinator for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, in the democratic primaries in June. While Dini grew up in Parkside and has a first hand knowledge of the difficulties of being an immigrant in Portland, Barkley has only lived there for six years. She said her main barrier in courting the immigrant vote is being able to communicate with a wide swath of nationalities.
“One barrier might be language,” she said. “There are, I think 65 languages, spoken in King Middle School.”
While he said he doesn’t foresee any major obstacles in his campaign, Dini said the fact that he’s an immigrant means he has a lot to prove.
“No immigrant has ever run. Some people are very happy, but the expectations are hard,” he said. “You don’t want to promise anything that you can’t do. It’s a whole new process for me but I’m having fun with it.”