POLITICS

Rep. Ilhan Omar Endorses Progressive Nabilah Islam In Georgia Congressional Primary

Islam, the daughter of working-class Bangladeshi immigrants, is consolidating her hold on the left lane in the race for a suburban Atlanta seat.
Democrat Nabilah Islam, 30, is running as a progressive in a crowded primary to succeed Republican Rep. Rob Woodall in Georgi
Democrat Nabilah Islam, 30, is running as a progressive in a crowded primary to succeed Republican Rep. Rob Woodall in Georgia's 7th Congressional District.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) announced Tuesday that she is endorsing Nabilah Islam, a progressive political operative, in a competitive Democratic primary in suburban Atlanta.

Omar, a Somali American from Minneapolis who has become one of Congress’s most outspoken progressives since her election in 2018, cited Nabilah Islam’s commitment to passing “Medicare for All,” a Green New Deal and tuition-free college.

“We need a movement that is powered by people, not corporate power, to create the change we want to see in Georgia and around the country — and Nabilah Islam is the leader to do that,” Omar said in a statement.

The endorsement gives Islam, the 30-year-old daughter of working-class Bangladeshi immigrants and a former Democratic Party operative, another boost as she stakes out the left lane in the Democratic primary for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District. If elected, Islam would be just the third Muslim woman in Congress, joining Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat.

Omar’s endorsement “means a lot to me, and it means a lot to our campaign,” Islam told HuffPost. “Rep. Omar is a personal and political role model for me.” 

“A strong woman of color running on a progressive platform showed someone like me that I too was electable,” she added.

Islam is one of six Democrats vying to succeed Rep. Rob Woodall, a Republican elected in 2010 who is retiring at the end of this year. Woodall won reelection by just over 400 votes in 2018 ― the smallest margin of any House Republican.

The racially diverse and immigrant-heavy seat in suburban Atlanta is exactly the kind of district that Democrats flipped to retake the House in 2018 ― and the sort they’ll need more of if they are to build on their majority. Predictably, the party’s near-win in the district last cycle has prompted a rush of interested candidates, including returning contender Carolyn Bourdeaux, the Georgia State University public policy professor who nearly unseated Woodall in 2017. Thanks to her 2018 run, Bourdeaux enjoys access to an existing roster of donors connected to Democratic Party brass. She leads the field in fundraising, raking in more than $1.1 million as of the end of 2019. State Sen. Zahra Karinshak, an attorney, trails her with more than $500,000, followed by Islam, who has brought in almost $400,000.

Though Islam lacks the fundraising edge, she has rapidly become the progressive consensus candidate, providing an advantage of a different kind in a crowded field. 

Earlier this month, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a co-chair of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, endorsed Islam. She already has the backing of the metro Atlanta chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America; South Fulton, Georgia, City Councilman khalid kamau; and former Georgia state Senate Whip Vincent Fort. 

Along with Khanna, Omar and Tlaib, Fort, kamau and the DSA have also endorsed Sanders. Islam, by contrast, would not say whether she plans to endorse anyone in the presidential primary.

Islam’s progressive convictions, including a dedication to what she calls “real immigration reform,” stem from her experience with economic hardship as the daughter of immigrants, she said. She still has about $30,000 in student debt and remembers working low-wage jobs as a young adult to help her parents pay the bills.

Islam also lacks health insurance, which she finds “cost prohibitive” as she draws down her limited savings to run for Congress. She made national news in January when she petitioned the Federal Election Commission to allow her to use campaign funds to purchase health coverage. 

The gesture is a real effort to obtain relief. But it doubles as a tool for illustrating the challenges facing working-class people of all backgrounds seeking public office ― and a reminder to her striving constituents that she shares their modest roots. (Monica Klein, one of her campaign consultants, previously advised Long Island Democrat Liuba Grechen, a 2018 House candidate who petitioned the FEC to use campaign funds for child care.)

Islam would also be the first person of color to represent a district where immigrants make up one-quarter of the population and minorities make up about two-thirds of all residents.

“Growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me in office,” she said. “Especially as Trump expands the Muslim ban, I think it’s very important that we show Americans there are proud progressive leaders of every faith fighting for them in Washington.” 

In seeking to flip Republican-held congressional seats, the national Democratic Party has stuck to a playbook of picking moderate candidates with deep fundraising networks.

Islam’s run is premised on the notion that the party-driven conventional wisdom about how to win a swing seat is, if not wrong, at least narrow-minded.

To hear Islam and other mostly young progressives tell it, a bold campaign led by a candidate expanding minority representation is capable of expanding the electorate by exciting infrequent voters.

“It takes a lot of groundwork. It takes a lot of organizing,” Islam said. 

But, she insisted, “As long as you’re running a smart campaign and a smart strategy,” it is eminently possible for a progressive to win in a swing seat.

There are precious few examples of progressive Democrats winning Republican-held House and Senate seats by running on an exclusively progressive platform aimed at expanding the electorate. The most recent examples of success, such as the 2018 primary wins of Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), took place in solidly Democratic districts where the general election was not competitive.

But Islam is not afraid of flouting party conventions. She claims to have left her post as a Southern regional fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee because she felt that the party body “did not really empower people of color at the DNC.”

“We were left out of the overall strategy of how to reach voters of color,” she said.

Islam will have the chance to test the appeal of her message ― and prove the standard party playbook wrong ― on May 19, when Georgia Democrats cast ballots in the congressional primary. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the top two contenders will compete in a runoff on July 21.