A Pakistani Runs for Public Office in NYC
By Huma Yusuf
Salim Ejaz (third from right) with members of his family in New York
On September 15, New York City’s Muslim population is going to head to the polls in the hope of making history. Salim Ejaz, a Pakistani American, is standing elections for the position of Comptroller, which is the city government post that serves as fiscal watchdog. If Mr. Ejaz wins, he’ll be the first Muslim – and certainly the first Pakistani – to hold such high office in the New York City government.
The NYC Comptroller oversees the city’s budget of US$ 60 billion and is responsible for pension funds worth US$ 120 billion. The post is a citywide position, just below that of mayor, serving all five boroughs, and therefore making it more significant than a congressional seat ( New York City has five congressional seats). In light of his historic candidacy, Dawn.com caught up with Ejaz via telephone to learn more about his experience with the American political process.
Q. Are you proud to be the first Muslim to get so close to high office in the New York City government?
A. Just the fact that we are in this race is remarkable. But if we win, it’ll be huge. It’s a historic candidacy, as I’m the first Muslim to be running for the position of Comptroller. But I’m more proud because I’m the most qualified candidate for the job. I am a certified public accountant and so have the right qualification for the position, while the other candidates are career politicians, attorneys, or just BA graduates. Unlike my competitors, I have 40 years of financial expertise and worked 12 years in a senior management position in a billion-dollar government entity. In that position, I saved taxpayers several hundred million dollars, which, even by American standards, is a huge accomplishment.
Q. What motivated you to stand election for public office?
A. During the time I worked with the government, I recognized that elected officials can bring about huge benefits for their communities. If you’re not a part of the political process here, you lose out in a big way. I’m 66 years old now, and in the 30 plus years I’ve been here, I’ve become frustrated at the fact that us Muslims – particularly South Asians – aren’t getting our due share.
There are eight million people in New York, of which roughly 800,000 are Muslims. But we have no voice, no representation – our community gets no funding, no jobs. People laugh at our community and say that there are so many of you, but you don’t have the jazba to come forwards. So someone had to step up.
Q. Did President Barack Obama’s electoral victory influence your decision to run for public office?
A. Barack Hussein Obama and his victory are the most inspiring thing to happen. Everyone has taken heart from the fact that he could do it. Over here, attitudes towards Muslims have changed. Even within the Muslim community, if you go to the mosque, people feel truly energized. It’s one of the reasons we took on this challenge. While it is known that Obama got the vote of 90 per cent of all African-Americans, it is also true that he got more than 90 per cent of the vote from registered Muslim voters. It was a stunning turnout and a signal that our community is politically involved and willing to take out 15 minutes to go to the polls.
Q. Do you think you have a shot at winning?
A. We do have a realistic chance at winning. The September 15 election is a Democratic primary, so only registered Democrats can vote. Of the thousands registered, only a few hundred thousand will show up since it’s an off-season election, and that too being held on a working day. There are 800,000 Muslims in the city, if we can pull enough of them to vote, we have a chance. We’ve been doing extremely well up to now and our message is being passed on to all the Muslims and South Asians in the city.
Q. How are you getting the message out?
A. We have been targeting religious places, for example, mosques, where 150,000 to 200,000 people come regularly – and even more during Ramadan. We have also visited temples, both Sikh and Hindu. In fact, we’ve been received very enthusiastically at the temples. But our support is not just limited to South Asians: Turks, Arabs, they’re also interested because it’s a Muslim running. They’ve invited me to speak at their mosques and the Turks also covered our campaign in their biggest newspaper here.
Q. Do the national boundaries that matter to us here in Pakistan matter less within the diaspora?
A. I’ve been here for 30 plus years, and have yet to come across any animosity between Pakistanis, Indians and Bengalis. Luckily, there is that communal affinity between all South Asians. During my campaign, I’ve been more enthusiastically received by Indians and Bengalis than Pakistanis sometimes. For instance, I’ve been on more Sikh TV stations for hour-long programs than on Pakistani channels.
Q. You’re also reaching out to the African American community in New York…
A. We’ve been establishing links with West Africans and East Africans. They’ve been very supportive because they too need someone to champion their cause. Of course, it helps that our message is one that everyone wants to listen to: lower taxes, no cronyism, more transparency, better productivity, and lower- and middle-class housing support.
Q. Do you ever feel pigeonholed as a minority candidate?
A. Not really. Wherever we’ve gone, even in mixed gatherings, people have acknowledged that I’m the more qualified candidate. Our website is also for all New Yorkers – it’s not geared towards any ethnicity. On election day, we’ll be banking on our record, not our race or religion. People tend to cling to their own, but they do cross the lines if they feel other candidates have more to offer.
Q. What is the biggest challenge that your campaign has faced?
A. Unfortunately, while we have received an enthusiastic response, we have not been able to raise enough funds. We have tried to make it very easy for people to contribute though our website, but the funding level has been very poor.
Q. Why do you think there have been few donations to the campaign?
A. Three things happened. Firstly, Muslims have never had a political voice here and when I initially stepped forward, a lot of people didn’t think I’d make it. There was an overall reluctance.
Secondly, the South Asian community – the Pakistanis and Bengalis – has suffered a lot during the economic recession. I was recently in Brooklyn, in Coney Island, the hub of Pakistanis in New York, and they were saying that before the recession, Pakistanis would write checks of US$ 1,000 for any worthy cause. But now, they’re shying away from giving US $ 50. People are still shell shocked. The frequency of unemployment is much higher within South Asians than in other groups.
And thirdly, every Muslim or Pakistani community we did go to for fund-raising said that they’d just given thousands of dollars for relief work in Swat. People wept just on looking at pictures from Swat and so they preferred to send their money back there, rather than give for the election. The humanitarian issue in Swat really dwarfed the candidacy. I think up to 90 per cent of the funding that would have been available to the campaign went to Swat.
Q. What happens if you win?
A. A win would be such a hugely uplifting thing for Muslims, particularly in New York City, but also around the USA. It’ll open doors and the younger generation will know that if an old man like me can do it, they can do it. Our victory would be the biggest ever for Muslims and would literally catapult Muslims to the forefront, whereas now they are sidelined and ignored. A win like this would get translated into everything else: job openings, more opportunities for young professionals, more funding for the community. Also, the mere fact of being represented at the top level means that our community’s interests will be well protected when new laws are drafted.
But if we lose now, we’ll lose the chance for another decade. That’s why I hope people come out to vote and volunteer to help the campaign on September 15. Courtesy Dawn.com