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April 3, 2018

From bystanders to change agents


April 3, 2018

Pakistani-Americans have contested for a variety of public offices in the current midterm elections and there is a clear chance that a few of them will grab a slice of the electoral pie.

It is a good sign that they have finally realised that time has come to actively take part in local politics instead of being a bystander. In the midterm elections, 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of Senate positions are up for grabs. In addition, 34 of the 50 states elect their governors and many states will choose officers to their legislatures. There are also elections at the municipal level and other local public offices.

In the East Coast and the West Coast, first- and second-generation Pakistani-Americans who are vying for these offices are knocking on people’s doors and raising funds for their primaries. Why have a number of Pakistani-Americans started testing the troubled waters and opted for the driving seat? Is it merely the evolution of a smaller community, which after adopting a new homeland wants to make a political contribution? Or, is it facing an ever-increasing existential threat?

As the primary season for the November midterms ends in September, it is obvious that most Pakistani-American candidates will lose. But the midterm elections are still worth a try. The first to dropout was newcomer Tahir Javed, a passionate Texan Democrat who had devoted himself to Hillary’s November presidential bid. The established businessman ran for the 29th Congressional District, bagged the endorsement of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, and spent more than a million dollars from his own pocket. But he eventually lost to Sylvia Garcia.

The 29th Congressional District is home to a majority of working class Hispanics. Although only a few Pakistani voters showed up on the primary day, Javed still received 3,817 votes as compared with Garcia’s 11,659 votes. Garcia has the backing of Congressman Gene Green who is retiring after 25 years in office. On the other hand, Javed also faced a smear campaign from local newspapers about his troubled past of committing felonies. However, the momentum generated by the Lahore-born candidate has opened further political avenues and it is only a matter of time before he re-emerges to fulfil his political dream.

Fayyaz Hassan, a former chairman of the Muslim Democratic Caucus of Texas, also lost his bid to get elected as Tarrant county commissioner. Fayyaz got 7,038 against Daven Allen, the former campaign manager of state representative Chris Turner, who bagged over 12,000 votes. Daven had the backing of the Democrat establishment and her campaign was also fuelled by the #MeToo wave. In addition, she had the advantage of being from an African-American community that was more willing to turn up to polling booths to cast their ballots than Muslim voters.

Pakistani-American women are also pursuing their dreams. Rabeea Collier has defeated Cooke Kelsey by amassing 73.21 percent of votes in the Texas 113th District Court Democratic Primary. Even in 2016, she had received 40.76 percent of the total number of votes. Bushra Amiwala, the Democrat candidate for the Cook County Board, 13th District, Chicago, secured 13,500 votes even though she lost to a candidate who had served the area for the last 16 years. Her family, which originally hails from Karachi, went door-to-door as part of Bushra’s political campaign. But out of the 10,000 Pakistani and Indian voters, only 600 turned up to her call.

Democrat Dr Naveed Aziz, who lost the 2016 election by only a four-percent margin, is also running again for the State Senate in North Carolina District 21. This time, her chances for success are higher.

California is another state where a couple of Pakistani-Americans candidates are contesting. A close associate of the Clinton family, Dr Asif Mehmood is a Democrat whose growing endorsement list is enriching his credentials and prospects. Asif had the honour of being an elected delegate 12 years ago when there was no Pakistani at all in the Democratic mainstream. Initially, Asif was contesting for the deputy governor’s post. However, he later decided to contest for the insurance commissioner slot. His critics have termed this decision as a form of political immaturity. But for Asif, politics is the name of flexibility.

California’s Pakistani community does not constitute even one percent of the population. And yet, Asif has the backing of congresspersons like Judy Chu, Ted Lieu and Rao Khanna. During his meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in March, Congressman Brad Sherman hinted that there is a strong likelihood that Asif will win the post.

Ali Sajjad Taj, the first Pakistan-American mayor of Artesia, is vying for a higher post this time. Taj is contesting for the 32nd State Senate District while Republican Shamroz Syed and Omar Siddiqui are aiming for Congress by consolidating their 50th and 48th districts, respectively. Omar was famously called “the lawyer” by Barrack Obama. In the same state, Farah Khan is battling it out for the Irvine City Council while Muhammad Saifie is crusading for the Redland City Council.

Across the US, there are hundreds of well-established Pakistani-American Democrat supporters and campaigners. There are also campaigners like Khizer Khan who have established themselves as an iron wall against Trump’s rhetoric.

But it was Dr Mohammad Ali Chaudry, a Republican from Basking Ridge, New Jersey, who became the first Pakistani-American to serve as mayor of a US municipality in 2004. In 2007, a pilot and an entrepreneur Omar Ahmad became the mayor of San Carlos, California. But he died soon after. Haroon Salem, a former cab driver, had been sworn in as the mayor of Granite Falls in Snohomish County, Washington in 2009. Salma Hashmi had the honour to become the first Pakistani woman to be elected as mayor. Salma represented Western Chaplin, Florida for two terms while her brother-in-law Dr Arjumand Hashmi has the distinction of doing hat-trick by getting elected as the mayor of Paris, Texas. He is among the few Pakistanis who are equally known among both Pakistani and other circles. He is eyeing the state senate next.

There are almost 1.5 million Pakistani-Americans. And yet, there is no representation in Congress. An almost equal number of British Pakistanis live in Britain. Ten British-Pakistanis have made it to parliament and a number of them are serving as mayors, including Sadiq Khan in London.

A significant number of farsighted Pakistani-Americans are contesting in the primaries. Many of them have realised that if they aren’t actively involved in politics, their voices will not be heard. If people like Trump remain in positions of power and hate crimes and Islamophobia persist, then Pakistani-Americans should realise that change is only possible once they cast their votes.

The writer is a senior journalist associated with Geo News

Email: [email protected]

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