SOUTH PORTLAND — A longtime business owner who says he’s tapped into local issues and an experienced social worker who wants to unite the city’s diverse population are vying for the District 5 City Council seat in a citywide special election on Dec. 11.

The candidates are Donald “Cookie” Cook, owner of Rolando’s Redemption on outer Main Street, and Deqa Dhalac, intercultural program manager at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland.

The District 5 seat has been vacant since Sept. 15, when former Councilor Adrian Dowling resigned 10 months into a three-year term representing the city’s western neighborhoods. His departure came amid heated council debates over short-term rental regulations and the city attorney’s performance.

An election to fill the remainder of Dowling’s term couldn’t be held Nov. 6 because the regular fall election process already was underway. The city’s five district councilors must live in the districts they represent, but all seven councilors are elected citywide.

Cook, 68, said he’s running because he wants to contribute to the city where he has lived and worked all his life. Cook has operated a business at 851 Main St. for more than 40 years, first as Cookie’s Variety, which he bought when he was 26 years old, and more recently as the bottle redemption center.

Cook said he doesn’t have any particular issues he’d like to address if he’s elected to the council. He called himself a “straight talker” who has the city’s best interests at heart.

“My customers talk to me all the time, so I know what a lot of their concerns are,” Cook said. “I don’t take sides going in. I listen to different perspectives and then give my opinion. I’m not smart enough to be a phony.”

Regarding current issues facing the city, Cook said he’s glad voters endorsed short-term rental rules that the council passed in July and will now go into effect on Jan. 1. He said he believes Airbnb-style home rentals should be regulated to prevent unhosted stays in residential districts.

“Businesses aren’t allowed in residential areas,” Cook said. “People bought homes there. Businesses should be in commercial districts.”

Cook said he also backs the council’s ongoing defense of the city’s Clear Skies ordinance, which blocked the Portland Pipe Line Corp. from potentially reversing the flow of its pipeline to bring oil from Canada to tankers on South Portland’s waterfront. The company’s 2015 federal lawsuit against the city is heading for appeal after a judge in August found that the ordinance is constitutional.

Dhalac, 52, also said she supports the short-term rental regulations – “the voters spoke loud and clear” – and the Clear Skies ordinance – “we have to take care of our environment.”

Dhalac grew familiar with City Hall in 2016, when former District 5 Councilor Brad Fox nominated her for a spot on the Civil Service Commission.

Instead, the council voted 5-2 to reappoint Phillip LaRou, whom Fox had appointed nine months earlier to fill an unexpired term on the commission. LaRou, a Portland firefighter who is white, had asked to be reappointed to a full five-year term, but Fox said he wanted to increase diversity on city boards and committees.

Dhalac filed a discrimination complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. Her complaint wasn’t upheld, she said, but the council did go through diversity training as a result.

“Something wonderful came out of all that,” said Dhalac, a native of Somalia who became a U.S. citizen in 1998 and moved to South Portland in 2008.

Dhalac said she wants to move beyond the 2-year-old controversy and promote unity on the council. She also wants to make schools safer for students and more supportive of teachers, she said. And she believes the city should offer incentives to encourage development of affordable housing.

Most of all, Dhalac said, she wants to make municipal government more accessible to all residents, especially members of the immigrant community who may feel alienated from the rest of the city.

“A lot of good things are happening in South Portland,” Dhalac said. “I want everybody to feel they can be a part of that.”

Early voting in the special election is possible now through Thursday via absentee ballots available at the City Clerk’s Office at City Hall.

All voting on Dec. 11 will occur from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the South Portland Community Center, 21 Nelson Road.

The South Portland Bus Service will provide free rides on all routes on Dec. 11 to help voters get to the center.

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