Participating in elections is an obligation on all citizens and an opportunity to express their opinions on how they want their society to function. From foreign policy to domestic programs and local issues, each one of us can vote for the representative who best affirms our values, reflects our concerns, and how to address them.
Voting in the United States is not compulsory, whereas it is so in 22 countries, including in Australia, Belgium and Switzerland, with fines levied in many cases for those not casting their vote. The 2022 elections here have been among the most contentious and the turnout was higher than in prior years.
Running for elected office is not an easy endeavor and reflects a higher commitment and desire for a more tangible impact on policies. From canvassing for votes, fundraising and explaining, ad infinitum, why people should vote for the candidate, is a grueling process; yet it has its rewards, even if one is not successful, as one’s voice is heard, and experience and friends are gained.
Being involved in the political process is essential if diverse voices are to be represented in legislation, and how it impacts a school or community, particularly as minorities. In this election cycle, more individuals than before from the Jamat wished to have an impact on their communities by running for office - a worthwhile endeavor as they can now offer their own suggestions, and legislators will hear from, and get to know, Ismaili Muslims, many for the first time..
The first two Muslim lawmakers in Texas are Salman Bhojani, who won election to House District 92 in Tarrant County, and Dr. Suleman Lalani, who won election to House District 76 in Fort Bend County. They are both the first and the only Muslims and South Asians elected to the Texas House of Representatives. They join Safiya Wazir, an Afghan refugee who was re-elected to the New Hampshire Legislature, Naushad Kermally on the Sugar Land City Council, and Ash Hamirani on the Stafford Municipal School District.
Additionally, Salim Nice became the Mayor of Mercer Island, Washington State, early this year, Sean Hassan was re-elected as an Austin Community College District Trustee, and Shaira Ramzanali was voted in as a member of the Del Valle Independent School District in the Austin area.
From City Council to State Legislature
Salman Bhojani with his family
Salman Bhojani is a real estate attorney who has served on the Euless, TX, City Council as a member and as Mayor pro-tem, and who ran successfully for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives.
Facing opposition during his City Council run, he was even provided with a police escort at his swearing-in ceremony. However, his dedication and hard work was recognized by the other members, especially his outreach to minorities and engagement with high school students to educate the youth about local government.
Following the 2018 national election Salman saw an increase in divisiveness, polarization, and anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric. He felt that now was an opportune time to make his voice heard at a state level where he could make more of a difference. He resists the current attempt by the State to exert more control over city councils and wants local officials to make the decisions that affect their residents. Despite personal attacks, he won in a three-way contest with 58% of the vote.
Salman has exemplified the American Dream as he came from Pakistan at the age of 19, stocked shelves at a gas station, went on to owning four of them and then, following Mawlana Hazar Imam’s guidance to continually educate oneself, studied law. He first experienced civic life by joining the Euless Park Board and now encourages others to find a similar initial position to gain experience and a resume before seeking higher office. “Serve in non-elected voluntary capacity first, get experience, and then move up,” he advises, as “Name recognition follows you - make a difference and work hard.”
Healthcare and education issues motivate doctor
Concerns over the current healthcare system and its inability to provide preventive care to the majority of his patients, due to its focus on reactive treatments, have long frustrated Dr. Suleman Lalani of Fort Bend, who is also friends with Salman Bhojani.
Dr. Suleman Lalani
Dr. Suleman is concerned about medical costs in the last years of a person’s life and that not enough is spent on keeping them healthy at an earlier age. Dr Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, estimates that 25% of all Medicare spending is for the last year of a person’s life. Suleman considers this is an inefficient use of resources and he wants to change the approach. He wants to increase access to Medicaid and change current laws that restrict a woman’s right to an abortion.
Texas is 33rd in education, and 48th in health in the country and this is another reason why Suleman felt it necessary to run for the legislature. He wants safer schools, an increase in teacher pay, and more emphasis on renewable energy and affordable housing. His experience as an Alzheimer’s Association ambassador to Congress, the Fort Bend District Attorney’s Committee, President of the Exchange Club of Fort Bend, Regional Chairman of the Aga Khan Foundation, and numerous other appointments on nursing home and hospital Boards, allows him a unique insight into issues facing the community.
“ I'm here to solve the problems and represent my constituents,” Suleman has remarked, “irrespective of their color, creed, gender or religion. Fort Bend is a melting pot, a loving coalition of cultures, religions and races, and here we build bridges and not walls. That's what I look to do."
