By Caroline Tanner
CHICAGO – “Even now, I talk to women my age and they’re still looking for permission,” said Democratic political hopeful Sameena Mustafa. “I think that we’re in a moment where it’s clear that we’re not going to get permission.”
Rather than waiting to be told, Mustafa, a former real estate broker, is using Donald Trump’s election as the inspiration she needed to quit her job in favor of political pursuits — to run as a Democrat for Illinois’ 5th congressional district.
As an Indian-American woman, she represents a new face vying for a seat that has long been held by powerful white men, including former Governor Rod Blagojevich, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and now incumbent Mike Quigley, who has held the seat since 2009.
It’s a long shot to say the least, for a first-time candidate trying for a high-profile seat that has long been held by an incumbent and that has never been held by a woman.
Democrats typically win the district on Chicago’s Northwest Side and surrounding suburbs, so the March primary is the big test for Mustafa and other Democratic candidates. Without support from the Democratic Party of Illinois and Chicago’s Democratic Machine, it would be considered nearly impossible for Mustafa to beat incumbent Quigley in the primary.
But she decided to run anyway, putting her real estate career on hold, hoping to push the Democratic Party to be more inclusive of marginalized communities, particularly women of color.
“I actually see something really powerful happening with women who are a little bit younger than me, they look at what happened with the 2016 election and they want to be a part of the change and not just accept it and be upset about it,” said Mustafa.
Since she says she was told that she couldn’t succeed professionally as a woman, she wants to inspire fellow women to push through similar resistance they may face.
“We’re going to have to have agency to act in such a way that we can create our own forums, create our own power and really create a coalition that can’t be ignored,” said Mustafa.
Mustafa grew up in the Chicago neighborhood of Edgebrook and has lived in the North Center neighborhood for 30 years. Her parents, both former City of Chicago employees, have lived in Edgebrook, what she calls an “idyllic” neighborhood, since immigrating to the U.S. from India in the 1970s. Her mother, a retired pediatrician, worked for the Chicago Department of Public Health, spending most of her career at a clinic in Uptown. As an employee in the Public Works department, her father worked on modernization projects for both O’Hare and Midway airports.
“They actually wanted me to be a doctor as most parents do, that is what they really would’ve liked,” joked Mustafa. “They wanted me to play it safe and have a stable career.”
While Mustafa considered medical school, she ultimately chose to study philosophy at Northwestern University after graduating from Regina Dominican College Preparatory High School, an all-girls, Catholic high school in Wilmette.
As a student at Northwestern, Mustafa was politically active, participating in the women’s coalition and her collegiate Amnesty International chapter. In those days, she notes, the organizations were relatively small.
“In the 1990s, people did not protest anything,” recalled Mustafa. “They were just not as engaged in the political realm, it was a different time.”
Mustafa is glad to see that now, things have changed.
“I actually see something really powerful happening with women, they see the injustice and they want to fight it,” said Mustafa. “They look at what happened with the 2016 election and they want to be a part of the change and not just accept it and be upset about it.”
Outside of campaigning, Mustafa loves to travel and cook with her husband, Tahla F. Basit, who works at a software technology startup. The two were introduced through a mutual friend.
When asked what Basit thinks makes his wife most qualified as a candidate, he pointed to her “inexhaustible energy and ability to connect with multiple kinds of people.”
“I think that’s something that’s really needed right now,” said Basit. “People who can understand what the issues are and connect with disparaged constituencies and rally for those folks.”
Mustafa’s campaign for the 5th district represents the candidate’s first attempt to enter politics, after a career spent in marketing and real estate, most recently as a broker at Bradford Allen. She left that position in September, after seven years, to officially declare her candidacy.
“I had always been thinking that someone else was going to take up the mantle and lead the party in the right direction,” said Mustafa. “That hasn’t happened in my lifetime, so I can’t wait for someone else to do it, it’s up to me.”
