Aisha Wahab Makes History
The 31-year-old Hayward resident became the first Afghan American elected to public office in the United States.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
When a local resident pulled aside then-Hayward City Council candidate Aisha Wahab before a political forum last October to ask whether she had accepted campaign contributions from ISIS, Wahab took it in stride, later chatting with the woman and convincing the skeptical voter to take home one of her yard signs. But the ignorant and racist comment was not an isolated case. Wahab, 31, heard similar anti-Muslim sentiment while canvassing door to door in the East Bay city. The fact that Wahab is young, a woman, and a newcomer to local Hayward politics further compounded the obstacles that she faced last year.
But Wahab was buoyed in the campaign by one of the most amazing biographies of any politician in the East Bay, and her message of hope — of the need for more affordable housing and tenant protections — for a struggling Hayward ultimately prevailed and won her a seat on the city council. She also made history, becoming the first Afghan American ever elected to public office in the United States. (On the same night across the country, Safiya Wazir, 27, also an Afghan, was elected to the state Legislature in New Hampshire, meaning that Wahab and Wazir share the distinction of being first.)
But it wasn’t easy. In addition, to the ISIS comment and other racist remarks she endured, Wahab suffered a car break-in during the campaign. The thief stole boxes of printed campaign materials from her trunk worth more than $1,000. And when she applied last summer for one of the vacant seats on the Hayward Planning Commission, one councilmember appeared to suggest that she should abandon her council campaign if she wanted the appointed position. Plus, several Hayward political insiders urged her not to run for council or to wait her turn, arguing that she hadn’t paid her dues. “After I won, one councilmember told me to my face that ‘everyone is hoping and waiting for me to fail,’ ” Wahab said.
Wahab’s journey to Hayward City Hall began after her biological parents escaped the war in Afghanistan in the early 1980s and landed in New York City. Wahab and her older sister were born in Queens before tragedy struck when their father was brutally murdered. The case remains unsolved. Their mother later died at an early age, leaving them orphans. “I find my life very ironic in so many ways primarily because my parents came to this country to escape war, only for my father to be murdered here,” Wahab said.
After the two sisters shuffled between group homes and foster care — all before the age of 10 — they were adopted by an Afghan-American couple living in Fremont.
The desire to give back fuels Wahab on many levels. “I grew up with a traditional immigrant mentality: work hard, work the most, and hopefully things go well,” she said. “I genuinely believe in the spirit of America, that spirit of opportunity, that spirit of working hard and making your own dream come true.”
Wahab’s victory in November (she was the top vote-getter in the election) has also fueled pride not only in the East Bay’s large Afghan-American population, but for Muslim Americans all over, said Moina Shaiq, a Fremont resident and founder of the Muslim Support Network. “Aisha’s win is a big inspiration for the Muslim community to know that one of their own is in power now,” said Shaiq. “She has broken through. She is a role model.”
Shaiq added that under the Trump administration, it’s been a time of despair for Muslim Americans. But Wahab’s victory, along with the election of two Muslim-American women to Congress in November, has suddenly turned 2019 into an exciting moment. “We have witnessed some much Islamophobia and so much hatred coming towards us. We have so much hope now, even though there is hate, there is plenty of good. Those are the people who voted these women in.”
Wahab is not only the first Afghan American elected to office, but she is also the second-youngest councilmember ever elected in Hayward and the youngest woman. She also might be the most progressive candidate ever elected to the council.
Kevin Dowling, a progressive former three-term Hayward councilmember, like Wahab, knows about firsts: He was the city’s first openly gay elected official in 1998. And like Wahab, Dowling recalls being the target of discrimination on the Hayward campaign trail: He remembers being called a “faggot” while canvassing door to door.
Wahab’s path to the council also was unusual in that successful candidates in Hayward have typically gained the endorsement of the city’s big four groups — police and fire unions, the once-powerful mobile home associations, and the chamber of commerce, said Dowling. None backed Wahab. “The old rules don’t apply that much anymore,” said Dowling, who remains an Hayward political insider and last year served as campaign manager for Hayward Mayor Barbara Halliday’s successful re-election. “Nobody had heard about Aisha Wahab a year ago,” he added. One key to Wahab’s ultimate success was her ability to out-raise her opponents in the campaign. By mid-2018, she already had raised $42,000 — much of it from her contacts in the Fremont Afghan-American community. “I don’t think she would have received the support of the party and labor if she walked into their endorsement meeting with $3,000 in the bank,” Dowling remarked. “They would have said, ‘We like you, but you don’t have any money, and you’re not viable.’ ”
Dowling also believes the results of the past election revealed that the Hayward electorate has changed — it’s younger and more progressive. Wahab also benefitted from a 2016 labor-funded ballot measure that moved Hayward’s election from June to November when more residents tend to vote. Fueled by anti-Trump sentiment, the Hayward 2018 election in November registered a record number of votes cast.
“There were a lot of factors involved in our win,” said Wahab, who also says that change was a big part of her win. She noted that the average age of Hayward residents is 34, and the city’s millennials are not much different from her in terms of background.
She also believes she connected with Hayward residents, many of whom are struggling to survive amid the housing shortage, rising rental prices, and few restrictions placed on landlords by City Hall. Hayward’s city budget also has been plagued with annual warnings of the need to dip into dwindling reserves. In fact, it could be argued that Hayward, unlike neighboring East Bay cities, never fully emerged from the doldrums of the Great Recession.
Wahab said that after she became the family’s primary breadwinner, she was laid off during the Great Recession, a moment that greatly influenced her activism for affordable housing and helping the homeless — issues that dominated her campaign platform. “When you experience your whole world crashing, it gives you a different perspective, and when I talked to public officials, I started to wonder if they know what people are going through? And when they give fluff answers, you start to think they are out of touch. Oh, my god! How do they not know? They are far more senior than me, far more educated, far more affluent. My big tendency in life has always been, ‘I’m not good enough’ and hesitant to offer my own opinions. What I later found is my opinions are very similar to millions other people in my position.”
Wahab’s millennial defiance, her us-against-the-world perspective, and her belief in the need to fix Hayward quickly, are reminiscent of the mercurial campaign of New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive darling who has similarly rocked the establishment in the Democratic Party. A 30-second cable TV ad by Wahab shown repeatedly on MSNBC during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh had a similar melancholy tone to the one famously released by Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. Wahab also bucked local conventional political wisdom by using a black-and-white headshot of her on some yard signs and literature.
And like Ocasio-Cortez, Wahab has used social media to her advantage. After she was sworn in to office, during her first closed-session meeting as a councilmember, she was precluded from participating in the meeting, because the council was making a decision about funding for a nonprofit with which she had done previous work. Wahab did not necessarily disagree with the determination, but decided to use social media to take followers behind the scene.
In a brief Facebook Live video, Wahab railed against the ability of councilmembers to cast votes on certain housing developments after they had received campaign contributions from backers of the project. “Which is more of a conflict? My work with a nonprofit, which I have already resigned from, or voting on projects after receiving money from a developer?” she said. “I believe the community is who you serve. It’s not political insider who asks you for something. At the end of the day, it is about what does the community need and want?”