In 2018, a record number of Muslim Americans ran for office, many motivated by growing anti-muslim sentiments reinvigorated by the election of President Donald Trump.
Senator Ghazala Hashmi, a former community college educator, joined the wave of outsider candidates in 2019, winning her race in Virginia’s District 10. Hashmi became Virginia’s first Muslim American state senator and helped flip Virginia’s Senate back to the Democratic Party.
Today we sent a message that the status quo is no longer accepted. Thank you all for your support and passion in helping me become the next state Senator for Virginia’s 10th District! I couldn’t be more honored to be apart of the change to come for Virginia.
— Ghazala Hashmi (@Hashmi4Va) November 6, 2019
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, The Globe Post spoke with Hashmi about her historic win, President Donald Trump, the future of healthcare, and international relations.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Globe Post: To start off, you ran for Senate following Trump’s announcement of a Muslim ban. When you heard that news, how did you react?
Hashmi: I didn’t actually start running for office at that point. I had been working at Jay Sargent Reynolds community college at that point, probably for 17 years. I had been driving to work that morning listening to NPR, and they were sharing a story about the Trump administration’s refusal to back down from the Muslim ban, even though so many attorneys and human rights organizations pointed out how this was a violation of the constitutional rights of individuals.
That morning, I pulled into my parking lot, and then I just had a panic attack. I actually couldn’t get out of my car. I had a moment of personal crisis. I was worried about so many people who are marginalized and who would be affected. I had a lot of students who came from those targeted countries. They wouldn’t be able to get back to the states to continue with their educational programs or have their family members visit or to come to the States.
From Day One, the Trump Administration has advanced a discriminatory policy toward Muslims—a policy that separates families, does nothing to make our country safer, and does not reflect our values.
— Rep. Lauren Underwood (@RepUnderwood) July 23, 2020
This was creating not just hardship, but a serious violation of basic human rights. And I knew I had to do something. Being in academia, my first instinct was actually to organize conferences. I started to organize conferences around what it means to be a Muslim in America, what it means to have Muslim women leadership.
So my first response was not to run for office, but really to educate people and to open the doors of communication across communities. It was very organic. I started working for different campaigns in the 2017 election cycle, and in that process, I began to formulate my own need to run. I think marginalized communities need to speak directly and be at the table and represent ourselves. And that was a huge impetus for my running.
The Globe Post: Recently there’s been talk of centering away from America as an example of what we should be doing international relations wise. Many officials within the United Nations have been starting to turn towards European leadership. Are you concerned that there might be a shift in international power?
Hashmi: Anytime there’s a vacuum, there’s going to be other folks that step up to fill that space. So absolutely, we’re going to be seeing other national leaders playing a role and trying to provide some comprehensive support on a global scale for the many issues and concerns that we all have internationally. So yes, European leadership is going to fill that role.
My concern is not so much with the EU doing it. But other players on the international stage we have to watch carefully. They’ve shown that they are not averse to undermining human rights not just in their own countries, but in other places of the world. They are positioning themselves to have greater power on a global scale.
My concern is with China, and the role that it can potentially play. We see China exerting power in the African continent, in different countries there. We see it exerting power in Asian countries, and we also see Russia trying to reestablish itself after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia’s number one goal as defined by [President Vladimir] Putin is to reassert itself as a player internationally.
Those are very concerning steps, and they will have an impact on the entire world if the United States is not able to reestablish its moral authority.
This particular administration has dismantled NATO. With that destabilization, we’re going to see a lot of shifting of political power and that is concerning.
The Globe Post: President Trump has started the process to pull America out of the World Health Organization. What are the implications that this move might have on health care in America?
Hashmi: It’s certainly very frightening. I think not just the implications for Virginia, but also nationally and globally. The United States has historically always been a leader, not just on foreign policy concerns, but also on these very fundamental social services and global health policy is essential.
