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Monday, April 15, 2024

GVS meets with first Pakistani-American candidate for Congress

The US Congress has never had representation from a Pakistani or someone of Pakistani descent so far in its history, although over the years, representation from the Indian diaspora has become more common.

Najma Minhas, Editor Global Village Space, got the opportunity to sit down for a talk with Dr. Asif Mahmood, a Pakistani-American, and explore his journey as he runs for US Congress. The US Congress has never had representation from a Pakistani or someone of Pakistani descent so far in its history, although over the years, representation from the Indian diaspora has become more common. Dr. Mahmood shares his experiences as he moved from a small village in Punjab to the United States and now standing as a candidate for the US Congress.

GVS: You came from a small village in Pakistan and moved to the United States. How was this journey? And how do you feel the American experience has transformed you?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: First of all, thank you so much for giving me time; I really appreciate that. And to be very honest, this is really a true American dream. If somebody has been to a Pakistani elementary school, where there’s not even a room, you sit under the tree, teachers are not trained, and they get the opportunity, it shows that South Asia has really enormous talent, both the genes and the brains to succeed.

If they get the opportunity, they can excel. I definitely give credit to my parents, my teachers, and the community who were there to help me get out of there. I was the first from my small village to go to medical school and come over here (to the US).

I have always been inquisitive all my life, but when I came here, I realized that we have doctors, engineers, business people, and other well-off people who have nice mansions, good cars, and everything, but they don’t have real power because I don’t see any Pakistani in any elected position or in any political arena. So, I got involved. And I have now been involved in mainstream politics for about 25 years.

Read more: Washington should move from “Regime Change” to “Regime Engagement”

GVS: What inspired you to join mainstream politics?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: After I finished my residency, I started going to this doctors’ convention called “APPNA” (Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America), where you would hear about the doctors who want to come from Pakistan but there is an issue for US visa due to which they cannot. Other than that, you would have to meet relatives of somebody who needs a visa or somebody who is stopped at the airport, and so many other issues. And we only went there (to the doctors’ convention) to socialize, have nice food, wear nice clothes and nice jewelry, listen to good music, and enjoy ourselves for two to three days and then go home.

About 18-20 years ago, when I was going to APPNA and I started getting more involved in politics. People used to make fun of me people, giggle behind my back, and say things like, “what the hell is wrong with this guy?” “what is he doing?.” Obviously, you start from something. I got involved in my own city’s local politics. It was about 16 years ago when I was first elected as a state party delegate, and there were hardly any South Asians there. Then I got involved in different campaigns, knocking on doors, phone banking, campaigning, and doing whatever needed to be done.

I kept on moving up and up, from city council and state representatives, to Congress and Senate. I was very actively involved in many presidential campaigns. One of the campaigns in which I was really involved was Hillary Clinton’s first campaign. She did not win the Democratic presidential nomination election in 2008, and President Obama won the election, and she was made Secretary of State.

I was invited to meet with her, and I was asked, “So you worked so hard in the campaign. What can we help you with and how can we help you?” Usually, people would ask for an appointment or something but honestly, on my mind at that time was the Pakistani doctors’ visa issues.

At that time, in around 2008, I told her that Pakistani doctors had an issue- they passed the exam, got the job interview, and got a job offer, but more than 60 percent of doctors were denied visas. I also told her that this is not only an issue for Pakistani doctors and their economic interests but also an issue for the interest of America because America is deficient in the number of doctors, and we need to really work on that. Secretary understood; she really thinks about communities and society, so she took it very seriously. And honestly, within three years, 98 percent of doctors were getting visas.

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GVS: Why do you think so few Pakistani-Americans go into politics? As you mentioned, there’s a huge prosperous community, whether it’s engineers or physicians, yet you hardly see any Pakistanis in the political arena.

Dr. Asif Mahmood: Unfortunately, our mindset is still in Pakistan. Pakistanis are only interested in what is happening in Lahore and Islamabad and about the PTI, People’s Party, or some other political party. They are only interested in meeting and going to the mosque to meet with the Pakistani people they already know. There is a phobia that I don’t understand. They do not like to meet up with people who drink and dance, but you don’t have to drink and dance when you meet up with them.

GVS: So you feel that Pakistani Americans are not integrating within the mainstream American society and that’s why they’re not coming into politics as well?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: Exactly, they just feel that if they are going to integrate themselves, their Iman will be disturbed. At my home, I have hosted an enormous number of politicians, Secretary Clinton, President Clinton and Al Gore and so many others and I have never served any drink, and I don’t drink either. Nobody has objected and actually, people appreciate that we have our values.

