Election 2020: Nabilah Islam on Running for Congress in GA-07 | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Election 2020: Nabilah Islam on Running for Congress in GA-07

“When you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Feb 12, 2020
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We need to talk about Georgia. I'm not saying it's a swing state, but it will be. It's the definition of a battleground. After the Democrats lost the midwest in 2016, other states will need additional focus.

Georgia's 7th District is the definition of a political battleground. It is The Battleground. It's traditionally Republican (it was Bob Barr's old seat, nuff said), but the times, they are a changin'. GA-07 is a young, majority minority district, and it's retiring (retreating) Republican, Congressman Bob Woodall, only won in 2018 by 400 or so votes and probably a decent amount of voter suppression. 135,000 of its citizens don't have health care coverage. It has Georgia's most deportations and its highest incarceration rate.

In a district such as this, the old Karl Rove strategy of pump-up-and-turn-out-the-base will have to be employed. Most primaries are about preaching to the choir, and babe, I've got some preaching to do. Everyone I interview, I want to win. Meet Nabilah Islam.

Islam, 30, is a first time candidate, long time organizer. Virtue never tested is no virtue at all, and Nabilah Islam has been thoroughly tested. Her parents moved to America from Bangledesh to escape genocide and poverty. Her mother grew up in a tin and mud shack, in a village, no doctors, no hospitals, no electricity or running water, with an outhouse. Islam's first birthday was in Gwinnett County, Georgia. While her parents made ends meet working in menial jobs and living in Section 8 housing, Islam grew up solidly middle class. She received a public education and was a high school debate captain.

When she enrolled in Georgia State, she was in the model UN and president of AIESEC. Islam was the first member of her family to graduate college, and the only candidate in her congressional race to have grown up in the district. She was president of her local Young Democrats chapter, helped city council candidates defeat entrenched incumbents, worked on Jason Carter's 2014 gubernatorial campaign, campaigned with Jimmy Carter, was Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign's southern states deputy finance coordinator, and worked for the DNC. Since announcing her run for congress she has dropped her junk health care policy and placed her student loans in forbearance.

She's been endorsed by Jason Carter and Occupy Democrats, her fundraising is good, she was way out in front in calling for the president's impeachment, she thinks the Fight For 15 is only a start, she supports federal legalization of marijuana, she is in favor of Medicare For All, she wants to end cash bail and private prisons and student debt, and she believes in taxing the rich to pay for the Green New Deal.

The same triangulated, boring, establishment Democrats are running in 2020, but the Republicans in the primary are horrifying. One of them championed the infamous Georgia heartbeat bill. Democrats have to fight fire with fire. They need fresh blood, or young blood that still runs hot and hasn't been chilled by time or outdated electoral myths. Nabilah Islam in the answer to the riddle that is southern Democratic politics in the 21st century.

Steve King (Under the Radar):You've worked on a lot of campaigns. I'm wondering what the transition to candidate is like. Is it weird, or easy? What have you learned that's different from running a campaign?

Nabilah Islam: Yes. Being a candidate is completely different than working behind the scenes. It's been an eye-opener, for sure. From meeting with people from all over the district to having the pressure to raise money to be competitive, it's been a lot of work, obviously, and it's a labor of love and I really enjoy doing it.

I really love having the opportunity to meet with people in the northern part of my district all the way to the southern part. It's a very large district. We're constantly traveling. It's super exciting to see how many people within the district are excited about a real progressive running for congress. There's never been a race like this before in the district. I grew up here.

As a little girl, I never saw anyone who looked like me in office, whether that was my school board, the county commission, mayors, city council members, a congressperson; no one has ever reflected our community or our values so this campaign has been a real opportunity to give a voice to so many people who have felt that no one has ever seen them before. We're running a really grassroots campaign. We have over 200 volunteers who signed up and we're canvassing right now for about four months away from the election [which is May 19th], and we're just hitting the doors. Our goal is to knock on 40,000 doors before the primary date, because I truly believe the best way to win this campaign is face to face, so we're just trying to meet as many people as we can in a short amount of time.

While at Georgia State you started as a poli sci major but changed to marketing, because a totally wrong professor told you that you shouldn't be in politics. Do you think that professor would vote for you now and may have to in the future?

I don't think he lives in the district. But I do bring up that story a lot. When I look back, he was a white man who didn't see the possibility of me being successful, because, to be frank, there aren't a lot of people that look like me, whether it was on the campaign, running for office. I think he thought he was trying to give me good advice, when I was 18 and I was looking to him to seek motivation and be empowered, and I didn't get that, and at such a young age I just thought, "Who am I to break this glass ceiling?" And I changed my major to marketing. But I've defied his opinions of what I could do. If he did live in the district, I think he would vote for me, yes.

