PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) — A small-business owner, organizer for Black Lives Matter and former ward of the state, Joanna Kelley, made history in the Nov. 2 election by becoming the first Black city councilor of Portsmouth in memory.
Kelley, 33, placed second in the election for city councilors, which also makes her what appears to be the city’s first Black assistant mayor. Portsmouth is governed by nine city councilors and a mayor, and the position of mayor and assistant mayor go to the top two vote-getters.
Kelley, who owns a coffee shop in Portsmouth, told The Portsmouth Herald that she grew up in part in the state’s foster care system.
“I was a ward of the state that had nobody that wanted to claim me at one point in my life,” Kelley said. “And now, to me, I have a whole city that is proud that I am a part of it.”
Portsmouth is 90% white and only 2.5% Black, according to 2019 census estimates.
Kelley is one of six candidates newly elected to City Council; five incumbents lost reelection this year. Kelley, who had previously run for City Council and finished 10th, reflected on coming in second place this year.
“When you go from (finishing) No. 10 to being assistant mayor, there’s a base level pressure. Then you do that as one of the few women who have been assistant mayor, then you do it as the first person of color, Black, African American, there’s a lot of pressure within that,” Kelley said.
In their new roles, Kelley and the other city councilors will take up a decades-long effort to redevelop a federally owned building downtown, as well as setting budgets and shouldering an affordable housing crisis, the newspaper reported.
Last year, Mark Brave won election to the Strafford County Sheriff’s Office, making him the only Black sheriff in the state.
Black Lives Matter Seacoast co-founder Clifton West Jr. told the newspaper that Black New Hampshire residents like Brave and Kelley are bringing their “unique experiences and voices to shape policies in our municipalities for the first time.”
“However, while a lot of focus has been put on her ethnicity, Joanna won because she is highly qualified for this position, and Portsmouth voters not just voting her on the City Council but voting her in as assistant mayor as a first-time councilor proves that,” he said.
The Portsmouth Herald asked two librarians to search available records and they could not find evidence of a Black person having been previously elected to City Council going back to 1849. However, some of those records, the librarians said, do not make note of each city councilor’s race, leaving the question unanswered of whether she is the first.