An interview with Nada Elmikashfi by David Boffa
The following is a conversation with Nada Elmikashfi, who is running for Wisconsin State Senate in District 26. We spoke via phone and the following is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
What can we do to make housing more affordable in Madison? What can be done at the state level to bring relief to tenants and homeowners?
All of us in working class Madison can tell that people can’t afford to live. In the 26th district the median rent in Madison has increased 23% over the past five-year period while the minimum wage has stayed the same. So we have incredible amounts of people in Dane County that are extremely rent burdened. I think about 25% pay 50% or more of their monthly wages on rent. So they’re literally having to choose between, you know, buying food and keeping a roof over their heads.
And so I think that we need a really strong progressive voice in the capital who’s going to push for increased development of affordable housing units in amenity-rich areas and to also make sure that we are championing tenant rights. So enacting laws that prohibit discrimination based on a prospective renter’s source of income; laws that limit evictions without just cause; laws that prohibit any sort of discrimination, especially discrimination against homeless people in rental housing; and then of course really, really important, laws that guarantee a right to counsel in housing cases so everyone has the ability to represent themselves strongly and to really fight back against these abusive landlords.
You mentioned a right to counsel in housing cases; would you consider expanding this right to other counsel or other categories—e.g., sustenance, safety, health, or child custody, things like that?
One hundred percent. I think that we purposely make government and programming inaccessible to very many. My mom is an immigrant like me and so English isn’t her first language and I’ve seen how applications sometimes when it comes to federal or state programming it’s very difficult to try to navigate through it. And especially through the legal system, too, like when my mom was applying for disability I helped her a lot through it, and so it was incredibly burdensome, some of the bureaucratic tactics that you have to go through or processes. And so I think that a right to counsel in many of these cases is going to really alleviate some of the additional burden that’s on people that are already struggling.
This country is having radical conversations about defunding police on the way to abolition, reparations, and transformative justice. What are some of your more aspirational goals for correcting the harms of systemic racism in one of the most racist states in the country, and what could reparations in Wisconsin look like?
When we look at defunding the police I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a really intelligent and just revealing answer—someone asked her what does an America with defunded police look like and she said go to your nearest white suburban neighborhood. And so it’s an aspiration for America to be truly equitable.
I think a Wisconsin that isn’t the most segregated [state] in the entire nation is one that I would aspire to. And I think that when we look at reparations it also doesn’t just manifest in what people think it is, which is cash payments to black people whose ancestors have been historically disenfranchised. It’s also in our education system—making sure that we have great schools and a lot of diversity and bridging those gaps in opportunity that really affect people of color. It manifests in housing—making sure that we are destroying whatever is left of redlining that decimates the equitability in the housing industry. Making sure that our kids feel safe to express who they are. That is reparations in themselves, and I think that our country is moving towards a place where we can have those conversations—where we can talk about racism and in a way that’s a little bit easier than in 2014, when there was a Black Lives Matter protest here on campus it was accepted far less and was met with a lot more aggression than this time, so I think that we’re moving in a really great direction.
I still would love to see local officials and state officials really put pressure on neighborhood associations to make sure that they aren’t blocking affordable housing developments because of racism. That we’re each untangling those racist and white supremacist ideas and philosophies in our own lives and in our own heads, so that in the next four years and the next ten we can move to a really racially just and equitable country.
We have some progressive candidates and we have to support them, but the Democratic establishment seems so hell-bent on not actually making systemic changes. Do you have thoughts on that?
I think that why I get called radical is because I’m willing to critique the Democratic party and not just the Republican one. I think the Democratic party is immersed in an elitism that inherently leaves out the working class and communities of color in particular. I think that there needs to be a reform of these democratic processes that lack a really working class agenda and I think you see that in who’s represented at the polls. I think the Democratic party has a lot to go in terms of really making sure that we’re rooted in the working class, making sure that we are fighting for progressive policies in our everyday life and not just when it’s fashionable on Twitter.
That for me is where I really see myself being that Democratic Socialist voice in the capital to make sure that moderate Democrats are held accountable to Madison’s working class and Wisconsin’s working class. It’s hard to fight for the working class if you’re not part of it; my rural immigrant background means that I can connect around Wisconsin with marginalized groups, with rural communities, with immigrant communities that have been primarily just left out of the conversation. I think that’s what the Democratic party needs; they have a lot of problems to be fixed and I don’t believe in waiting around until they hand us a little bit of what we deserve.
Can you talk a little bit about the roots of your own interest in Democratic Socialism? Where do you think these ideas for you really took hold?
I remember walking into my first DSA event and I was really, just, apprehensive because I didn’t see a lot of diversity. But in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in Bernie Sanders, I saw this party or this ideology that really was accepting of who I am in every single aspect of it and wasn’t very much tokenizing it. And I think that is kind of an idealistic view of DSA but it is what we aspire to, even if there are a few places where that doesn’t come into fruition.
But for me what I saw in DSA was this valuing of people, where the government works for you, you don’t work for them, And I think in its simplicity, in its fairness and equitability, that’s where I really was drawn in. I saw an incredible self-awareness of where we have been as a country, an incredible hope for the future of what we can get to. And so for me a party or a political ideology that recognizes the work society still has to do, recognizes how we are faulty, inherently, as a system, and one that is so racially just in its platforming, was definitely something that I found a home in that I was never really able to find completely within the Democratic party.
And I think that’s not to say that DSA doesn’t have its own problems, institutionally and systemically, but I see that it has so much hope and so much character that others do not.
Can you speak to some of the problems that you see within the DSA? If you want to offer some ideas you’re welcome to.