The sad part is that for 90 percent of the Pakistani people, their question is, “what is there in it for me?” They don’t understand that what you have already gotten is because of the efforts of so many people and so you should think about so many other people. Karma is the biggest thing; if you do good, good things will come to you. So now, if you’re giving $1,000 contribution or $5,000, don’t think about what business or individual advantage you will get.

GVS: So here in the US, you feel that Pakistanis are not cohesive as a community and they are not thinking on a community level yet?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: Most of them are not. I see the numbers increasing and I see that more people are getting interested. People are realizing that it is very important for them to get involved in politics because, in democracy, the real power is in elected hands. And if either you are running (for elected office) or you are close to somebody who is running, you can help your family, and you can help your community over here (in the US) and at home (in Pakistan).

We (the Pakistani-Americans) are not doing this, but any community that has done it has progressed very well. There are so many obstructions as there are people whose main goal is to disrupt and distract people from doing something good because they feel that their individual power will be gone and they feel insecure. What I am doing today, honestly, is not for myself. It is for the next generation who’s coming and we will open doors of opportunities for them so that they do bigger and better things.

Read more: National security and Geo-economics: Pakistan’s economy and ending regional isolation

GVS: Tell us about your own congressional district. You’re running from CA 40. Are you hoping to get the Pakistani vote? Is that what’s driving that progress in your community?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: So interestingly, I am running in a district that is more than 98 percent non-Muslim and non-Pakistani. The district has less than 0.05 percent of Pakistanis and less than 1.5 percent of South Asians. When I was launching my campaign, I was talking to people and everybody was laughing – Muslim Americans and some people in the mainstream, but also many people who knew me.

Yet I decided to run and talk to many people, and they were encouraging, but most of Muslim-Americans, Pakistani-Americans and many Saudi-Americans were kind of skeptical because I don’t have my community here and most people win because they get 30-40 percent votes from their own community.

One great thing about America is that if you are capable, sincere, and honest, people will look at that and will admire you and reward you for your work. I have been, as I said, active for 25 years, and my major passion has been human rights, and regardless of fear from anybody, that’s what I have been doing in California.

So, when I decided to run and announced it; literally three or four people were running from the Democratic Party and within two-three weeks, they went out of the election and endorsed me. Within a few weeks, I had more elected official endorsements than any other candidate in the country.

GVS: I read that within weeks, you had $500,000 and within the first month, you raised a million dollars; that is a huge thing. So, what drove these people? Why were they willing to give you this?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: We highlighted my work. I sat on the largest homeless shelter in California’s board; I sat on the UNICEF board; I sat on the largest community college in California’s board, helping mostly Latinos and African Americans. I was running a free clinic out of a church. Most Muslims do good things and honestly, the vast majority of Muslims do good things, but unfortunately, everything they want to do is for the mosque.

Whereas I was doing the free clinic in the church because more people could come there. I have done so many other things, including I was doing after-school tutoring about 15 years ago in a Latino school and many other things.

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GVS: What are the big challenges that you face in your congressional district?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: Initially, people thought that there would be challenges. When we went on, and within the first quarter, we raised about 1.4 million. 70 percent of that money was given by non-Pakistanis and non-Muslims. People thought I knew politicians; I had got the endorsement from senior politicians and raised money, but they also thought that my name was Mahmood, so who would vote for Mahmood in that 98 percent non-Muslim district?

GVS: Can people pronounce your name correctly? Was that a disadvantage for you in your congressional district?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: Now they can and three names cannot be mistaken-Ahmed, Mahmood, and Mohammed. They cannot be anything else but Muslims; I never thought about it for a second because I was running for merit and for the work I have done, in spite of the fact that my opponent spent $5 million in the primary, a record number of dollars spent by a Republican incumbent to save primary.

GVS: What are the issues that you are highlighting in your district?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: When we launched the campaign, the issues were healthcare, especially mental health issues, inflation, and climate change, but now the issues have changed. With the recent decision of the Supreme Court about Roe vs. Wade, there are many, especially women of both reproductive age and older women, who think that it is something that is taking back America and we are going behind. So, we see that this issue is playing a more significant role than gun safety.

GVS: Do you think that this issue will play a significant role only in your congressional district, or do you think it will affect the overall November election?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: It will, definitely. We have polls after polls showing Roe vs. Wade coming up as a big issue. But mine is one of the most competitive districts in the country at this time, which means that anybody can win, so it’s a really tight election and we have gained a significant advantage because of Roe vs. Wade.

GVS: One of the things that have been talked about in this campaign is this concept of red to blue camp seats. What does that mean?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: What happens is that both parties have their congressional committee, which in the Democratic Party is called DCCC. They are the committees that handle all the congressional races over the country. They have a lot of money; they evaluate races, which they can flip. So, races- the seats that are presently held by Republicans, but can be flipped to blue, are called red to blue for moving from Republican to Democrat.

