Community, Politics, Road to the White House

Faiz Shakir: Finally, a South Asian American at the helm of a presidential campaign

Faiz Shakir
Faiz Shakir; photo credit: ACLU

Faiz Shakir, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager, is a trailblazer in American politics.

On Tuesday, as Sen. Bernie Sanders made announcement that he was launching another presidential run, there was both anticipation and buzz amongst Americans. The Vermont senator, who would be making his second consecutive bid for the Democratic nomination, sprang a surprise by naming Faiz Shakir, a well-respected name within the progressive circle as his campaign manager.

Sanders, whose 2016 run created a lot of excitement, made history by handing over the reins of the campaign to Shakir, who brings to the table not just his impressive professional expertise but also the much talked about diversity to US politics. The Florida-bred political activist becomes the first South Asian American and Muslim American to run a major presidential campaign.

The ascendance of Shakir, who’s been dubbed a “rockstar activist,” is seen by political watchers as a heavy endorsement of his abilities and the growing significance of South Asian Americans in today’s American politics.

Prior to the new role, Shakir — the son of Pakistani immigrants — served as a national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which he joined in 2017. Before that, he was a senior adviser to then-Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV). He has also worked with the current Speaker Nancy Pelosi as senior adviser and director of digital media, when she was the House Democratic Leader. His other jobs include editing the website ThinkProgress, which is associated with the Center for American Progress but operated independently on the editorial front.

A graduate of Harvard University and Georgetown University Law Center, the Democrat has also led a major campaign to take on Islamophobia in a report titled FearInc. In the past, he has also helped wage fights for the LGBT and Muslim American communities.

Shakir’s new role is being hailed by many South Asian Americans as a very promising move in American politics. Harin Contractor, Director of Economic Policy at the think tank, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, calls the South Asian American’s ascendance as a milestone for the community.

Contractor is a longtime executive board member of the Washington Leadership Program, which runs an internship program for young South Asian American leaders in the nation’s capital. Shakir has served as a mentor to the interns in the past.

“Our community is getting increasingly involved in politics but we are significantly lacking in the campaign arena,” Contractor told the American Bazaar. “Running a major presidential campaign is a huge accomplishment. The culmination of this moment comes from those who worked hard to pave the way in this industry to see this happen, whether its Raghu Devaguptapu, Mini Timmaraju, Shripal Shah, Bharat Krishnan, Nisha Jain, or Anil Mammen.”

Many young South Asian Americans in politics see Shakir’s appointment as a reaffirmation of the diversity dialogue in American politics. The new mayor of Montgomery, New Jersey, Sadaf Jaffer said, “I am pleased to see more diverse representation at all levels of government and political engagement. This is an example of how there are great opportunities for competent and hardworking people to make a difference.”

Asked about the impact the Pakistani American’s selection will have on young South Asian Americans, Jaffer —  who is the first-ever South Asian woman and the first Muslim to serve as a mayor in New Jersey — said the young generation is now ready to assert itself more directly. “A younger South Asian generation that has made its mark in law, advocacy and other professional fields is now asserting itself more directly in politics,” he said.

Contractor also stressed on the diversity factor. “Having diverse voices matter,” he said. “Having our scholars in the halls of Congress or agencies helps change the conversation to reflect the values and needs of the community. While Faiz has always fought for working people, he knows that his appointment is a symbol for the community.”

He said that the response from the community to the news has been great. “Already I have received dozens of calls and emails from our network asking to work for the campaign because of Faiz,” he said. “These students see themselves in him and identify with that.”

Contractor said Shakir has been very supportive of the Washington Leadership Program, which has the mission of building the next generation of South Asian American leaders. “Personally, Faiz, despite all his previous achievements, always took time to mentor and provide guidance to our scholars,” he said. “That’s not exactly common for people in his position, but it demonstrates his character to helping others including other South Asians trying to break into politics and policy.”

The Twitter world, too, broke into endorsements as the news of Shakir’s appointment came about. Chicago-based writer and historian Kamil Ahsan tweeted: “Faiz Shakir is an incredible choice for a campaign manager and regardless of how you may feel about Bernie, the first Muslim campaign manager for the first Jewish presidential candidate is a huge rebuke to the nonsensical discourse we were witnessing around Ilhan Omar & AIPAC!”

American political operative and lawyer, Ronald Klain, who served as Chief of Staff to former Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, tweeted: “I’m not a huge Sanders fan, but I am a big fan of Faiz Shakir. Great hire by Team Sanders.”

Brooklyn-based civil rights activist Linda Sarsour tweeted: “Bernie Sanders hired campaign manager – civil rights activist and FIRST EVER Muslim American to run a presidential campaign – none other than Faiz Shakir. I am crying. #FeelTheBern

Shakir, a favorite amongst liberals, has excited not just the progressives but also an increasingly politically charged South Asian American community. Many identify with his fiery style and are confident that he would bring new energy to the already crowded 2020 race.

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