The former magazine publisher and daughter of immigrants wants to implement gun control, prison reform, and equal pay in a historically conservative state.
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Anita Malik speaks quickly, with energy and purpose, seamlessly weaving in and out of topics that matter most to her: immigration policy, jobs for her community, her family. Malik, a former publisher and 42-year-old mother of two, is leaning on her journalistic instincts as she attempts to unseat a longstanding Republican incumbent in Arizona’s 6th Congressional district. In 2004, she founded East West Magazine, which was recognized by Folio for its work to amplify America’s multicultural landscape. From her father, an Indian immigrant, Malik learned a life lesson that has become her campaign’s central mission: “Listen first, then lead.”
Malik, who is one of five Democratic candidates running against Republican incumbent David Schweikert, says she was prompted to run for office as America’s promise began to fall out of reach for her and other immigrant families like hers. It is their stories she wants to take with her to Congress.
In advance of the August 28 primary, DAME spoke to Malik about how more women leading in politics could start a national movement towards compassion, why we need to think differently about immigration and incarceration, and how focusing on the economy at every level will lead to a more secure future for everyone.
What inspired you to run for Congress?
I come from a family of immigrants. I felt like in America you can do whatever you set your mind to—that is how we were raised, that’s what my father accomplished. He created a middle-class lifestyle for us and we were comfortable. Over the last 18 months, it dawned on me that the promise of that was starting to disappear. I was experiencing that in my own life and the more I thought about it, the more hopeless I became—I realized that every part of my life was a political issue. Also, as a mom, I grew very afraid for the future of my kids. I thought, I need to take action. I chose to run for Congress specifically because in our district, the incumbent, [Republican Congressman] David Schweikert, has never really been opposed. He’s gone through the last couple of terms without a true candidate that was campaigning [against him]. I thought, if we continue to complain, we have to try. That really motivated me.
You are one of five Democratic candidates who have filed to oppose Congressman Schweikert. What sets you apart?
This district is a business-centric district. I’m a progressive but talk heavily about the economy because that is what is important to me, and I think that is what is at the crux of a lot of our problems. My principle is about building consensus. Not seeking consensus, not saying this is my vision and you all have to fall in line. It’s about really coming together and finding common ground and having the conversation and the stories. That part is important to me, the stories. For example, I had a conversation with a mother who had a child on the autism spectrum. We talked about what is happening with healthcare in our country and what’s going to happen to those kids and people with disabilities in general.
There have been several immigration stories with ICE coming in and not having jurisdiction and not [being] humane, not really following the law, and taking up resources and time, really trying to split up families. Immigration is a complicated issue and we need to look at immigrants who are here and what we can do for them and also ask, how do we change the system of coming in and does it need to be fixed? We can’t continue to act like immigrants aren’t part of the beautiful, diverse fabric of our country, and also a critical part of our economy.
Was there one crystallizing moment or an experience pushed you toward the decision to run?
When you get to mid-career, you start to notice: hey, I’m getting passed up for things, I’m not making as much money. Or hey, I’m in a meeting and no one is listening to me. The more I thought about it, I thought, this is a part of the larger issue happening in this country. It’s not just about women in boardrooms or in politics. The voices of so many people not being heard because of this rhetoric we have and this subtle issue of: there is only one type of person who knows best. And as I was contemplating [running], every time something came out of D.C., it just fueled me more. I started to say, I have to do this. I don’t see any other way for me personally to bring back that hope I had in this country. When people ask, “How are you going to do it?” I say, “I’ve been doing this the whole time. I’ve been struggling to make ends meet, raising my kids, going to work,” and I should be at the point of my life where it’s starting to get easier and I’m feeling more secure. It feels like it’s getting harder.
What do you think are the biggest issues facing women in the U.S. today, and how would you advocate for women as a member of Congress?
The right to choose and making sure we don’t continue to go backwards. We should make the decision for our bodies, not the government. And equal pay. I hate that we are a country where we even have to have this conversation. We shouldn’t have to have policy for this. But we know we have to. The cost of [early education] and accessibility are an issue for most working families. It can cost upwards of 30 percent of their income. I’m terrified of what’s happening right now with the Trump administration trying to cut Head Start. That is where we form the children we see in later generations. When people are talking about gun shootings. How are boys getting this way? If we don’t have the opportunity from the beginning to shape these minds, that’s what scares me. I think we women need to be the ones that push on education at all levels.
What are your three top priorities should you win the seat?
The economy is how I frame my campaign in general. For me, it’s economic inequality. That means it’s more than one issue. It includes the rising cost of healthcare and prescription drugs, it includes the rising cost of education and the burden of college debt. It is about raising the minimum wage. After that, it’s campaign finance and it’s gun safety. Those are the issues that are most important to me. I think the crux of our system and the problems we’re having is that politicians are bought and beholden to corporate interests and until we fix that, that money and that influence is going to continue to cause the problems we see today.
I read that you believe it is possible to have “common sense gun laws” while also protecting the Second Amendment. Could you explain what you mean?
I think there are several things we can do. Banning bumpstocks is a bare minimum, making sure that we have universal background checks so we are closing those loopholes, particularly with third-party sellers at gun shows. Going back to a ban on assault weapons. The Second Amendment is about your right to bear arms. But really, it didn’t call for military-grade weapons on the street. People can have their arms that they want for hunting and self-defense, but at the end of the day, we can be consistent in banning things that civilians do not need. Those are weapons of war and why this country is leading in gun violence. Forty-two percent of the world’s guns are here. We’ve got to look at that.
Arizona is No. 5 in the U.S. in terms of number of people incarcerated per capita. What do you think needs to change in terms of criminal justice and prison reform?
I think there are a lot of things we need to decriminalize, particularly marijuana. I think we need to look at nonviolent offenses in general. What I’m most concerned about is the privatization of prisons. “Let’s make everything for profit” is what we’re struggling with in Arizona right now. That is a huge concern to me because then we are not focused on what we should be which is to take nonviolent, but also sometimes violent offenders, and work on rehabilitation, work on setting them up to be better, and to come out into society and contribute again. We have lost that whole ideal in our country and it’s all about punishment and making money off that punishment. These become throwaway people to our system. It’s such a big problem but I think we start by looking at: what are we sending people away for in the first place and is [the sentence] really appropriate?
In your speeches and videos, you often talk about empathy and compassion. What do we need to move toward being a more empathetic and compassionate nation?
The simple answer, and this isn’t the only thing, is getting more women in leadership. We tend to get wrapped in labels and identity politics. I think changing that is going to take a long time, but the more diverse our leadership is, it will naturally help that—the more women, the more minorities—is going to naturally help us become a more compassionate country because we’ll be represented differently. Our voices will be heard and we’ll realize, we’re not all that different and can come to common ground, to consensus.
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