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Maine swears in its most diverse legislature yet, including its first Black Speaker

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Maine consistently ranks as one of the most white states in the country. But this week, it swore in the most diverse state legislature in its history, including its first Black speaker of the House, its first Black woman state senator and its first two Somali American state representatives. Maine Public Radio's Ari Snider has this report.

(CROSSTALK)

ARI SNIDER, BYLINE: At an election-night watch party on Nov. 8, South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac posed for a photo with supporters after winning her race for the Statehouse. Dhalac is one of two Somali Americans elected to the Statehouse this year, a historic first for Maine. At the watch party, Dhalac said she wants her victory to inspire immigrant youth.

DEQA DHALAC: So that these young people can say, you know, the House is mine too; the Senate is mine too; the city council is mine too.

SNIDER: Dhalac is a Democrat, and she's one of five Black lawmakers in the 131st Maine Legislature, which was sworn in on Dec. 7 at the Statehouse in Augusta. Even though the number of lawmakers of color is still relatively small, the legislature now has a higher percentage of Black people than the state as a whole. Democrats retained their trifecta control of state government in this year's midterms, meaning Dhalac will serve in the majority under another history-making representative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT HUNT: I declare that Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland has been elected speaker of the House of Representatives of the 131st Maine Legislature.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL)

SNIDER: Talbot Ross, a Portland Democrat, is the first Black person to hold that position in the state's history. And she called attention to the changing demographic composition of the legislature during her first remarks as speaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RACHEL TALBOT ROSS: We sit in this room, embarking on our shared work, as the most diverse legislature in the history of Maine. It is my unwavering belief, though, that we are one Maine.

SNIDER: Mark Brewer is a political science professor at the University of Maine. He says increased diversity in an elected body can have a measurable impact on policy. He says that's been the case as more women have been elected to Congress.

MARK BREWER: More women holding seats in Congress, did the kind of stuff that Congress dealt with change? And the answer's yes, right?

SNIDER: In Maine, all five Black lawmakers in the legislature are Democrats. Brewer says that tracks with two national trends - the Democratic Party generally nominating more diverse slates of candidates and the party finding greater electoral success in more diverse urban places.

One exception to that trend is Democratic State Senator Craig Hickman, a poet and farmer who is the longest-serving Black lawmaker in Augusta. He represents an overwhelmingly white, mostly rural district. Now Hickman says he's taking in the historic gains in diversity and reflecting on what needs to be done to build on those gains.

CRAIG HICKMAN: Because we know that equality of opportunity isn't necessarily there for everyone. But that's why we're here. We're fighting to make that a reality, to move, to bend that arc of the moral universe toward justice just a little bit faster.

SNIDER: And while five Black lawmakers out of 186 is still a relatively small group, Hickman says it carries deep meaning for him.

HICKMAN: There are four other people in the Maine Legislature who look like me. It's pretty amazing. It's pretty humbling. It's pretty inspiring.

SNIDER: Hickman says it's a big change from when he was first elected to the Statehouse in 2012. That year, he was the only Black lawmaker in the legislature.

For NPR News, I'm Ari Snider in Augusta, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Snider - Maine Public

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