On a September afternoon in Tampa, Florida, the disparate elements of what might be called the region’s resistance sat down at a small Mexican restaurant called TacoSon to contemplate the way forward. The meeting had been called by Jose Vazquez, the Democratic nominee for an upcoming special election for Florida House of Representatives. It was a district that Democrats had barely competed in for years.
Invited to the meeting was Ahmad Hussam Saadaldin, an independent progressive who was gaining real traction in the race. Saadaldin was hoping to convince Vazquez to bow to reality and call the race quits, to let Saadaldin try something new and finally wrest control of the district from the GOP.
“We were hoping to convince the Democratic candidate to drop out, but I didn’t want to tell him that directly,” Saadaldin said. “I didn’t want to come across as disrespectful or egotistical in any way, but this is a person who has run twice already.” Vazquez ran for the same position as a Democrat in 2012 and 2016, emerging with just over 40 percent of the vote each time, and also ran as an independent write-in candidate in 2008 and 2014.
Vazquez, meanwhile, went in expecting Saadaldin to say he was going to drop out of the race to give Vazquez, on his fifth go-round, a clean shot. “I’m not new in politics,” he later told The Intercept. “I’m running for public office since 2004. It’s just that I never had a chance to develop my campaign.”
The Democratic candidate invited two local party leaders to the meeting: Ione Townsend and Russ Patterson. Townsend, chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, had heard from others in the party that Saadaldin was a charismatic and knowledgeable candidate whose platform resembled that of the Democratic Party. She wanted to see for herself.
“He was feeling us out, and we were feeling him out,” said Townsend, describing the meeting.
Townsend, nudging him to step aside, told Saadaldin he would make a good Democratic candidate for Florida Senate instead. “I was really interested in him for our bench for 2020 because of all the good feedback I was getting for him,” she told The Intercept.
Saadaldin immediately told Townsend he was not interested in dropping out — or in running as a Democrat in the future. “I’m running for special election for District 58, which is already a small race, and it’s a small office,” he explained to The Intercept. “Do you think you’re just going to offer me this bigger position, and I’m going to say, Wow! Florida Senate?”
Saadaldin represents a growing faction of progressive candidates fed up with politics as usual, inspired by the populist message of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., but less interested in the reconciliation with the Democratic Party that Sanders has urged. Last Tuesday, democratic socialists and insurgent populists, teamed up with mainstream Democrats, swept victories in elections across America. Saadaldin wants to find out if in Tampa, he and his backers can do it without — and, if need be, against — the Democratic Party.
Temple Terrace, in the heart of the district, is a town of about 27,000 people that sits on Tampa’s winding Hillsborough River. The shops along 56th Street, one of the main streets, hint at the area’s demographic makeup. There are storefronts with Arabic lettering, Arab and South Asian grocery stores and restaurants, hookah lounges, and shops that sell headscarves, as well as abayas and thobes – loose, robe-like garments worn by women and men, respectively, in some parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
Saadaldin’s most vocal backers are Tampa Bay Muslims, who have a significant presence in his hometown of Temple Terrace, where locals estimate that 20 percent of the population is Muslim. (The area is about two-thirds white, one-fifth black and 14 percent Hispanic and Latino.) Saadaldin, who hails from Iraqi Kurdistan, is one of them. His family immigrated to the United States when he was a few months old, fleeing the First Gulf War. His campaign has identified about 1,000 registered voters with Muslim-sounding names, many of whom have committed to helping put him in office.
On a recent Monday evening, volunteers arrived at Saadaldin’s filmmaking-studio-turned-campaign-headquarters in clusters, many of them staggering in far past the 7 p.m. start time. They were young adults, some not old enough to vote, who had come to enjoy an evening of “phones, food, and fun.” They grabbed doughnuts from a table near the entrance on their way in and settled down in a room lined with black tables and benches. Slowly, though, they migrated into a small, dimly lit room, illuminated by a flashing blue strobe light and a ceiling decorated like the night sky. They slouched back into the futons that line the floor as pop music played in the background, and in true millennial fashion, they tapped, tapped, tapped on their phone screens. Their goal: to send 3,000 text messages to registered voters in one hour.
Samer Salhab, a 39-year-old doctor, said he feels Muslims need to be represented in local politics. “Because of all the anti-Muslim feelings, the Islamophobia, this is the time for Muslims to run and change [politics],” he said.
Saadaldin’s campaign estimates, based on research about voter turnout in special elections, that he needs about 7,000 to 8,000 votes to win the December 19 election. Every Monday evening, about 30 volunteers gather at his headquarters and use a mobile app called TenMoreVotes to send thousands of text messages to registered voters in the district. Volunteers also canvas and attend community and political events to meet would-be voters, and they think it’s working.
“Everyone’s bringing something to the team,” Saadaldin said of his campaign staffers who have worked on independent, Green, and Democratic Party campaigns, including the 2016 Sanders presidential campaign. “We don’t have the money to compete with the Republicans, but we have enough that we think we can beat them, for sure.”
