"Representation Matters" — an interview with Senator Sheikh Rahman
Sheikh Rahman made history by becoming the first Muslim and first South Asian in DNC’s Executive Committee in 2016. He then followed it up by becoming the first Asian American and first Muslim lawmaker in the state of Georgia in 2018, representing Senate District 5 as a State Senator. I spoke to him in between legislative sessions to learn about his journey.
Born in Bangladesh, Senator Rahman was always interested in community service, being part of the Bangladeshi Youth Council in high school. He was invited to the Asian Youth Council in Singapore in 1979 and continued to be deeply involved in local politics, local non-profits, and volunteer opportunities in his area.
In 1981 he came to the United States to study and quickly got involved in local politics in Charlotte, NC when a friend invited him to do door-hangings in a local election. “I joined the International Students’ Association and the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and was nominated as a youth leader,” he recalls. He was also a senior senator of the Student Government Association at the University of Georgia and was the President of the Global Studies Association.
Sheikh Rahman went on to pursue his career in business, but stayed involved in local politics. “I’ve volunteered for campaigns right from the city council level to school boards, county commissions, state races, and national elections for decades.”
He added, “I always knew the Democratic party establishment had a place for me, but I never thought I could progress beyond that.” When President Obama won in 2008, it gave him the encouragement to believe that someone like him could also be elected to office.
“When I moved to my current district, people like me were a minority. But the growth in the non-white population was so strong that I could see that we were on our way to becoming a ‘majority’ minority.” It rankled South Asian Americans like him and other minority community members like African Americans and Hispanics that, thanks to gerrymandering, they were represented by white officials at every level of local and state government.
“Along with the NAACP and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, we ended up suing the Gwinnett County School Board and the Gwinnett County Commission to allow more opportunities for minorities to get elected.”
Senator Rahman was elected to the State Senate in 2018, though the lawsuit was only resolved a year later. But thanks to these efforts, today Gwinnett County has its first African American Mayor, the first minority County Commissioner, first minority County Commission Chairman, first minority School Board Chairman and representation on school boards.
“I was successful because I had been working in the community for decades. People knew me and my work. That is why I was able to beat a 16-year incumbent with 68% of the vote,” said Senator Rahman. “My main argument was that electing me would give my constituents a seat at the table. And it was a winning argument.”
I asked Senator Rahman what issues are front and center when he meets with his constituents.
“Having someone like me in government makes it easy for them to deal with the various aspects of government – whether it be zoning, planning, or licensing issues. These are the things that I get approached for help. It is just easier to navigate the government if you have someone there who can understand your concerns. My district is a very diverse district with people from over 100 countries and speaking 100 different languages. Representation from someone like them is very, very important.”
He added, “National issues don’t really come up in conversations. I think people know that I have a limited amount of influence on those. What I can help them with is to navigate their own environment.” He recalled a time when he met a fellow South Asian parent at his child’s school. “When she found out I was a State Senator she was excited and was interested in sending her daughter to be a page. Government is a part of us, it is not something abstract. Someone like me makes that fact very real to the immigrant community.”
His advice for South Asians interested in politics – “The first step is to get involved with your community in any way possible. Do you know who is on your city council? Do you know who your county commissioner is? These are the people who determine who is going to pick up the trash, what kind of education your kids are going to have, what kind of house you can build.”
“Go meet the people responsible for making these decisions. See if there are appointed positions in your city or county that you can apply to. Make the connections. Know your neighbors. Volunteer with community organizations. One thing will lead to another. Who knows, you may end up leading a group or a team, perhaps your home owners’ association, or the local soccer club. You can raise all the money you want from around the country, but it is your neighborhood and constituency that will vote for you.”
He added with a laugh, “Unfortunately, with the exception of a few states, politics is a career that can only happen with a certain level of financial stability. Yes, you may have to be that doctor or engineer first, but if you are interested in making a difference through politics, what I always tell people is – if I can do it, so can you.”
To learn more about Senator Rahman and the work he is doing for the people of Georgia, check out https://rahmanforgeorgia.com/