CANDIDATE INTERVIEW: NABILAH ISLAM

Nabilah Islam is a Democratic candidate for Georgia’s Seventh District. The district featured the closest election in the entire nation in the 2018 midterms. In that election, Republican Rob Woodall beat Democrat Carolyn Bordeaux by less than 500 votes. Earlier this year, however, Rob Woodall announced that he would not be running for re-election, spurring candidate announcements among both Republicans and Democrats. Nabilah is a first time candidate and hopes that her “unabashed progressive” campaign can edge her past a wide field of Democrats in the primary and beat out a Republican competitor in the general.  A “2020 Battlegrounds” post coming next week will dig deeper into the district’s history and 2020 prospects. This interview was conducted on May 25, 2019. 

The following interview has been condensed and edited to remove unnecessary words, phrases and questions for clarity. If you want the full, messy, extended version, you can find it in under Candidate Interviews –> Extended Interviews.


Islam: Hey Seth, how are you? 
Seth: HI! I’m good, how are you? I’m so happy to talk with you. Thanks for taking the time. How is everything with the campaign going? 
Islam: I think everything is going really well. I think there is a lot of enthusiasm around my candidacy, I’m running a very unapologetic campaign and being my authentic self. And it’s really exciting, especially when candidates in Georgia have felt the need to run Republican-light campaigns. But I think what people are hungry for is authenticity and to speak truth to power.

Seth: You’ve been involved in other campaigns before, specifically with fundraising. But can you tell me about being a first-time candidate?
Islam: Being on the other side is a lot different. I am constantly making sure that I’m in the community listening to voters and understanding where they feel like the problems are in the community and also trying to stay competitive in this primary race and raise the money I need to. I would say it will be the hardest thing I ever do in my life. I enjoy meeting people where they are and putting this campaign together because I feel like it’s so overdue and I really feel like the message we’re putting out there is what people have been hungry for, for such a long time. 

Seth: I know your parents were refugees from Bangladesh. Can you tell me your personal history and how that has affected you as a person and you as a candidate? 
Islam: Sure. My parents immigrated to the country roughly four decades ago. And they were survivors of political genocide that happened in Bangladesh in 1971. They actually didn’t come to America as refugees though, my uncle filed for my dad to come to this country but overall my mother’s upbringing in Bangladesh really influenced me as I grew up. My mother grew up really poor. She grew up in a tin hut and mud floor home in a village. And my little brother and I grew up working class. It was not until I was seven, when my mom took me to Bangladesh with her, that I understood what poor really meant. My mom grew up with no electricity, no running water. There was one outhouse in the entire village. No doctors or hospitals. I had cousin who were malnutritious, had holes in their clothes, and for me after seeing so much suffering in this young country, it gave me such a deep self-awareness at a young age. I told myself at seven that I was going to make a difference and help others after seeing how my own mother had grew up and survived. 

Seth: How does that factor into your political ideology?
Islam: When my parents moved to Georgia, they lived in Section 8 housing in Atlanta until they could get enough money to get an apartment off of Buford Highway. They came to this country with nothing. My dad was a file clerk, my mother flipped burgers at Hardees for much of my childhood and then she worked at a warehouse as and order puller. My mother didn’t have a high school education and because her wages were so low, she worked longer hours. She packed up boxes, she put them on trucks and she literally worked herself to the bone and worked incredibly hard being an immigrant here. She eventually hurt herself on the job. She suffered from two herniated disks and because that happened, she was unable to continue her job. My mother’s story has primed me to be a fighter. Her workers compensation initially covered her injury, but when she lost her job, we ended up going through her unemployment insurance. And they decided post her second procedure of her back surgery that they were not going to cover the cost. She was forced to pay out of pocket. Now were tens of thousands of dollars in debt and left with no option at the time but to sue her unemployment insurance company. My mom didn’t know how to navigate the system, so I helped my mom find an attorney. I was on every call, I went to every meeting. And we sued the unemployment insurance company and won. But the point is, families that struggle should not have to go through something like that. The stress of facing the unknown of what could be the next day. And that’s why I continue to fight. My mother’s been a fighter all her life and I’m fighting as well. These experiences have played a significant role in my political ideology and it’s a working-class background, the immigrant story and how I was brought up. My mother’s immigrant story and those continue to influence my policy priorities. 

