Aisha Wahab made history last year when she became one of the nation’s first Afghan-American elected officials, winning a seat on the Hayward City Council. Its a distinction she shares with fellow Afghani Safiya Wazir, who, in the same election, won a seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
But 31-year-old Wahab—whose progressive politics and bold ambitions have drawn comparisons to AOC—is already setting her sights on higher office. Earlier this spring, she announced her run for Rep. Eric Swalwell’s 15th Congressional District seat.
Wahab’s personal journey has been marked in turn by trauma and triumph. Her parents fled the Afghan-Soviet War for refuge in New York, but their untimely death left Wahab and her sister in the foster care system. Eventually, however, they were adopted by an Afghan-American couple from Fremont.
We caught up with Wahab ahead of her upcoming appearance at Dinner with a Dem: Running for Office as a Woman of Color in the Bay Area, which takes place from 6:30 to 8:30pm Monday at the Santa Clara County Democratic Party HQ, 2901 Moorpark Ave., San Jose. Here’s transcript of that interview, which has been edited for clarity and length.
What is your vision for America?
I want to restore the checks and balances of the United States. My goal in Congress is to reinvest in the American dream, which encompasses economic independence, safety, security and opportunity. Those are the things that will expand the middle class that has shrunk incredibly.
I believe college should be completely free. I paid off one of my student loans this past year. It has stunted my growth and my potential in this country far more significantly than most people understand. It pushed me back from purchasing a home, starting my own business and gaining economic independence.
I do not believe that corporations should own single-family homes or condos. That is one of the big problems we see in the Bay Area. American should get priority preference in housing. There is so much cash offers from different countries and corporations. We as an average American cannot compete. It’s impossible. We are struggling to make that down payment.
Our immigration crisis is a blowback from our foreign policies. Our engagement in the Middle East has caused the Arab migration to Europe. We have to deal with the blowback─all the migrants coming from Central America─that’s our backyard, and we should be taking care of that.
We need to conduct background checks on immigrants arriving in the United States. State security is important, but the Democrats are avoiding these questions. We need to be holistic and honest in our approach.
You experienced racism and Islamophobia during your run for City Council. What was it like going up against that kind of sentiment?
Being an Afghan-American in the United States, and since 9/11, it’s pretty much nothing new except for the amount of overt racism that I had to deal with. When we were walking door to door, we had volunteers that were asked inappropriate questions. We were told that we were not Americans. But I was born in this country and I will die in the country. I am an American through and through.
At the same time, I am not going to hide how proud I am of my heritage, The Afghan culture and history is rich and beautiful but at the same time, misunderstood. The media depicts it as conservative, close-minded and anti-women, you name it, but it’s not.
What did you do before getting involved in public service?
I was an environmental consultant and also worked in sales for a consulting firm. And to be completely frank, I felt like I did everything you are supposed to do in life where you checked all the boxes: you go to school, get a degree and find a job.
I was just going through the motions, holding onto work that didn’t really mean anything to me besides the paycheck.
That was until I was laid off during the Great Recession. I realized I had to do something I was passionate about. And since I have always done community service work, I began to get more involved as I had more free time, serving as a public health commissioner at the Afghan Coalition.
What motivated you to make that leap of running for elected office?
First, my family home was foreclosed during the Great Recession─so housing has always been a big issue for me because the big banks were bailed out. They were supported twice as they kept the foreclosures on short sale.
Second, my dad got really ill at the time. He was diagnosed with diabetes before the Affordable Care Act and he just had a kidney transplant.
And during my time in the Afghan Coalition, I met immigrants from a community that has seen nothing but war. I was surprised to see clients with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and domestic violence.
I was exposed to all these issues and realized that I could help─I remain calm in chaotic situations. I always ask: this is what happened, what do we do now to fix it?
To what extent do you think your identity as an Afghan-American has propelled your political success?
It’s not so much my identity but my message that resonates with people.
I have lived with every demographic, from African Americans and Latinos to whites, I can genuinely tell you that everyone wants the same thing─an opportunity to succeed and to build a family and their wealth.
In the Bay Area, people are so diverse that being an Afghan American will not make or break your case. People need to get past identity politics.
Several of the democratic presidential candidates spoke in Spanish during the debate─that is trying to play to identity politics. Some people feel that their message should only resonate with certain segments of the population. Now, if you take a look at what’s happening today in this country, you are getting far more polarizing viewpoints.