In the beginning it was really hard for me to find my place because there is very little diversity and so I think that it goes to show that we maybe need to start doing recruitment more. So maybe really feeling engaged with our community here in Madison, because this is the message that sells, this is a message that carries the entirety of Madison’s working class. And so we should be much bigger and much more representative.
So that was a problem that I think is also perpetuated by a gatekeeping that I have kind of experienced within membership, within people that want you to prove your ideals, prove that you’re not a neo-liberal. And it’s like well as a Black woman I’ve lived these issues too—like, this affects me every day. And so for me I think that we have to stay cognizant that not every person who joins DSA even knows who Marx is or Lenin. So I think that that is maybe a not so prevalent gatekeeping tactic but I’ve seen it and I know that it’s turned some people away and so the more that we can work on ourselves to make sure that we are accessible for everyone I think the stronger that we’re going to be as a collective.
You’ve spoken out in defense of protesters even when the protest has taken some deeply unpopular forms. As a result you receive death threats and harassment from people on the right and even people who are supposedly liberals and progressives. Where do you find the strength to keep going in the face of these threats and harassment?
I always pride myself in being a strong person, but when you’re getting hundreds and thousands of hate comments and death threats it gets to you and it scares you and terrifies you. And it dismays you more than anything that this is the state of our country and that no matter what values I bring to the table, no matter how articulate I am, or the policy that I work so hard to draft with constituents, some people are just going to see me as a Black Muslim woman and an immigrant who has no place here. And so the best way I deal with that is just looking at the larger picture, that there is definitely more goodness than there is evil in the world, and that my candidacy alone is historic, my voice isn’t supposed to be here, and that the best thing I can do is fight a little bit harder so that someone, when another DSA-er from a marginalized community decides to run they deal with a little bit less than what I did. So I draw strength and that hope that I have America can be better and nicer to people that are different, people that don’t fit the mold of an old rich white man.
I also have to get off social media for a little bit, even though it’s really hard to do so. But I remember when I got that horrible voicemail I posted on Twitter about 15 minutes later an older white man sent me the most lovely message that was like, “you’re the best of America and we are proud to have you among us.” Every piece of hate that you see floating around there’s equal if not more love floating, as well. Maybe that’s naive but it’s definitely made this a little bit easier to bear.
Do you want to talk about Joe Biden at all?
I do. I think it’s crazy to me that we have come to a place where we have two choices presented in front of us and both have accusations—credible accusations—of sexual assault. And so for me that is incredibly discouraging of where we are, where the democratic party is. And so it pushes me harder to run for office in order to be a voice for people that don’t feel strong enough to speak out against Biden. So I’m gonna tell everyone to vote but I’m not gonna tell a survivor that they need to cast their vote for someone with credible sexual assault allegations. So it keeps me in a very interesting place, and I think in a place a lot of Americans find themselves. But the only thing we can do is really hope that this is the last time this happens.
What’s been one of the more difficult or challenging aspects of deciding to run?
There was a gatekeeping that I experienced in the capital that gave me impostor syndrome for like two minutes. It’s hard, when you see a capital that does not look like you at all, to think “oh I can get here and make a change” or that my voice will be heard. And so really humbling myself, getting to know Madison, made me certain that those gatekeeping tactics, that imposter syndrome, was not something I could worry about. That there were bigger things that we had to solve that went beyond just me and the individual and whoever else runs in these races. It’s about progression as a whole, and how we each are responsible towards contributing to it.
Are there moments that really made you glad to have run or that inspired you during the run?
I think standing with my fellow Madisonians during the protests. When I get messages from public officials that are like, “hey this is for me politically inexpedient to talk about but it’s something important that you should fight for, can you please elevate this;” when I get messages from community members that are like, “I need your advice on this;” all the things that show me that people trust me with their values and their issues really give me that hope that I can be a a megaphone for their concerns in the capital. So I use those little examples to keep me going.
Madison has recently voted to terminate its contract with police in schools. Are you hopeful or are you worried it might be an empty gesture?
I’m really hopeful that this bodes well for the future; that we continue to prioritize the safety of all students. And so I think that it’s turned the lens on diversity within the school system, it’s turned the lens on opportunity within our education system, as well, and so I think it’s a really great step in the right direction. And now we have to couple it with making sure that we bridge those educational achievement gaps between students of color and white students. So it’s a great first step.
A lot of this was done because of the work of protesters, people like yourself, groups like Freedom Inc. Are you hopeful that there will be more changes made in response?
I think the protests in a way have turned attention to people in local offices and our elected officials and what we can be asking of them. So I think it’s opened the floodgates and that people are now really involved in the political process—they’re listening to city council meetings, they’re really engaged with public officials, and in exactly what they should be fighting for. And I think the fact that people are realizing that these public officials need to do better, that we can hold them to a standard of service that we haven’t gotten, is the really great part of all these protests. Because now we have that power to demand change, and they can’t mute the TV, they can’t unfollow us on Twitter, when we’re right outside City Hall screaming it out.
What can people do to support your campaign?
We have a lot of volunteer options coming up. You know people power is what gets us to the capital. I’m not a wealthy real estate entrepreneur—just a working class Madisonian really trying to make sure the capital is ours. Whoever can lend their voice to phone bank, whoever can donate, can join us to strategize—those are all really great things. Please visit www.nadaforwisconsin.com to find our volunteer portal and sign up.
What do you think is important for people to do outside of your campaign in terms of supporting some of the progressive policies that you yourself support?
I think people need to run for office. I want to see more DSA-ers doing what I’m doing, because their voices are just as integral as mine, as anyone, in the capital. And the more that we have those socialist ideals saturating the political field the more we can get in places where we can really represent the working class and fight for them. So run for office.