An exclusive interview with Bangladeshi-American politician Nina Ahmad, one of the 306 electors who made Joe Biden the next President of the United States. She also participated in the Pennsylvania Auditor General election as a Democrat nominee where she bagged more votes than what Hillary Clinton got in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012 as presidential nominees
Joe Biden is set to be the next President of the United States. Biden won the presidential election held in last November with 306 electoral college votes while Donald Trump won 232. In the US elections, like any other democracy, the citizens vote to elect their president. But unlike others, the race does not end there. It is some 538 electors across the United States, who seal the people's verdict.
Dr Nina Ahmad, a Bangladeshi-American Democrat politician, earned the honour of casting one of Pennsylvania's 20 electoral college votes for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the next president and vice president of the United States.
She was also the democractic party nominee for Pennsylvania's Auditor General election where she won more than three million votes. This number is actually bigger than what Hillary Clinton got in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012 as presidential candidates.
Dr Ahmad served President Barack Obama as a member of the National Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, advising on key issues affecting the health, employment, and well-being of these communities. She also served as a Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement under Mayor Kenney, where she was responsible for managing a $4 billion operating budget in public funds.
Besides, Nina is a strong advocate for women and communities of colour. She served for nearly half a decade as President of the Philadelphia chapter of National Organization for Women (NOW), and also served on its national board until a few weeks ago.
Migrated to the United States from Bangladesh at the age of 21, Ahmad earned her PhD in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania. In professional life, Ahmad works as a molecular biologist and an entrepreneur.
The Business Standard recently interviewed this remarkable woman.
The Business Standard: Congratulations! You cast one of Pennsylvania's 20 electoral college votes. Pennsylvania was one of the fierce battlegrounds in the last presidential elections. Donald Trump tried to coerce the election result in his favour till the last moment. As a valuable elector of a battleground state, how did you observe the simmering tensions since November 3?
Nina Ahmad: In this election, the tension was felt more through the media. In our state of Pennsylvania, we knew we had an excellent team of lawyers who were going to fight this. My name was also in a suit here as they sued us personally as electors.
But every step of the way, I knew a competent legal team was in place. We were confident that the cases that Trump's side brought were poorly written, poorly phrased, and they were irresponsibly done – just like Donald Trump, his suits were as bad as he is.
He filed 60 cases, 59 of which he lost. The only time the judge sided with him was in the case which was not about electoral fraud – it was about the timing of when a vote could be counted. So, all the fuss that he is making is to stay in the news because he makes money when he stays in the news. He sends emails to his group of supporters every time he files a lawsuit, and he makes them pay for it. That money is supposed to go to his legal defence, except he is not doing that. He is siphoning it off to use it later. The people who support him are like cults. They do not question anything that he does; consequently, he keeps abusing their support.
You know, many people believe that he did not want to be a president in the first place and he was surprised he did become one.
TBS: As an elector, did you personally face any challenge reflecting the people's mandate? If so, how did you defy those challenges to fulfil your duty?
NA: In respect to the electoral college votes, nobody really called me or contacted me, or tried to make me change my vote, none of that happened. However I regularly get asked by the press whether there was any such pressure. Since I was a Democratic Party candidate myself, it was very clear what my values were and what I would do.
TBS: What about the others?
NA: Given our country's state, not one elector, I think, would consider doing anything different. What Trump has done, he has destroyed institutions like the EPA, the CDC, the FEC – everything has been tainted. This country prided itself that we are a country of laws. It does not matter who is in power; our structure would go on. Well, he destroyed that. And that got people worried that a president can come and make so much trouble. So, the Biden electors were determined.
TBS: Tell us about your take on the four years of Donald Trump. How has it affected immigrant families or the first generation Americans like you?
NA: What he was doing, in the United States' immigration and citizenship department, was he put in a new office that would review every naturalised citizen going back 40/60 years. Which means all of us who are naturalised citizens; if there were some tiny defects in your application, you might be sent back. So that was a huge issue. Not a lot of people knew that he had put a whole department. Stephen Miller has been the architect of his immigration policy. They were driving to get this country rid of non-white immigrants since Donald Trump himself is a white supremacist.
So, that was first a sort of assault on us. People like us who have come here, made contributions to this country, helped build this country, yet they were going to question us all over again. So, that was a big worry if Donald Trump got another four years, who knows what else he would do.
