Progressive for Palestine

Ahmad Saadaldin speaks to Palestine in America about his campaign in Tallahassee

Ahmad Saadaldin learned a few lessons while running as an Independent during the Florida House of Representatives District 58’s special election. He was not able to garner enough votes to win the seat, but Saadaldin is very proud of what he was able to accomplish.

Palestine in America spoke with Saadaldin—University of South Florida (USF) Divest member and former Students for Justice in Palestine president at USF—to get an exclusive look into the campaign, what he learned and what advice he has for other prospective politicians.

Palestine in America: Why was running this campaign important to you given our political climate?

Ahmad Saadaldin: We were fed up with the two-party system, so we ran as independent. We knew that that was going to be challenging. In the end, our votes amounted to about 8.7% of the [overall] votes and that was a huge victory. We earned every single one of the 1,200 votes whereas the democrats and the republicans were just voting based on what letter was next to the candidate’s name. There was a lot of energy and excitement around our campaign, so in the end we developed the skills to run our own campaign, to raise our own money, commit to the values [that are] in the interest of the people in our community. We earned 1,200 votes, that’s all activated voters, people we connected with directly whether it was through Facebook or at debates, knocking on their doors, phone calls, texting.

PiA: What were some challenges you faced during your campaign?

AS: Lack of access, and lack of money. So, there are a lot of groups that we could’ve met with, we could’ve spread our message to, but they refused to meet with us simply because they were tied to the democratic party. In terms of endorsements, it was very difficult to get people to endorse us just because of who we were. Our Revolution, which is Bernie Sanders’ group, their political committee actually interviewed us for about 2 hours and they endorsed us. But when they put it up for membership vote and they needed about 66 percent  in order to endorse us as an organization, as a local chapter, they only got 60 percent of the vote to endorse us. The campaign manager of the democratic opponent lobbied them because he’s a part of the general body membership as well. He lobbied them to not fully endorse me. So, we lost out on that endorsement.

Like I said we had to raise our own money. And we raised like $15,000 more than the democrat [candidate] but it came too little too late. By the time we actually needed to spend that money like on mail outs and other different things, it was too late for us, we got that money late in the game. Basically, we had to run every single aspect of our campaign and it was a special election so it was called for very quickly, no planning, everything on the go. Money isn’t like the most important thing because of social media, because of volunteers you can really subsidize a campaign. But you still need to run an operation. You still need to compensate people for their time, especially if they’re giving you full time. So, it’s just difficult to raise money as an independent candidate because the whole questions are always, ‘Well are you viable? Why would I give money to you if you can’t win?’ So, everyone that did give us money gave us money because they either believed in us or because they believed in the investment into the future, into a campaign that’s doing more than just winning – it’s sending a message, it’s building a mechanism for future campaigns. So, there were a few challenges but we overcame them.

PiA: Did you face any racism?

AS: We faced tons of racism. But there were probably more people supporting me than people that were racist. There are a lot of conservatives here and there were some republicans called us terrorists. We were texting voters through this mobile app we were using and some of those voters were independents, and about 60 percent of independents voted for Donald Trump in the state of Florida. So, we got quite a few text messages saying, ‘I’ll never vote for Ahmad’ and ‘He deserves to be murdered.’ So, your classic racism and Islamophobia but a lot of people like to immediately point to that during a campaign but that had nothing to do with the reason why we lost. It didn’t really define our campaign. There was a lot more positive energy than there was negative. But, for sure, there was racism and there were people hating on us because [I’m] Muslim.

I use the term “we” because I don’t like to just refer to myself. I definitely did not do this alone, we had over 190 volunteers by the end of the campaign. So, it was a team effort.

But people hating on us is just part of the territory. A lot of people were saying, “oh this is your biggest weakness – being Muslim” and I’d tell them no, actually, this is my biggest strength. I already know what [the voters are] going to say. But, as they say, any publicity is good publicity. Even if they’re just calling us terrorists, they’re still bringing attention towards us and we just pivot and say look, call us what you want but here’s what we’re going to do… whether you think we’re racist or not. We’re going to fight for healthcare, we’re going to fight for education, we’re going to fight for transportation. All the things that directly benefit your life.

PiA: What were some of the most important issues your campaign ran on?

AS: Everyone has a different reason for voting. Probably the one thing that was consistent was just the perception, the negative perception, of democracy in America. [Voters] viewed us just like they viewed Trump, Bernie and Obama—as a candidates for change. They saw us and were like okay, this person is different. This campaign is different. The way they talk, the way they act, the way they brand themselves…there were people commenting on our page saying, “you’re the first person I’ve given $27 to since Bernie Sanders.” People are using that type of rhetoric when they were talking about us. Which is exciting, it’s energizing. And this is on a local level, this is 190 volunteers for a State House race, like that never ever happens. So, it was a great way to activate the community and build alliances and build solidarity.

PiA: Did you see any intersectionality while campaigning as an independent?

AS: We were speaking to the African-American communities, Black Lives Matter, and all the different activist groups in Tampa. There was a lot of opportunity for intersectionality to take place. One of the most prominent and well-known African-American activists from Tampa, her name is Connie Burns, she endorsed us because she knew about our work with divestment from private prisons. We had an intersectional movement that we led, and it was calling for divestment from the occupation of Palestine, private prisons, fossil fuels, and so we had many allies from all those different movements that supported us because they saw the work on the ground. They didn’t even need to hear our platform because the words meant nothing to them, they saw the action. We also got the Democratic Socialists of America to endorse us as well, a local Tampa chapter, which is now officially a part of the national chapter.

PiA: What’s a piece of advice you would give to people who don’t fit the stereotypical politician image but want to get involved in politics?

AS: I think you’re involved in politics whether you know it or not, whether you think you’re active or not, you’re playing some type of role. You’re either being used or you’re being active and defining your own destiny. In America, or wherever you are on the planet, you have to be involved. You can call it political or not, sometimes that word has a negative connotation. Everyone perceives a politician in a negative way but what you have to see yourself as a representative. You represent the community, and so you’re going to run for office not because you’re some career politician and you’re corrupt. No, you’re doing it because you want to represent your community and make it a better place. And we know that activists and organizers are genuine and they’re on the ground and they’re actually doing good work. So, these are the people that should be leading us. The people that are knowledgeable, the people that have taken action, that have committed. And we know actions speak louder than words so any activist should see themselves as more than just a single-issue activist, they should see themselves as a potential representative for their community. So, if you are reading this article and you’re thinking “should I run for office,” my answer to you is absolutely, you should.

PiA: Can we expect to see you running again soon? What would you do the same/differently next time?

AS: I would do many things differently. I recently did an autopsy of my campaign with my campaign manager, we really dissected all the things that we felt like we messed up on so in terms of like which areas, it’d be canvassing, how much money we spent, how that money could’ve been used more efficiently. If we could do it all over again we would do it much more efficiently.

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