Seth: What is your general pitch to voters and what are your policy priorities? 
Islam: My general pitch is, if you’re working hard, you should have the opportunity to get ahead. There’re three key platform issues that I’m focusing on. The first one is health care. There’re 135,000 people in my district that don’t have health care. I’m a person and candidate who believes that health care is a human right and that’s why I’m advocating for Medicare for All.

And the second one would be creating an economy for everyone. I believe that for too long, our government has favored large corporate interests. Small businesses and our working class are the backbone of this country and this district and I think it’s time we end the massive corporate welfare that we’re seeing. And stop giving tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy. And that starts with first raising our minimum wage to a livable wage beginning at 15 dollars. It’s the fastest ways to end wealth inequality for women, especially women of color and minorities in general. And second, making sure that our small businesses have access to capital. The subsidies that these large corporations are receiving right now should go to our small businesses so they can afford to pay their employees a competitive wage. It also means investing in infrastructure as well and transportation so we can bring good jobs to our district and reduce the crushing traffic that people are experiencing.

The third one, is immigration reform. This is a very diverse county. Twenty five percent of my district is foreign born. Gwinnett County has the highest number of deportations in the state. Last year I went down to the border to the migrant caravan and I saw there were hundreds of people living in tents, sleeping on the ground, waiting for their number to be called. Seeking asylum is a human right. Our current administration has decided to vilify people during their time of need so my immigration platform, which I just released is set on four simple promises that will guide our fight to form a fair immigration on system. And those four premises are, that I’m going to fight to ensure a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in our country. Fight to reinstate and strengthen DACA, DAPA, TPS orders, and fight to stop the deporting of immigrants who have been in our country for decades. And lastly, fight to block ICE’s ability to hijack local taxpayer money, which forces local law enforcement to do its bidding.

Seth: What do you mean by “Medicare for All”? There’s a lot of different iterations out there?
Islam: I truly believe that we can reach universal health care. America currently has the most expensive health care in the world. About 38 out of 39 industrialized countries that have some form of basic health care. There’s no reason that America can’t achieve that goal either. And the way that I believe that we can achieve this is by reducing the price tag on health care in the first place. Because we currently operate through a patchwork of health insurance networks, we are paying about 4 hundred billion dollars a year, over 30% of healthcare costs go towards overhead. But once we move to a centralized system, we can use our collective bargaining to leverage our purchasing power on pharmaceutical companies to reduce drug costs. The easiest way to pay for it is an incremental tax increase. About 95% of Americans would actually end up spending less on health care.

Seth: Are you thinking of a single payer system with the government being the only insurer?
Islam: Yes. Everyone would pay out of their taxes to make sure that everyone in this country will be covered. But that being said, you would have the option to get supplemental private insurance if you so choose.

Seth: Medicare For All is projected to cost somewhere around 32 trillion dollars. Have you thought out the specific taxes or pay-fors this would require?
Islam: I would say about 5-7%, income tax depending on the individual. Depending on where you are and how much income you make per year. 

Seth: Would there be any cost sharing for patients?
Islam: I don’t want to prevent folks from taking health care. I am looking at the possibility of small co-pays to stop over-utilization of the health care system.

Seth: What benefits would be covered?
Islam: Full comprehensive coverage. I think we have the ability to pay for it. 

Seth: Why do you support the hard 15-dollar minimum wage versus something that’s scalable depending on cost of living?
Islam: Right now, the federal minimum wage is 7.25 and by not increasing it, we’re mandating poverty. If we to were actually minimum wage for inflation, it would be around 28 dollars or something like that. I don’t think we’d ever be able to pass a bill at that wage. I would be increasing it to 15 dollars and we can increase it from there. 