At the end of the day, whether we are working, whether we have businesses, it all contributes to our economy – because we are tax-paying people. So, it is useful to have people educated and doing different things. But he did not see it that way. Instead of ensuring education and a good life for these people, he just wanted to have his one percent get tax breaks that cost those of us who are not in that one percent and made us pay more taxes.
Besides, you know he got out of the Paris Agreement. The United States is already not great on green energy. So, we need every way to participate in it. Every time we create more carbon footprint, the water level rises in Bangladesh. Areas in countries like Bangladesh are going underwater because we do not do enough in green energy in the United States.
TBS: The Biden-Harris transition team has so far nominated people in diverse portfolios from different backgrounds for the next White House administration. How do you evaluate the appointees?
NA: He is doing an excellent job with his cabinet. Not just diverse, they are also bringing different experiences. If you look at their economic policy, they are looking at countering social disparity because that has kept the black community from building their wealth. Because when any community fails to amass wealth, our economy suffers – you are not putting money in the economy.
So, it is common sense for everybody to participate in the economy. So, they are looking to see what those barriers are. The president-elect has picked people, I know from their background, who knows what those barriers are, and how we can move those barriers. That is going to be useful for all of us as whenever you do something for the African American community, people like us benefit.
In the 1960s when they had all the civil rights movements, they changed all the immigration laws. That is when immigration began from countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. So, any time when a marginalised community does well, we do well.
And "We" means non-white people who came from elsewhere. I am excited for the kind of people president-elect has in his Cabinet and Covid taskforce. For example, he reappointed President Obama's surgeon general – who is of Indian descent. He is outstanding, and I am so happy to see him back. Like him, many people with actual know-how are back in action.
TBS: Would you accept a role in the next administration if offered?
NA: Well, it would depend on what the role is. I believe in public service. This country has been very good to me – which is why I ran for office myself; to open doors, to pay back. Because running for office is a thankless job. It takes a lot of hard work. But it is worth it if you know nobody no more will frown at your last name "Ahmad".
I got over three million votes – most votes any woman has ever got in Pennsylvania – more than Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Barack Obama in 2012 as presidential candidates, more than our current governor and our current senators. So, when someone like me can do that, it means some other people also can come and do that as well.
I opened some doors. So in the same vein, if they offer me something meaningful, I would consider that, if I can actually make a change. A group of my supporters have proposed my name to the administration, but it takes time.
TBS: You participated in the Auditor General election as a nominee of the Democratic Party this year. Even though GOP's Timothy DeFoor won the race, you fought it honourably. What do you eye next in US politics?
NA: I am a big union supporter, and this time I received a lot of union support. But that support came a little late. If I received the support a little earlier, it would have been fruitful.
One of the main reasons that I did not win the election was money. I spent more than six hundred thousand dollars – which I raised all by myself. But my opponent – who raised only 27 thousand dollars – spent more than one million-dollar thanks to a single source – the Republican Party. They gave him money, and he used that money to develop negative ads about me while I had no money to respond to that.
Not only that, what we call row offices – Auditor General, State Treasurer, and Attorney General –the Republicans ensured coordinated support for all three of them on their side. On the other hand, the Democratic Party failed to have such a coordinated campaign from our end. We were too occupied with the presidential election, in comparison to the Republicans. The Republicans are like an army, they get a message and work in accordance everywhere.
We the Democrats did not do well in down-ballot in comparison to the GOP. We did well only in the top of the ticket. So, now I am highlighting all these to the party and exploring where I can help the party to be better.
So if I run, I might consider running for something else, you know three million votes is a lot of votes to throw away. I am thinking about how best to honour the wishes of the people who supported me. I have not made a decision yet, but I will decide in a couple of months.
TBS: You as a Bangladeshi-American have set such examples, and an Indian-American is at the helm as the next vice president of the US. Do you think a lot of other women of this community should join the US political landscape following your footsteps?
NA: Yes, absolutely. I will help them. I will share my story and tell them what I did right and what I did wrong so they can learn and do not make the same mistakes. So I am eager to help any women, and particularly Bangladeshis. Many do not even know that they can actually run for office – or that they have leadership qualities.
I look for those women as I am the local chapter president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). I was a board member just a few weeks ago. I will be looking and finding women to run for office because I believe that women bring a different kind of leadership.
Bangladesh has had female prime ministers for long, but the United States still has not gotten a female president. We just got a vice president this year; let us see what the future holds for us.