What we clearly see through this pandemic is that a virus has no respect for borders, it has no respect for ethnicity or political divisions; it is a universal concern. We need to have an organized global response to the crisis. For the United States to abdicate its essential leadership role at this moment in time is a gross negligence of the position that the country has always held. It’s not just a crisis politically, but it’s a moral crisis.
The Globe Post: The pandemic has caused mass job losses in the past few months, with Virginia’s unemployment jumping from 2.6 percent in January to 8.4 percent in June. For many Americans, healthcare coverage is tied to their employment. As a proponent for equal accessibility in healthcare, how do you think this pandemic is going to affect public opinion on universal health care and the healthcare industry?
Hashmi: I think we’ve only seen the case made stronger. People are seeing the fundamental absurdity of tying individual healthcare to employment. The fact that we have so many unemployed Virginians and Americans highlights the concern, especially during a pandemic, that if you lose your job, you also lose access to health care, and that’s simply not viable.
We all acknowledge that the health care system is broken in this country. We know we have to fix it. We know we have to fight for greater equity and access for all Americans.
In Virginia especially, I think we’re seeing the tide shift the conversation to where more and more people are ready to acknowledge the need to have universal coverage. Virginia is moving forward with a public option so that Virginians can get the coverage that they need despite what might be happening at the national level.
We have to acknowledge that health care access is directly connected to all the other social injustices that we have in this country. It’s always the vulnerable communities that are most severely impacted. They’re the ones who really need to have access to quality health care, which opens up opportunities for other critical social issues such as access to education, access to good jobs, access to better housing.
So all of those areas are connected together in important ways, and we have to address them in a holistic fashion.
The Globe Post: Another key tenant of your campaign promises was educational reform. Many parents are worrying that socially distant and online learning might exacerbate existing educational inequalities. Do you have any plans to introduce new legislation to address these fears?
Hashmi: We know it’s gonna exacerbate these disparities, we already saw it in the March shutdown. The individuals who are most severely affected were communities of color. Communities that face poverty, lack of access to technology, lack of access to digital resources, the simple delivery of meals to children in situations of food insecurity was a crisis point. I’ve been hearing from a lot of parents, and a lot of school systems that are gravely concerned with what’s going to happen in the fall.
Our first concern has to be safety. With the help of our children and our teachers, we have to prioritize that. We have to make sure that children are practicing good hygiene and safety standards. We also must introduce childcare options.
I know a lot of school districts are looking at hybrid in-school and online models. If that’s a pathway that we’re going to go, then a lot of parents need support and childcare is the most critical issue now for so many families. We must be able to provide structured childcare options so that parents can return to work as well. But this is just the short term.
Long term, we have to really look at our entire school system very, very deeply. We must focus on issues of equity, making sure that our funding model is not based on zip code and the wealth of individual communities, but that there’s an equity of funding that’s distributed across the state so that all of our schools receive the kind of support that they need to address their particular communities and their students.
After the 2020 General Assembly, we passed a really robust set of bills that helped provide equity in education. We were really cognizant of the areas that we need to develop and support and we targeted money in that way. When the General Assembly comes back in 2021, we will have a better sense of where we are with this virus. I’m hoping that we’re going to be able to then make sure that we are very deliberate and clear on how to support educational reform so that we can bring equity to the state.
The Globe Post: It sounds like, through your work at the community college, you have had a lot of face to face interaction with a lot of your constituents.
Hashmi: I’ve taught at least 4,000 people that live in my district because I’ve been here for 30 years and taught a lot of folks over the years.
The Globe Post: It must be useful for constituents to have a politician in office that connects with them like that. What is the best way for your supporters and constituents to get in contact with you?
Hashmi: We have been asking everybody to email us so we can respond more quickly, just because we’re working remotely. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re also got a form on social media like Twitter where people can request a Zoom meeting or a phone call. I’ve been doing a lot of one-on-one constituent calls in the last couple of months. I love to talk to my constituents.