Lewiston elects first African immigrant to public office

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LEWISTON — A School Committee write-in candidate picked up 10 votes in a ballot recount Thursday, making him the city’s first African immigrant to be elected to public office.

Jama Mohamed will represent Ward 5, which comprises the downtown.

I am very happy,” Mohamed said after the recount. “I am relieved. I want to thank those for giving their time to come here and count the ballots.”

Serving on the School Committee “is a lot of responsibility,” he said. Being the first African immigrant is like a door opening for him and others who come from different countries, he said. He hopes more will follow his lead.

ZamZam Mohamud was the first African immigrant to serve on the School Committee. She was appointed by Mayor Bob Macdonald, but she lost her seat in the election earlier this month, making Jama Mohamed the first to win an election.

Mohamed, 29, is a native of Somalia. He came to the United States in 2004 and to Lewiston in 2008. He works as a case manager and interpreter at Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston. He is co-founder and communications director of the Somali Bantu Youth Association of Maine, an organization that mentors students.

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A father of six, he told the Sun Journal last month he was running for office because “it is my duty to serve.”

Jim Lysen, one of the ballot recounters, described Mohamed’s win as historic.

“It’s the first time any Somali, any African immigrant, has been elected to office,” Lysen said.

Lewiston has 5,239 students, 23 percent of whom are English language learners; most of the ELL students are children of Somali refugees. With so many Lewiston students being Somali, “we need representation from the Somali community on the School Committee,” Lysen said.

Winning as a write-in candidate is more difficult because the candidate’s name is not on the ballot. Voters must write in the name and fill in an oval. “We saw so many blank ballots,” Lysen said. “About only 10 percent were filled in.”

Mohamed became a write-in candidate in October, after Ward 5 School Committee member Sonia Taylor did not seek re-election and no candidate stepped forward.

The City Charter says any declared write-in candidate must get the same number of votes as signatures a candidate needs to get on the ballot, which is 50 for Ward 5. On election night, the unofficial results showed Mohamed got 49.

“The voting machine is programmed to send a laser burst of light and only look for ballots that have the oval filled in,” City Clerk Kathy Montejo said. There were 49 ballots with Mohamed’s name and the ovals filled in.

On Thursday, he picked up 10 more votes when ballot-counters examined 10 ballots with his name written in, plus an X or check mark beside his name. The check or X meant a vote was cast, Montejo said.

Mohamed’s name was written on another 35 ballots, but those voters did not fill in the circle or mark an X or a check. Filling in the name shows voter intent for Mohamed, “otherwise why would they write in the name?” Montejo said. “But state rules are crystal clear. It says if the name is written but there’s no voter indicator on there, you cannot count that vote.”

Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster said he was pleased that all of the positions on the School Committee are filled.

“I look forward to working with Mr. Mohamed and the new and returning members of the committee,” he said.

City councilors and School Committee members will be sworn into office Jan. 6 at the Franco Center.

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

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