With so much depressing news filling my news feed, I’ve found a glimmer of hope talking to Democratic candidates in the primary elections here in Nevada. As in the rest of the country, there are significant numbers of women and people of color running for office.
I wanted to hear their stories because as a Muslim woman, I have never seen myself in politics, only outside it. I work and speak with other young, politically-involved, socially-aware Muslims. We talk about various candidates, political parties and the policies that impact our lives. We share our pre-Trump dreams and our Trump-era fears. And now, with the June 12 primary election next week, we have an opportunity to turn our fears back into realistic dreams if we go to the polls and vote for candidates who will stand up against Trump and his enablers in his administration and in Congress.
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I recently sat down with Jesse Sbaih, a lawyer who ran for Dean Heller’s seat in the Senate (I’m a big fan of anyone who wants to unseat Heller). Sbaih lost in the primary, but he is the American Dream personified. He came to the United States from Jordan at the age of 11 and settled in Virginia with his parents. At 12, he took on menial jobs to help support his family. From there, he put himself through law school, interning for members of Congress and then clerked for the Nevada Supreme Court.
Today, he has his own law practice in Henderson where he lives with his doctor-wife and three children. For Sbaih, “Life is not just about me and my family. It’s about giving everyone the opportunity to achieve their American dream.”
“People are struggling. Twenty percent of Nevadans live in poverty each and every day, they’re not able to put food on the table despite working two, three jobs. I think it’s about time to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour,” he says.
It’s easy to see how Sbaih’s immigrant experience inspired him to run for Congress. During our conversation, he drove home the importance of being able to live with dignity and fighting for justice and equality. He attributes his personal success to his access to a high-quality education in America. Now he wants people to have not only the opportunities he had, but also the ones he didn’t – including healthcare.
“We are the wealthiest country in the history of mankind. We need to take care of our folks. Not only is it the right, humane thing to do, if we don’t, it will ultimately end up costing us more in the long run,” he says.
Over chocolate at a coffee shop near the UNLV campus where she’s currently a law student, I met Yvanna Cancela, the fist Latina to ever serve in the Nevada State Senate. We talked about the why it’s important to have elected leaders who look like our state.
Nearly 20 percent of Nevada’s population was born outside the United States, and we host the country’s most diverse university campus. While 40 percent of our legislators are women – which is incredible – people of color are still underrepresented.
“It’s crazy that it took until 2017 for us to have a Latina in the State Senate at a time when Latinos make up almost 35 percent of our state’s population,” says Cancela. “It feels that it doesn’t actually reflect where our state is or where our state is going. We’ve never had an Asian-American in the legislature, for example. That’s crazy, and I think it’s investing in having a legislature that’s more reflective of our population that I think will allow for all the voices of our state to be represented.”
In 2013, the state legislature passed a law to provide driver authorization cards for undocumented immigrants. Says Cancela, “I don’t think we’d be having conversations about the lack of protections for undocumented workers who are driving if it weren’t for having Latinos in the legislature.”
In 2017, female legislators pushed for bills allowing women greater access to birth control, protecting pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace and eliminating the sales tax on feminine hygiene products – a bill Cancela championed. Women legislators understand what women need to live healthy, productive, fulfilling lives, and they champion these causes when they get elected.
Sbaih is also positive about the rise of women and people of color running for office this year. “America is a melting pot, it’s a representative democracy, people of different backgrounds contribute to this marketplace of ideas, but at the end of the day the main criteria, I think [elected officials] should be leaders, and they’ll be able to do a good job for their constituents,” he says. Our country needs leaders, period.”
“I don’t think we should be complacent,” he adds. “We can’t take anything for granted, we need to reach out to the people and tell them as Democrats what we do, what we intend to do – a clear precise message about what we’re going to do for them.”
To me, the message I want to hear is this: We know your dreams and your fears. We will create an economy that creates opportunities for working families. We will create a country where everyone is accorded the respect and dignity they deserve, regardless of how they identify or where they come from.