In this cycle, the congressional committees picked six races in the country and mine is one of them. And interestingly, mine is one of the top races. That gives us a lot more authenticity, credibility and resources, and the party will spend a lot of money. Many people who are sitting on the sidelines want to help campaigns get a green signal. We have seen the change already, and the DCCC is already investing in our race.

Read more: Pakistan at the Crossroads – Lt Gen (Retd) Tariq Khan

GVS: What are the general issues that are faced by Pakistani Americans, and if you were in Congress, what do you think you could do?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: There are many issues, actually. I mentioned earlier about the visa issue and immigration issues which are the issues for mostly Pakistanis who are the first generation. These issues are obviously important for some people, and we will take care, but our main goal is different. When I go to the White House, State Department, or Capitol Hill, I hardly see any Pakistani. There are a lot of Indian-Americans, a lot of Asian-Americans, a lot of Filipinos and Latinos, but we don’t see our people anywhere. We don’t have any representation.

Obviously, the American system is a little different. We are still a new community in America, but we have done very well in many different areas like Medicine- Pakistan has one of the most liked doctors in this country. Pakistanis are also here in IT and they are really excelling. They are also doing well in business because they are passionate, sincere, and hardworking people. But we have to make sure our children have the opportunity and liberty to decide their own career paths.

Most Pakistani Americans want their children to study medicine because they see that as the only opening for them. When Pakistani kids are in high school, they should have an opportunity to work and do internships with a judge, a Congress member, or a Senator or go to Capitol Hill or somewhere else where they have different opportunities. Especially when kids are in college, we need to have more career options for them to pursue. Similarly, Pakistani businesses are focused on certain areas of small businesses such as gas stations, trucking, and motels.

GVS: How do you think you can get more Pakistanis involved in politics?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: Once a person like me wins an elected position, it will boost so many Pakistani-American kids. If someone like me who came from the remote village of Kharian and went to very basic schools can become a US Congress member, then they can do it too. We need to make sure we break the glass ceiling for them.

If I can be a candidate running for Congress, and Hilary Clinton, former First Lady, US Senator, Secretary of State and nominee for Democratic Party for President, can host a fundraiser for me, it is a big thing to have that event and it is a source of pride. That means if people care about their work and if your mission is right, people will respect that. So many more can do that and get involved in politics.

Read more: The good, the not so good and the bad of National security policy of Pakistan

GVS: How do you think you, being of Pakistani origin in Congress, could improve relations between Pakistan and the US?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: It is really important. When you only analyze your relationships by doing a Google search by sending in one staffer to go and read about it, maybe at most spend a couple of weeks in Islamabad and come and give the report, versus having a person who was born and raised in Pakistan, who knows the chemistry of the community, the dynamics of the society and what the people actually want, and understanding what can bring and unite America and Pakistan together.

As a Pakistani-American Congress member, when I go to Islamabad, there will be a lot more trust because they will know that I will not try to hurt them. Obviously, my top priority and my first duty is the safety and security of America. But I will do whatever I can to help Pakistan.

GVS: How can the Pakistani community help you? There are 98 percent non-Muslims in your congressional district. But throughout the US, is there something that the Pakistani community here can do, you feel?

Dr. Asif Mahmood: Definitely, and I honestly believe that this is Pakistani-Americans’ duty and their obligation. We have done everything needed. When I was deciding to run, they had doubts. When I was getting endorsements, they still had doubts. There’s still a lot of doubt, but I have crossed the final bridge of being in a red to blue seat where the whole Democratic Party is saying that I have a great chance to win. The only thing which can prevent us from winning is resources and Pakistanis, wherever they are, they can give $1, they can give $5, they can give $100, or they can give the maximum contribution.

Anybody can contribute, as long as they have a green card. Being a US citizen is a requirement. They can be living anywhere in the country or anywhere in the world. I can tell you that my campaign has received contributions from 50 states and 99.9 percent of the contributions are from people I don’t know and have never met. The dollar amount might not be that large, but the number of people contributing is very large.

The Pakistani-Americans need to care about it and they should take it to their group, their friends, their relatives, people who go to mosque or church or wherever, they should tell them that they need to invest. And honestly, this will be the best investment they will be making. Not because I am running, but because it is a Pakistani-American taking their message, the future of their children, to the limelight, which will be helpful to them.

Read more: Pakistanis own $10.6b property in Dubai – more than SBP’s dollar reserves

GVS: Dr. Mahmood, you are a trailblazer for the Pakistani community and we wish you the best of luck.

Dr. Asif Mahmood: Thank you so much.