It is by no means an easy race. The special election was announced in August, following Republican Dan Raulerson’s resignation due to a health issue. Saadaldin is running against Vazquez, Republican Lawrence McClure, and Libertarian Bryan Zemina. McClure is by far the best-funded candidate in the heavily Republican district, and, based on local news reports, the favorite – by a long shot.
Saadaldin is a member of the Green Party, but he’s running as an independent because he had not been registered as a Green for the requisite 365 days before putting his name in as a candidate. He initially supported Sanders in 2016, but after Sanders “was essentially betrayed by the Democratic Party,” Saadaldin said, he decided to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. A known community activist, he was invited to speak at a Stein rally and afterward became active with the local party chapter, which is supporting his candidacy. The Tampa chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has also endorsed Saadaldin.
The campaign had raised about $15,000 – of a $30,000 goal – as of Sunday, Saadaldin said. McClure, who enjoys strong support in the town of Plant City, had raised about $158,000 as of November 10, and spent $132,000 ahead of the October 10 GOP primary. Vazquez has raised about $3,000, according to his most recent disclosures, making him the most poorly funded candidate in the race and putting the Democrat in the unusual position of playing spoiler to an independent.
Regardless of who is elected next month, there will be another election for District 58 in 2018. And for Saadaldin, sending a message to the political establishment is just as important as the outcome.
“I want to prove that we can challenge big money, we can win, and we can put the power back in people’s hands,” Saadaldin said, speaking in a quick, upbeat tone. “We can run a grassroots campaign. We can make it well organized. We can be professional, innovative, and creative, and we can be well-branded. We can compete with these robots that are running for the Democrats and the Republicans.”
Florida is one of 23 states that have enacted legislation barring contracts with companies that participate in Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, known as BDS. Saadaldin is a vocal proponent of BDS, a grassroots Palestinian movement for justice and equality that seeks to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law.
Just last week, Florida Rep. Randy Fine and Sen. Jeff Brandes introduced twin bills to create a no-tolerance policy for state institutions to do business with companies engaged in BDS. (The existing law allows the government to do up to $1 million in business with those companies.) “BDS is the latest incarnation of anti-Israel sentiment that goes back since the formation of the Jewish State,” Fine said in a statement. “To oppose the State of Israel is to oppose Judeo-Christian values.”
When the legislature was first considering the anti-BDS law in 2015, former Florida Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Democrat, voted against it in committee because he believed it was unconstitutional. By the time the bill made it to the floor for a vote, Bullard was listed as a co-sponsor, something he later told community organizer Laila Abdelaziz that Democratic Party leadership forced him to do.
“Then-DNC chairwoman and member of Congress, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, told Senator Bullard that his political future was over, he told me,” wrote Abdelaziz.
Wasserman Schultz was right. After a 2016 re-election campaign, in which Bullard’s opponents accused him of being a terrorist sympathizer, he lost his seat in the state Senate.
Saadaldin organized his first campaign as president of the University of South Florida’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, an advocacy group with members on college campuses across the country. During his senior year, Saadaldin led a group of students that tried to get the USF Foundation to divest from private prisons, the fossil fuel industry, and companies complicit in Israeli rights abuses against the Palestinian people.
In a two-and-a-half-month period in 2014, SJP collected more than 10,000 signatures on a petition in favor of divestment. While the petition was broad in scope – pushing for “ethical” investments across the board – SJP focused on teaching students about BDS.
The student activists were given an opportunity to present their petition to USF Foundation representatives, who swiftly and unanimously denied SJP’s request to bring the petition before the board of trustees. (A law student at the time, I attended the meeting as a supporter of the petition.)
“At that moment, I realized this is how decisions are made. If I want the right decision to be made, we have to put the right people in the position to make that position,” Saadaldin said. “I wouldn’t say that’s when I decided I personally will run, but that was definitely a profound moment for me.”
Saadaldin graduated with a public relations degree that year, and he continued his pro-Palestine activism off-campus. In 2015, he co-founded a nonprofit production studio and activist hub called Peace House. He and his friends produce short, sometimes viral, videos with satirical political commentary and host events to promote social justice causes. When the Florida legislature was weighing the anti-BDS bill in 2016, Saadaldin and his friends created two videos criticizing the legislation and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s influence on U.S. politics.
That activism has not come without a cost. Saadaldin’s profile on Canary Mission, a website that blacklists pro-Palestine activists, accuses him of “spreading anti-Semitism” and “supporting terrorist-murder Rasmea Odeh,” a Palestinian who was recently stripped of her U.S. citizenship in what her supporters describe as a political prosecution.
“I’m not afraid if anyone says, ‘Are you a terrorist?’ or ‘Are you anti-Semitic?” Saadaldin said. “We can have that conversation. We can do it publicly.”