Seth: Do you think that Democrats abolish ICE? And should the government be able to detain or deport illegal immigrants who have not committed a crime other than crossing the border. 
Islam: As far as abolishing, I wouldn’t go that far, but I don’t feel like we need to be wasting taxpayer dollars at the local level to do the bidding of ICE. And then, to your second point, crossing the border is not an offense where I feel like you should be criminalized, that you should go to jail for, necessarily. People who come to our border seeking asylum should go through processing, but they shouldn’t be deported. Crossing the border is a civil infraction, so I think we should not deport them. 

Seth: I’m hoping you could talk about your views on money in politics, given that inside view that you’ve had as a fundraiser.  
Islam: The reason I chose to learn fundraising is because I saw that this is an area where Democrat’s in my state weren’t competitive in and our voices kept on being drowned out. There’s not a lot of women that were in the state or women in the state in the field as well.

Our current political system allows for corporations to be considered as individuals. My campaign is not taking any corporate PAC money. We’re not beholden to any corporate interest like a lot of elected officials and candidates are right now. And I do believe that we need to get big money out of politics and overturn Citizens United.

Seth: Should we get rid of the Electoral College in favor of a popular vote?
Islam: I think there are benefits to the Electoral College and the popular vote. If we moved away from the Electoral College right now, presidential candidates would only campaign in states where we had the highest populations and leave out less populated states. They wouldn’t have an opinion in the process. But I also think there’s something to be said for the popular vote. There isn’t an electoral process in any other election in the country. All statewide, all local elections, for the most part operate on the popular vote. In the House and Senate, many bills need a simple majority to pass. And I think it’s something worth looking at in more detail. 

Seth: How about abolishing the Filibuster?
Islam: When you think about the concept alone, it’s quite ridiculous. Basically, it’s a member of Congress before you, throwing a temper tantrum until they get what they want. I think there has to be a more mature and compromising way to get legislation heard and passed. That’s where I stand right now on the Filibuster.
Seth: It sounds like you haven’t fully come to a decision. 
Islam: Yes. 

Seth: How do you feel about Democrats adding seats to the Supreme Court?
Islam: The Supreme Court is supposed to be an unbiased body that upholds the Constitution and the law of the land. I think packing it with bias does not do any good for anyone.

Seth: Do you think the House of Representatives should impeach the president?
Islam: I’m open to the idea of impeaching Donald Trump. I would love to see an unredacted version of the Mueller Report. I think Donald Trump is clearly scared or else he wouldn’t be putting out videos of Nancy Pelosi and throwing temper tantrums refusing to move legislation forward without the investigation ending. 

Seth: Do you think that he has committed impeachable offenses?
Islam: Yeah, I think so. I think he has.

Seth: Georgia passed an abortion bill banning abortion after six weeks. What are your positions on abortion?
Islam: I am pro-choice first and foremost. I think the abortion bill that passed was horrific. Georgia just criminalized after 6 weeks when many women don’t know that they’re pregnant. And now they have to worry about their freedom should they have a miscarriage. This is a direct attack on women’s reproductive rights and I believe that a woman’s health decision should be left between her and her doctor. 

Seth: Do you think that there should be any restrictions whatsoever on abortion at any time in a pregnancy? 
Islam: I think that conversation should be left between a woman and her doctors to make sure they’re making the best decision for themselves. 

Seth: The Green New Deal is the idea of tying stopping climate change to the economy and all the other progressive and Democratic policy goals.  Do you support that?
Islam: I believe that it’s no longer climate change. It’s a climate crisis and we need bold ideas to combat it. The Green New Deal has a lot of great principles in it and I’m for the principles of creating economic equity and jobs. The state of Georgia has the capacity to be a leader in harnessing natural energy. We’re the top state in the entire country in receiving sunshine. So, I would be on board with a plan that could potentially make the State of Georgia a leading force in the new clean energy economy. 

Seth: Do you support a federal jobs guarantee, one part of the Green New Deal?
Islam: I have to look at that more. I don’t have a position on that yet. 

