Fayrouz Saad Could Become the First Muslim Woman in Congress
“While I’m not running an anti-Trump campaign, I believe my campaign is a rebuttal to the rhetoric."
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Fayrouz Saad has run in a bunch of marathons and now she’s running for office in 2018 to represent the 11th Congressional District of Michigan in the US House of Representatives.
It turns out that running 26.2 miles is not so different from running a political campaign.
“Campaigns are a marathon,” she told Global Citizen over the phone recently. “You’re looking ahead to the future, but at the same time, every mile along the way counts and every mile is a new goal, a new thing that you have to hit to finish the marathon.”
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“And I think my training as a marathon runner has definitely trained me well to make it through this campaign and to finish the race, and finish on top,” she added.
But there are places where the analogy breaks down, of course. Nobody is going to openly disagree with you as you run on a treadmill to get ready for your race. And the winner of a marathon isn’t decided by collective consensus.
Saad, who's running as a Democrat, is aware of these differences. She’s spent the last decade steeped in the world of community organizing and government. After graduating from Michigan University, she began field organizing for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
She then went on to work for Michigan State Representative Gino Polidori, where she led on efforts to “reform foster care, securing unemployment benefits for military spouses and banning texting while driving,” according to her website.
Saad sees Polidori as a major influence on her career and political outlook.
“He was the type of elected official who cared so much about the people he served,” she said. “There was rarely a vote that came in front of him, where he didn’t ask, ‘hey what’s going on, did anyone express concern?’”
After that, she had a stint at a nonprofit, then joined the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security where she worked to improve community policing, among other initiatives.
Over the past few years, Saad earned a Master’s degree at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and went to work for the mayor of Detroit, Mike Druggin, as the first Director of Detroit's Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Now she’s putting all that experience to the test. For Saad, there’s an especially politicized aspect to her campaign. If she wins, she’ll become the first Arab-American Muslim woman to hold a seat in Congress at a time when discrimination against Muslims has been rising throughout the country.
Over the past year, the Trump administration has, for example, banned immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries on multiple occasions. In daily American life, meanwhile, hate crimes against Muslims have been steadily climbing, especially following the 2016 election.
Saad doesn’t want this identitarian angle to dominate her campaign. She was born and raised in Michigan by immigrant parents from Lebanon and she wants to restore the American dream, a goal that would make religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, gender, and other distinctions have less bearing on a person’s pursuits.
“My parents are immigrants,” she said. “They came here over 40 years ago and my dad started a small meat shop in Detroit that grew into a big family business.
“They really simply came looking for the American Dream and they found it,” she said. “With everything that’s come out of the 2016 elections, and with the election of Trump, what I see happening in Congress, I feel like the very core of the American Dream is being threatened and it really made me want to run to protect it.”
At the same time, Saad is aware of the need to make government more reflective of the people who make up society.
Read More: The Girls’ Guide to Getting Into Government
In the US, just 19.5% of the people in Congress are women and less than 10% of members of Congress identity as part of a religion other than Christian, according to the Pew Research Center.
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“Congress needs to look like the people the country looks like,” she said. “It needs to have a diverse angle and voice. [That means] ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, where people come from, the experiences people had growing up, the experiences they had in their careers, so we can have an informed Congress that makes informed decisions.”
In her first campaign video, Saad invokes a universal experience that affects her with particular tenacity — misspelled names on her cups at Starbucks.
It’s a funny story that conveys an experience shared by a lot of Americans, but one that is felt most keenly by minorities who may have names outside the mainstream.
The story is a nimble dismantling of the “us versus them” stereotypes that seem to dominate US politics, and it’s a skill she’s going to have to hone in the months ahead, because the district she’s running for office in leans Republican.
In six of the last eight presidential elections, the district voted for the Republican candidates, and that includes the most recent election.
Saad has reasons for hope, though. The incumbent, Mike Trott, is resigning after this term. Throughout the year, constituents have protested many of Trott’s positions, including his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
In contrast, Saad believes that universal healthcare is a right. She also believes a good paying job is a right, as well as a good education.
She thinks that these broadly supported issues could help her bridge traditional political divides.
“While I’m not running an anti-Trump campaign, I believe my campaign is a rebuttal to that rhetoric and that narrative he put out on women, communities of color, immigrant communities,” she said.
“I’m running to directly rebuke that and show that we’re all American regardless of where we come from, where our parents come from,” she added. “It’s not just about countering Trump but fighting for the basic American values that we believe in.”