Florida Republicans have since 2011 held a governing trifecta, maintaining control of the governorship, as well as majorities in the state House and Senate. Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has approved controversial legislation regarding charter schools and has banned government employees from referencing “climate change” and “global warming” in internal communications. Scott, who ran in 2010 on a promise to bring more than 700,000 jobs to Florida, has indeed overseen a rejuvenated Florida economy, but he opposes significantly raising the state’s $8.10 minimum wage – going so far as to recruit California businesses to Florida after that state passed a $15 minimum wage.
Those are the key issues Saadaldin is focused on, according to campaign strategist Richard Carpenter, who first met Saadaldin at the Stein rally last year.
“One of the strategies was to simplify the message, and it was education, environment, and economy,” Carpenter told The Intercept.
Florida public schools rank 46th in the nation for K-12 education, according to U.S. News. This year, the state enacted laws that boosted spending on education, including a $100-per-student spending increase. Still, critics noted that education spending levels remain at pre-recession levels. Hillsborough County, which includes District 58, suffered $130 million in budget cuts this year.
“The education system is a mess,” Saadaldin said. “I’m not saying we need to spend more money, but we definitely need to protect the budget, not cut the budget. We need to spend money more efficiently, and we need to redefine the spirit of education that we have in this state.”
On the issues of economic security and the environment, Saadaldin said he will fight for a $15 minimum wage and push energy companies to transition to use renewable energy sources. His platform also calls for improvements in the areas of affordable housing, health care, transportation, and criminal justice.
The campaign is short on specific legislative proposals, which Saadaldin said he has not had the time to create while running a campaign. His platform is based largely on input from community organizers and experts in the areas he hopes to tackle, he said.
“I’m familiar with the issue of fossil fuels, but I’m not an expert by any means,” Saadaldin said. “I have to always consult with experts, and here in Tampa — I’m sure like most cities — you have healthy movements, people who have dedicated their lives to fighting climate change, to fighting police brutality and criminal justice issues, so we’ve been working closely with the lead organizer of Fight for $15, who’s educating us on how it works, how to defeat the stereotypes, and things like that.”
Fight for $15, a national campaign for economic justice, does not endorse candidates, said Tampa organizer Kelly Benjamin, confirming that Saadaldin has attended and spoken at a number of the group’s events. “He seems like a legitimate supporter for the fight to give workers a better wage and to give them a voice in the form of a union,” Benjamin told The Intercept.
Saadaldin’s platform is ambitious, and he recognizes that being an independent politician in Tallahassee may be an impediment to progress.
“Being a lone, independent progressive, the question that remains is whether the Democrats will work with me – the very few Democrats that are in office – and what will the Republicans do?” he said. “Will I be able to get anything done?”
In the 16 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American-Muslim communities have seen an increase in surveillance by the federal government and have been demonized by a growing anti-Islam industry. Feelings of unease have only grown since the election of a president who famously declared “Islam hates us” and wasted no time enacting campaign promises to bar Muslims from entering the United States.
A 2016 report by the Washington-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding on American-Muslim civic engagement recommended running for office as an act that “empowers the individual and entire community.”
But that on its own is not enough, said Tasneem Siddiqui, one of the authors of the ISPU report and a professor at Winston-Salem State University who focuses on the role of race and racism in U.S. history and politics.
“Running for office really needs to be paired with building coalitions with other communities — with communities that are fighting for environmental justice, for economic justice, for a living wage, for racial justice, [and that are] fighting against the incarceration of black, brown, and indigenous people,” Siddiqui told The Intercept.
Saadaldin’s candidacy is not a direct response to President Donald Trump, but in an age of growing Islamophobia, he says his religion is something his opponents may view as a weakness.
Still, he said he is “not afraid to say I’m Muslim. It was one of the first things I said when I got up at the debate at the [Temple Terrace] Country Club,” a town hall-style event that was held in September.
He is also not the first local Muslim to run for elected office. Last year, longtime Tampa Bay resident Wael Odeh ran for a seat in Temple Terrace’s City Council.
“I ran for the campaign myself to break the ice,” Odeh, a civil engineer, told The Intercept in a phone interview. “As a Muslim community, we feel very isolated, and we feel distant from being part of the global community. For some reason, nobody wanted to take this challenge because they were probably afraid of the consequences. But if there’s no ice breaker, you’re never going to know the outcome of the greater community.”
Just weeks before the election, Odeh was the subject of a smear campaign that suggested he had ties to terrorism. “Could Odeh’s election be a foot in the door of Sharia Law’s subtle influence in our community?” the anonymously sent letter stated, according to local news site TBO. He nonetheless got 17.5 percent of the vote, ranking third among six candidates in a race in which the top two were elected.
Voters have not explicitly told Saadaldin they won’t vote for a Muslim (although one campaign volunteer reported getting such a response), but some have questions about his nationality and religion. For example, a potential voter recently responded to a campaign text message and asked whether Saadaldin rejects Islam, adding, “I am an infidel, should I be killed?”
Saadaldin saw the questions as an opportunity to build bridges.
“No sir you should not be killed,” he responded. “I understand your concern but this is actually a stereotype of Muslims and not true. Muslims believe in Moses and Jesus as well. Did you know that? You can find their names and stories in the Quran.”