Seth: In the initial Atlanta Journal Constitution article announcing your candidacy, you said you were inspired by women and candidates like Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Can you talk a little bit about how those progressive figures in contemporary politics have inspired you and if that’s the part of the party that you identify with?
Islam: I definitely identify with being a progressive. I was incredibly inspired by the elections of the last congressional delegation. It was the most diverse, with some of the youngest people. The most women ever elected. For so long, especially in the South, in particular Georgia, there is a norm of what is electable and the perceived notion of what kind of candidate is winnable. And the last impressive delegation broke all those stereotypes. And it was so inspiring because, and to be quite frank, I’ve bet against myself for many years. I didn’t think I was the candidate that America would respond to. What I’ve realized is that what people want today is authenticity. What people want today is someone that has a shared lived experience to them. What people want today is someone that’s going to speak truth to power. I think they’re getting tired of the same stale talking points. They want leaders who aren’t afraid to speak up and I’d say that that’s the kind of candidate I’m going to be.

Seth: Your primary competitor Carolyn Bordeaux, the 2018 Democratic nominee, has very high name recognition and she raised a lot of money. How do you plan to overcome that in the primary? 
Islam: Stacy Abrams, who ran as a progressive gubernatorial candidate flipped this district. And the downballot candidates, state house, state senate. We flipped the Gwinnett County delegation. And the fact that Carolyn Bordeaux didn’t cross the finish line, I believe is indicative of her candidacy. That folks were not inspired by it. There was about 8% Asian turnout in the primary. And in the general, it went roughly down to 6%. We need a candidate that’s going to expand the electorate. That’s going to bring voters out in the general election to flip the district. This is a district that should have flipped last year and will definitely flip this year with the right message, with the right candidate. And the Republicans are going to play hardball. We’re facing some scary candidates on the Republican candidates on the Republican side including Renee Unterman who introduced the Georgia heartbeat bill on the Senate side and she’s going to make that a center of her platform. But they’re going to fundraise. And they’re going to make sure that message is also being heard. And so, we need a candidate that is going to cut through all that noise, that’s going to be inspiring, that people are going to want to knock on doors for and really feel like they are representing their best interests. I’m the only candidate on both sides — on the Republican and Democratic sides — that grew up in this district. And so, I have a shared lived experience to the folks in this community. I’m a product of the Gwinnett County public education system. I’ve worked low wage jobs here. So have my parents. I grew up in Norcross and Lawrenceville. This district is me. My story is this district. And so I’m going to make sure that I communicate that effectively and people will know where I’ve been. 

Seth: Running as a woman of color, have you felt any unfair attacks or any discrimination?
Islam: Oh my gosh. Yeah. I think the candidate that’s going to get picked on most is probably going to be me. The Forsyth County Tea Party is already sending out fear mongering messages saying that Georgia should be careful, they don’t want the next Ilhan Omar getting elected. The Republican opponent, Lynn Homrich, she just put out a video ad denigrating and infantilizing women of color: AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, saying that they should be grounded. I think they’re threatened by it. They’re threatened by strong women of color and the best way that they’re responding to it is bullying me. It’s not going to affect me, it just shows how weak they are.  

Seth: Last cycle, the Democratic Primary got a little bit ugly. Have you noticed any of that or has it been more policy focused and cordial? 
Islam: It’s been cordial. I feel like the campaign cycle is still pretty young. I’m running a positive campaign on my values and I know that that did happen last cycle but I haven’t seen that happen as of yet. And hopefully we can all run a positive campaign. 

Seth: Is there any part of the Democratic platform that you disagree with?
Islam: The fact that our Democratic Party is telling people that, whoever works for a candidate primarying Democratic incumbents will be blacklisted. I think that’s really unfortunate. I think, as a representative, you earn your seat every two years. And if you aren’t representing your district, you should get primaried. We need to empower candidates to run, not disenfranchise them.

Seth: Do you believe that there should be room in the Democratic Party for pro-life voters or candidates?
Islam: I prefer pro-choice candidates. I believe that we should advocate for women’s reproductive rights. That being said, I’m going to leave that for a primary and let the voters decide what kind of candidate that they want. But I feel like we’re moving in the direction that you probably need to be a pro-choice Democrat in order to garner support. 

Seth: Thank you so much for talking with me and going into the details on your policies. 
Islam: Thank you too for taking the time.