You recently called the president a "domestic terrorist." There was some conservative pearl-clutching, but honestly, I've been saying that for a long time now and it's just nice to hear someone else say it. Michelle Obama used to say "When they go low, we go high." Do you think Trump has so warped the country that rhetoric such as this has now reached the Democrats, and we almost talk the way he does, in a way?

I think he has definitely warped what a president should be like. To me, he doesn't come off as a leader of a country or leader anywhere who unifies people. He's very divisive, and when he is saying all of the crazy things that he does, it is our responsibility to call him out, and I did call him a domestic terrorist because he's fanned the flames of white supremacy in this country. I think anyone would agree that white supremacy has been on the rise. The people who are xenophobic and racist have felt emboldened by a president who is on their side. That's unacceptable. We have someone like him fanning the flames on all this hate so I will continue to call him one now.

You've talked a lot about how we shouldn't have "Republican-lite" Democrats running for office. You've said, "Republicans don't pander to Democrats in order to win races, I don't understand why we feel we need to do the same. I feel like there's a level of Stockholm syndrome, growing up in Georgia, that we need Republican votes in order to win. If that's the strategy, you've already lost." You worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016. You see where I'm going here? How did we get it so wrong?

I would say, growing up in Georgia, there is that notion of what is electable, right? No one here has really campaigned outside of that box of being a moderate, white male politician. They look at it as if there's this formula that if we put up a candidate who looks this way, who speaks this way, who does pander to Republicans. That doesn't energize the base, but for whatever reason, in a lot of people's minds this seems to be the strategy. It's a myth that's being shattered. And I'm doing that with my campaign as well.

When I first started off people would say, "A progressive in Georgia? That's never going to work." But we've come a long way. It's given us a lot of courage to step outside of that box and run a race that is based on our values and having conviction. That's very important and going back to Republican-lite, you can't have conviction when you're running away from your own base and pandering to the opposite party. I think that's what a lot of people like about our campaign. We have conviction. We are not straying away from our values. We are, in fact, doubling down. Be who you are. Be authentic and lean into it. You don't have to run away from yourself.

We're the ones who have to live in this world, mostly dictated by older white men. Women's reproductive rights, entitlements, the environment. What do you think started this kind of generational civil war? Where did it begin? 

I'm a millennial candidate. I'm 30 years old and I think our generation is coming of age, where we are now getting more involved in politics, we're seeking office. The status quo hasn't been working for our community. 17% of people in my district don't have health care, including myself. My district has the most deportations in the entire state. We have the largest pretrial detention center in the entire country. Knowing that this exists, how do you not speak up? And people of our generation are just coming out of the woodwork, and teaming up, it's just really inspiring. And not just to me. It's so many candidates I'm running with right now, all over the country, who are being outspoken and not holding back.

Most people don't follow politics the way we do, where we wake with it, eat, sleep, and breathe it. Most people aren't ideological. They're just trying to pay bills and make ends meet. Do you think we live in a bubble, a little bit?

I would say yes, most people aren't probably like you and me, who eat, breathe, and live, campaigns. Do we live in a bubble? Probably a little bit. But I think it's an important bubble. I think you need people like that, who are bringing these issues to the forefront, you know; I recognize a single mother with four children who can barely keep up because she's being paid minimum wage. For example: in my district, if you're making $7.25 an hour, you can't afford the median rent which is $1,244. You're already $100 short, and that's before your groceries, your health care, child care, your bills. A lot of people are just struggling to get by and they don't have time to get involved the way that we are, so I just try to be a voice for my community and making sure that they don't have to struggle in the ways that they are.  

I think we need to talk about risk. Risk in the sense that you're a progressive Muslim woman of color running for office in the South, during a violent and weird time. And you're 30, you dropped your shitty health insurance, you're cutting corners just to run for office. What is the unacceptable level of risk in running for Congress?

So running for Congress is hard. And the only insurance plan that I could afford was one that didn't really cover me if I was canvassing and, godforbid, got hit by a car; it wouldn't have covered my ambulance or my hospitalization fees. I put my student loans into forbearance because I can't afford to pay the $300 monthly payment while I run for office. In order to run for office you have to do it full time, and that luxury is not given to working-class candidates. I just recently asked the FEC to allow candidates to be able to pay for their health care through their campaign funds because it is a structural barrier.

A lot of people don't run for office because it's cost-prohibitive. That's why we have a Congress that doesn't look like us today. That's why 40% of Congress are millionaires. Their average net worth is $500,000. If more candidates who look like me and came from a working-class background... I think our priorities in Congress would be different. Medicare-For-All would have passed by now. It's a no-brainer to raise the minimum wage, and it's a no-brainer to have legislation that addresses child care, universal pre-K. To go back to your point, it's risky to run for Congress, but until the rules change we need people like me to continue to fight for change and make things easier for everyone.

Running for office is, like you've said, almost reserved for rich people because, as you've said, disrupting your life and running for office is "cost prohibitve." You made a number of personal risks and sacrifices. And that's before you even get to Congress. What if it's not worth it these days? 

