True progress begins from the bottom and moves upward. In government, locally elected officials are the ones who spark that progress and NJ’s newly elected Freeholder, Assad Akhter, plans on doing just that. Recently elected to the Board of Freeholders in Passaic County, NJ, Akhter is the first Muslim American to join the Freeholder Board in NJ which is the equivalent to County Commissioners. EmergeUSA’s Communications Coordinator Baura Zia spoke with Akhter to discuss his plans as the first Muslim American to hold the position.
Assad, please tell us about your background and what led you to becoming the first Muslim American elected as Passaic County Freeholder.
I didn’t grow up in politics. My parents were immigrants from Pakistan who came to the U.S. and settled in New Jersey. I began my education here and always had law school in the back of my mind but while in college, realized what I really wanted to do was to work on Capitol Hill. So I spent two summers during college at an internship and a fellowship in DC. Later on, I decided to relocate to DC after having the opportunity to work for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee from Texas. After my time with Congresswoman Lee, I was offered a position by Representative Bill Pascrell Jr. in Paterson, N.J. and roughly five years ago, he asked me to work with him again to run his office in NJ in preparation for the election.
Just a few days ago, I was sworn in as the first Muslim American elected Freeholder for Passaic County and I couldn’t be more grateful to have been selected. I’ll have to run for the rest of the term in 2017 and if I’m successful, I’ll run again in 2018 to get the full three-year term. It’s a bit of a challenge but I get to start right away as an incumbent which I’m really looking forward to.
What are some key issues and areas you hope to work toward and bring change to?
My main goal is to help improve the quality of life for the regular citizen out there. One way to do this is to help people understand what their government is doing for them. Often times, people have a lot of complaints against their government but the truth is that government is supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people. It’s our collective responsibility to be involved in our government and to know what it does. Many times, people are unaware of things such as where their tax dollars are going, how they can inject themselves into the process, how they can be part of the solution. I’m hoping to be a voice for people but also help them be a voice for themselves.
I want to continue the county-run services that are having positive impact on people. At the end of the day, I believe the county is being very well run by our Board and I want to help ensure that excellence continues, whether it’s in our roads, our parks, our schools, and so on. I want to help maintain the affordability of our community colleges and provide quality education that can help lead people to other opportunities.
Something that’s very important to me, is the ability to reintegrate citizens back into society after spending time in prison. There is an unfortunate number of young people who’ve lost their lives to drugs and other negative influences. They’ve committed crimes at a young age and end up in jail when they can just be recycled through the system. Prisons are a place where these inmates becoming better criminals not better citizens. What I want is a county that works to create reentry programs within our county jails so that inmates can get a second chance once they’re out. It’s hard enough to get a second chance when you come from a disadvantaged background but it becomes increasingly harder when you’re coming out of jail and are dealing with an addiction. Also, businesses don’t want to hire ex-felons. We have a collective responsibility to make sure those who have served their debt to society have the opportunity to become successful participating citizens. It also makes fiscal sense because it’s better for us if those people earn a paycheck rather than continuing any sort of illegal activity that may put them back in jail. These are all things that I hope to continue to work on.
Relating to Muslim Americans, what issues are most important to you and how do you plan on bringing change to those areas in Passaic county?
As a Freeholder, you’re determining where your county’s tax dollars go. I think it’s important that we never forget the many issues we’re involved in that are directly impacted by those tax dollars. I am a strong believer in education as a way to economic stability and a strong community that cares about each other. Having affordable options for community colleges, for example, is very important to me since that’s the only option some people have left for higher education.
There is a health care center here in Passaic County that really helps with assisting seniors. This is especially important for the Muslim American community here in Passaic County which can utilize those services as well as help support that center. I think it’s important that we recognize the good work done at the local, county, and state level for services that we all rely upon. It’s especially important to understand that we have a part to play and to strive to do more.
As being the first Muslim elected as Freeholder, I’m incredibly grateful for the history that was made. I’m out to represent everybody in the county. Patterson, NJ, which is the capital of our county, is the third largest city in NJ and has one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in the nation. It’s often considered to have the second largest Muslim population outside of Dearborn, MI. It’s an incredibly diverse area and I’m going to try my best to represent all the people of our community to ensure everyone has equal opportunities and provide ways for them to be more involve. There is under representation from some segments like the South Asian and Arab communities and if I can help them have their voices heard it is better for all. I also want to be a voice to help people understand the issues that are affecting the Muslim American community and any concerns that they have, including protecting schools and institutions, standing against hate crimes, and offering a platform for better understanding.
We’re very blessed to have a county that already understood a lot about the Muslim community and its concerns. We have Ramadan celebrations every year, we have sheriffs who attend the masjids and so on. Thankfully we have a governance that works for all communities and we don’t have to educate them in that way, but I still hope to be a voice in those areas that the county that may not be familiar with Muslim Americans and perhaps I can help be an ambassador at that level as well.
What can you say to the importance of staying politically involved and civically engaged?
Staying politically and civically engaged is extremely important to me. I didn’t come from a political family and my parents had to adjust when they first came to the U.S. I still remember the first time my mom went to a PTA meeting, she didn’t feel welcomed and never went again. For a lot of us who are the children of immigrants, our parents weren’t involved in government or public policy and a lot of the decisions that were made in the community were done so without our parents’ involvement. It’s very important for me to be a bridge to anyone who wants to be involved in the community - regardless if they want to make a career out of it or not.
I often say, “It’s not the best or brightest who often run for office, it’s the ones who show up and decide they want to play a role.” Anybody is capable of running for office and the important thing is knowing those opportunities are out there. They need someone to help guide them through the process. I was fortunate to have people in my life who helped answer my questions, whether it was getting a job on Capitol Hill or how to run for elected office. I’m always trying to be an ear for someone and give them guidance on how they can achieve these things.
What are some of your longer-term plans after serving as Freeholder in Passaic County?
Honestly I have no plans right now except to be the best public servant I can be. I am humbled and honored by this opportunity. I have sought to serve the public in my role with Congressman Pascrell and I am looking forward to the chance to take those lessons learned and help the people of Passaic County. I have an election next year to finish this term of office and hope my work by then shows the public how serious I am about this role. The most important thing to me right now is to be the best Freeholder possible and I look forward to listening to people and learning more about how to be of service.
Is there anything else you’d like to share that we should know about you?
Yes, actually. During my time on Capitol Hill, I was one of the founders and former President of the Congressional Muslim Staff Association. It was a group we created for Muslim staffers who work on Capitol Hill. Initially we only had a handful of members and now we’ve grown to over sixty staffers, all with different roles and responsibilities, and we’re actively trying to increase those ranks. That group really gave me the opportunity to do work on a lot of different issues and to interact with a lot of young people who wanted to be in this kind of position. And I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to work in public service and now have a new opportunity to serve.