Originally from Pakistan he has practiced family medicine, with a focus on geriatrics for almost 20 years and won in a run-off with 58% of the vote. He had lost in an attempt in 2020 but his experience from then clearly helped him succeed this time.
Mayor Salim Nice at Mercer Island City Hall
First Ismaili Mayor in the United States
Salim Nice grew up in Mercer Island, Washington, and studied criminal justice, receiving a bachelor's degree and intending to study law; however, life had other plans for him. After graduating, he decided to work in the healthcare sector, assisting acute-care hospitals with government-payer reimbursements and revenue cycles. He has built and sold two companies in this field and now operates a third, Healthcare Reimbursement Solutions.
Before embarking on the political journey, horses seemed to play a significant role in his life. His family owned an endurance racehorse that routinely won single-day 100-mile races and also successfully campaigned and was selected for the United States Equestrian Team to compete in the World Equestrian Games in France. While planning to send him to race in France, the horse suffered an injury. An offer to purchase him was accepted.
Several months later, Salim discovered that the horse had been bought by Al Wahba Stables, a luxurious and state-of-the-art facility owned by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Salim was asked to come to Abu Dhabi to assist with the performance and training of the horse. While there, he offered suggestions to improve the horse’s condition and was then asked to join the stables as a Managing Director. Salim spent three years there and made the venture extremely successful.
Back on Mercer Island, Salim had become familiar with local issues and felt he could positively contribute to the city and its municipal government. As his family bicycled, hiked, and swam in the lake, they greatly appreciated the city’s parks, open spaces, and forests. They were important for Salim and his wife growing up in Mercer Island, becoming an increasingly important part of their young son Elliott’s upbringing. Salim wanted to ensure they would be preserved. He ran for the City Council and won in 2017, later becoming Deputy Mayor. In 2021 he was elected Mayor, beginning his two-year term in January of 2022.
Under Salim’s leadership, the Council approved a levy to build playgrounds, reinvest in open spaces, and draft their first-ever Climate Action Plan to reduce emissions to 95% of 2007 levels, add electric charging stations, and other climate mitigation efforts.
Salim is hopeful that new civic leaders will emerge within the Jamat. His advice is that to be successful; one needs to change the approach from that of a singularly focused and driven entrepreneur to one who can build consensus by working with people with differing views, realizing one cannot always get everything one would like.
Elected to School Board
Austin-area devoted mother of a twelve year-old daughter and a 20-month boy, Shaira Ramzanali ran for the Del Valle Independent School District against two opponents - and won. She has always been involved in her school district with her daughter’s activities, the PTA and the Girl Scouts.
A Human Resources professional, Shaira decided to run to encourage more parental involvement as well as inform parents about a number of programs available to them, in this low-income and primarily hispanic district. Programs include help with high school graduation, food resources through the Central Texas Food Bank, financial planning, and helping them to apply for scholarships for their children.
Voluntary service has been a part of her life as Shaira taught children in the Jamat, and was on the Education Board and the Tariqa Board. She credits her success to “Mawlana Hazar Imam’s continuous emphasis on education, as that is something that will always be valuable and no one can take it away.”
Community College Board re-election
Sean Hassan campaigning
Joining the other officials is Sean Hassan, re-elected to the Austin Community College Board of Trustees, which has an annual budget of $465 million, funding 11 campuses, serving 70,000 students across 4 campuses.
A Stanford law graduate, Sean initially ran because of his lived experiences, studies, and work experience. They taught him that “...what happens outside of the classroom is as important - if not more important - than what happens inside the classroom in determining whether a student will complete their degree or program or not.”
Sean raises the issue of many students being parents themselves, often single mothers, working at least one job, while trying to attend school.” If they do not have childcare for their own children, they will miss classes or exams, not be able to come in for study sessions or tutoring, and ultimately quit school,” he explains.”If we can offer access to safe, reliable childcare, these parents will be able to finish their programs more quickly and be out in the workforce earning a living wage to support their families,” he adds.
When he was first elected, the focus of the college was on what was happening on the campus. He has managed to convince Trustees to invest $2.5 million in helping fund childcare centers on campuses and pay for childcare at private centers for the children of its students. He remarks that he also “... successfully championed a commitment of $40 million over the next six to seven years to fund a wide range of ‘wrap around’ student supports, from childcare to mental health resource centers on our campuses.”
Sean is also Chairman of the Aga Khan Youth and Sports Board for the United States, which offers many programs and activities for youth across the country.
These pioneering individuals are making history by participating in the political system, and should be an inspiration to others who are passionate about change and want to make a difference.