It is worth it. It is. It is 100% worth it. If there were more candidates like me on the trail but didn't feel held back because of the structural barriers, we'd have more working class candidates and more people would feel inspired to come out and vote because they see themselves in their candidates. When you have a Congress that's mostly millionaires, that's not America today.

If we want to really change our leadership and change our priorities, our Congress has to look like us, and I'm going to continue to fight and hopefully become the next congresswoman from my district, and I hope my race and my campaign has inspired others to run for office because we really really need candidates to not be afraid to speak up and stand up for what's right. We've been doing that in my district. It's been amazing to see so many people who have just come up to me and said, "I've never seen a candidate like you running for Congress in my district and I'm so inspired. I'm going to support you however I can." I just think there needs to be more of us.

Most Americans live with a higher standard than their parents, but we're being sucked dry, and this generation is the first in a long time to expect a lower standard of life than our parents. We're walking piggy banks for the rich. You've said multiple times that your story isn't unique, but it is. Your mother broke her back after working warehouse jobs, and the insurance company tried to not cover it. This isn't right and it's happening to millions of people. What was thought of as the American Dream, the one your own parents pursued, seems like a bit of a twisted joke. What would be your response to that kind of catch-22?

I'm the daughter of Bangladesh immigrants. They came to this country for a better life. I'm one generation removed from growing up in a tin hut like my mom did. She had to work all these low wage jobs just to make ends meet. What happened to her with the warehouse job, that's the job that she's most proud of. That was the first time ever in her life that she made a living wage, $17, and unfortunately because their wages were so low they work longer hours, she's working a hard labor. Literally pick up boxes and put them on trucks.

When that happened to her, I was in high school, I was so heartbroken I just remember thinking to myself like, "This is wrong." My mother, who's an immigrant, doesn't have a high school degree and the system tried to take advantage of her. I remember we were able to find a lawyer, and I translated for her over the phone, I was in every meeting. We fought back.

This country has given my parents opportunities that they would have never had in Bangladesh and I don't know if my mother's back would have been broken in Bangladesh. My mom would say everything that she is done is to make mine and my little brother's life easier, but she has and continues to say everything she's done is worth it. But that being said, we should not have an America where people have to work longer hours just to make ends meet because their wages are so low, that their bodies are literally breaking down on them. I don't want that to continue to happen to anyone ever again, and hopefully our leadership, federally, can change that.

Randy Bryce said something to me like "You can't work full time and run for office part time. You have to do it full time." You're a normal, middle class person who was already trying to make ends meet. You've been involved in politics for a while; you're young, you've talked about being inspired by the 2018 election results and The Squad. What was the urgency that made you want or need to run for office this time?

I've been involved for a while, working on local campaigns. The reason I got involved in the first place was because we didn't have anybody who looks like me at the table. I wanted to elect more Democrats in Georgia because I recognize that when you're not at the table, you're on the menu. And 2018 really shattered the electability myth. I always joked around with people like, "Oh yeah, I'll run for office one day when I get married and change my name" and that's just ridiculous.

For this district, especially, I knew that it was going to take someone who believes in the policies like Medicare-For-All, a living wage starting at $15 an hour, the Green New Deal, comprehensive immigration reform. I'm the only candidate talking about these policies. I'm running for office right now because I really believe this district deserves someone who sees them. Someone who will fight for them tooth and nail. Someone outspoken, for this community, and that's why I'm running today.

You're kind of living the American dream. Your parents came here to have better lives, and yours is better than what it might have been. You've been self-employed, you're an activist, you're an organizer. You've dedicated your life to making a positive difference in people's lives. What the fuck is there for anyone to be opposed to? I'm sorry. 

I agree with you! We are trying to get that message out. I'm running as a full-time candidate. We're talking to people all over the district and we're going to continue to work hard and set up all of these meet and greets and knock on doors. When people meet me they say, "You know, that makes sense. I understand why you're running. Your policies, yeah, they're great and our community really does need them." A lot of people just say "thank you for running" and "you're the proper candidate that the district needs." I'm hoping that everyone has your notion by the primary election.

I've hit doors and worked my territory, up and down the coast. What's your favorite music to hit doors to?

I actually don't listen to music on the way. I'm usually partnered up with someone and we just talk. Like if I hit a door and there's an issue a person brings up, I'll ask my partner, "Okay, what did that person say?" I knocked on the door of a gentleman the other day and he was telling me that his job hasn't given him a raise in three years even though his rent has gone up and he can't afford, like, new shoes, which I thought was so heartbreaking. And then another story I heard from one of our canvassers or volunteers was that a person couldn't afford a car. It's hard to get around because my district won't invest in transit. So we're just exchanging stories along the way about people's lives. You could say that that's the music I hit doors to. One door at a time.

www.nabilahforcongress.com

www.twitter.com/NabilahforGA07

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