If 29-year-old community organizer Liliana Bakhtiari wins Atlanta’s District 5 city council seat, she will become the first queer Muslim woman elected to office in United States history.
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In the United States Congress—the supreme legislative body in the most visible representative democracy in the world, ostensibly reflecting the grand makeup of an increasingly diverse country—there are only seven openly LGBTQ persons serving out of a total of 535 House and Senate seats. There have been just two Muslim members of Congress in U.S. history, both of whom currently serve. Americans of color hold just 19 percent of Congressional seats. And in a nation whose majority is composed of women and girls, just 19.6 percent of congressional seats are held by women, the highest-ever percentage of representation.
These individual strands and intersections (or lack thereof) are remarkable on their own merit, but they are all the more vibrant in scope when one considers the quiet revolution taking place in Atlanta.
There, community organizer Liliana Bakhtiari, 29, is running for the District 5 seat on the Atlanta City Council and making a bid to become the first queer Muslim woman elected to office in United States history. Experiencing life as an American citizen on a quad-axis of oppression would make one think the energetic young leader would be campaigning significantly from a place of identity, but in my hourlong conversation with her over the phone, Bakhtiari continually pivoted to the problems facing her community.
“Identity politics are important. I am proud of my identity. It’s important that I embrace my identity and take that to office, but I am running because our city needs affordable housing. I am running to champion a better minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, better schools, and a better infrastructure for all Atlantans.”
Bakhtiari was quick to acknowledge the role that Donald Trump’s election played in her decision to run, a process that transitioned from keeping electoral engagement at an arm’s length in favor of grassroots organizing to determining that change could more rapidly be made by taking a seat at the table.
“I didn’t want to become the very thing that I had been protesting against for several years,” said Bakhtiari, referring to how power can corrupt even the most idealistic leaders. “I had always shied away from politics because I believed there was no way to effect change without losing yourself along the way.”
When I asked her what her “click moment” was, she replied without hesitation. “Once Trump started running, everything began to change. The moment of truth for me was the travel ban,” referring to the Trump administration’s highly controversial—and likely unconstitutional—ban on persons traveling to the United States from certain Muslim-majority countries.
It hit home for Bakhtiari, the daughter of Iranian immigrants that came to the United States in the early ’80s and dove right into their community, her mother working as a dental hygienist and putting her father through medical school, who built a thriving pharmacy on Atlanta’s historic Edgewood Avenue.
How do they feel about her campaign? “My parents were pretty much supportive of anything I wanted to do.”
She graduated from Georgia State University, her father’s alma mater, just down the road from the family pharmacy, and spent much of her 20s doing advocacy work in a few dozen countries, only to return home and advocate for change in the place she grew up, a community she describes as full of energy but short on visionary leadership.
“There’s so much energy in District 5, people who want to fight for progressive community values. It’s open-minded and loving.”
But, she says, the current Councilperson for District 5, Natalyn Archibong, has not been “a very vocal advocate.” Winning reelection to a fourth term in 2013 with just over 62 percent of the vote, Archibong presents an enormous challenge on incumbency, alone, but Bakhtiari brushed this aside as smoke and mirrors.
“She’s never had strong opposition to her. In my opinion, she’s not a person who spearheads the community with a vision.”
And more than that, says Bakhtiari, is the lack of access residents feel they have to their elected leaders, an issue that has driven her campaign strategy. Beginning in April, she and her girlfriend Kris have been canvassing non-stop—with Bakhtiari putting those honed community organizer skills to good use—and personally knocking on over 6,000 doors.
To put that in perspective, 4,164 total votes for all candidates, including Archibong, were cast in the 2013 election for the District 5 City Council seat, with just under 23,000 registered voters. Between Bakhtiari, Kris, and the 30-plus active volunteers on the campaign (“folks who consistently show up,” she says), it is likely that every registered voter in the district will have personally been chatted up by her or someone from her team, perhaps twice. This has not gone unnoticed by Archibong, who has reportedly been asked by residents about Bakhtiari’s impressive ground game in town halls.
The campaign, undoubtedly dismissed by some as a peculiar novelty at first, quickly proved itself to be a robust organization. Bakhtiari has raised over $100,000 in campaign contributions from over 1,400 donors, despite she and Kris living on a shoestring personal budget. In addition to the core team of 30 volunteers, nearly 200 residents have signed up to occasionally walk neighborhoods or work the phones in her favor. Her message of full access and improved services, the kind of nuts-and-bolts policies made famous by former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s saying that “all politics is local,” has appeared to resonate with the residents of District 5.
She’s also drawn endorsements from local leaders and organizations, including State Rep. Park Cannon, State Rep. David Dreyer, Staci Fox, PACE, RWDSU, Working Families, AFSCME, Atlanta Professional Fire Fighters, and Our Revolution–Dekalb. Add this to her national endorsements (via state chapters) from Georgia Equality, Run For Something, Victory Fund, and Georgia Stonewall Democrats.
But this is all icing on what is clearly a more personal motivation. We had been talking for nearly an hour—the bulk of that time spent discussing local issues—when she paused and cut straight to the heart of what her campaign seems to embody: “I want to bring humanity back into politics. We can never let the fear of believing in something hinder us from progressing.”
In a political environment revolving around fear and loathing, Bakhtiari’s insistence on hard work and empathy may be the quiet revolution we all need.
This profile is part of She Is Running—our ongoing series profiling some of the many women who have decided to run for office in the wake of the 2016 election. Read the intro to the series here, and stay tuned for more. In the months ahead, we’ll meet women running for office across the nation. We’ll focus on the stories of compelling candidates running for state representative, governor, and U.S. Congress—and of course, we’re open to suggestions. If you want to refer a candidate or make the case for interviewing a prominent mayoral candidate, get in touch at [email protected].
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