Mustafa considers her first job after college at a West Side Planned Parenthood clinic to be the most relevant to her campaign. She’s also served on various boards, including the Chicago Women’s Health Center, Chicago Public Media and The Chicago Community Trust. Beyond professional pursuits, Mustafa has a thing for comedy — she founded Hand Her the Mic, designed to empower women of color through comedy; and co-founded Simmer Brown, a diverse comedy troupe.
“I saw there were very few women of color on stage and I thought, how do I empower them so they can get on stage and be heard,” said Mustafa. “How do I make them feel confident that they can be on stage?”
As a comedian Mustafa focused her sketches on addressing social justice issues, including discrimination, politics, gender and race.
Similarly, Mustafa is using her candidate platform to focus on economic justice, human rights and political reform.
She’s advocating for increased access to health care, specifically Medicaid for all, and wants to “think big and bigger than” Obamacare.
“We have a lot of people who are obviously concerned about health care because it is now hanging in the balance,” said Mustafa.
As for political reform, she’s focusing on voter suppression and campaign finance.
“The whole concept of voter suppression is something that people think only happens in red states,” said Mustafa. “But it happens here.”
Mustafa thinks the electoral system has been particularly corrupted by Citizens United v. FEC, the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case that ruled limits on campaign donations unconstitutional, by defining it as a free speech issue.
“Right now, we have a system where money can come into campaigns unfettered and unchecked,” said Mustafa. “It begs the question when you look at candidates on both sides where their money comes from, and then you ask the candidates who they represent.”
Since officially declaring as a candidate for Congress in mid-August, the Committee to Elect Sameena Mustafa has grown to approximately 60 people, mostly volunteers. Their main focus right now is continuing to get her name out and fundraising.
To help with fundraising, her team asked the Illinois Democratic Party for a database of constituents, an important tool that allows candidates to contact potential supporters. According to Mustafa, the Illinois Democratic Party denied their initial request. They appealed and received a less detailed version of registered voter information.
“The policy is that we don’t provide the database to people who are running against active incumbents,” said Illinois Democratic Party spokesman Steve Brown. “We do give them the contact info for the vendor, but not all the different political data or helpful hints that you could find in databases.”
“They make it very difficult for normal people like Sameena to even run for political office,” said Monique Rooker, Mustafa’s communications director. “You’re not anointed.”
Brown also noted that such policy is not uncommon for national political parties.
To get on the ballot, Mustafa needed to collect signatures on petitions equal to 5 percent of the total number of 5th district voters who voted in the last general election. Opponents can challenge the validity of signatures to get some thrown out. At the December 4 deadline, the last day to file nomination papers for established political party candidates, Mustafa turned in 3,456 signatures, more than triple the 1,150 signatures required.
Rooker, who previously worked as a field director for the 2008 Obama campaign, said the team expects the signatures on Mustafa’s petitions to be challenged, so they collected more signatures than necessary.
“The whole process of throwing signatures out, this happens a lot to first-time candidates,” said Mustafa. “Even though we should have choices on the ballot, that’s not how the system works behind the scenes.”
On April 7, 2009, Quigley won the 5th congressional seat via a special election after now-Mayor Rahm Emanuel resigned from the House of Representatives to serve as the White House Chief of Staff under then-President-elect, Barack Obama. Quigley defeated Republican nominee Rosanna Pulido.
“We’ve been out talking to voters and there’s a lot of people that are open to having a choice since they haven’t had one since 2009,” said Mustafa. “We’re seeing a lot of momentum from first-time candidates challenging establishment politicians, so I think there’s actually a real opportunity.”
Mustafa hopes to encourage fellow women and first-time candidates who have considered running in the past, but hesitated out of fear that it was something they couldn’t do.
“When people think about someone running, they’re always like, oh someone else is gonna do it,” said Mustafa.
It’s important to have women and minorities in office, but their policies and politics matter as much or more than their identity, according to Nathan Ryan of Grassroots Illinois Action, an independent electoral group in Chicago.
“Women and people of color do bring unique experiences that add a lot of value to our democracy, that makes it more vibrant,” said Ryan. “We should have those people in office and then they should be responsive to the values of the communities. But it’s not just that it’s a woman in office — it’s a woman that’s going to stand up on women’s issues.”