“As-salamu alaykum,” Zohran Mamdani, 28, a socialist candidate for New York State Assembly, says at almost every door. It’s an Arabic salutation meaning “Peace be upon you.” It strikes me as an extremely reassuring way to begin a conversation with a stranger, especially when you’ve just interrupted them at home. Even when people don’t want to talk with us about politics, they tend to respond pleasantly.
That particular February night, we were seeking out Muslims who were registered voters but had not registered as Democrats, as it was the last week for such voters to change their registration and be eligible to vote in New York’s Democratic primaries, whether for Bernie Sanders in April or for Mamdani in June.
While arguing to all the district’s voters that they need a zealous affordable housing advocate to represent them in the state assembly, Mamdani, who has been endorsed by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA), has also been making the case to Astoria’s Muslim and South Asian communities that they are underrepresented. It’s not a hard case to make: while close to a million Muslims live in New York City, there are hardly any in elected office. Mamdani would be the second Muslim elected to the state assembly. And New York has never had a South Asian elected official; Mamdani, if elected, will be the first.
Later over Chinese food, Mamdani explains that this pitch for representation is not at odds with a broader working-class movement but rather a congruent and necessary part: many of these under-represented Muslims are also working-class people with whom DSA’s economic message resonates deeply.
At our first door, a man listens attentively as Mamdani talks about his day job with Chhaya, a group that advocates for housing for South Asian communities, where he works as a counselor helping people get out of foreclosure. He tells the man about all the ways the finance industry works against middle- and working-class homeowners, and how easy it is for people to get into foreclosure through no fault of their own. The man says suddenly, “I was one of those people.”
He tells his story. Mamdani then explains his platform, how he plans to cut back on the power of the banks and the real estate industry and make it easier for everyone to stay in their homes, renters and owners. The man’s own foreclosure crisis was resolved long ago, but Mamdani has his vote.
He’s not the only voter on our list who lives at this address. After we wait for a long time, a sleepy, disheveled woman comes to the door. As her boyfriend hovers protectively, she listens to Mamdani talk about affordable housing for all. She agrees to change her registration. He fills out the form for her, then asks if he has her vote. Her affect is so low, it’s impossible to anticipate her answer. “Well, if you’re going to be out here walking around!” She gestures out at the rainy night and shrugs.
We walk back into the light, chilly rain, exuberant. Two new registrations on our first door, both “ones” — canvassing jargon for people who have committed to vote your way.
Arriving at a Republican household, we find it guarded by an implacable girl of about ten. As Mamdani explains the deadline to change your voter registration, and the reasons for it, she gives him a compliantly patient but bored look. (We later agree this must infuriate her teachers.) We can’t persuade her to rouse anyone of voting age.
A landlord — friendly, shirtless — opens the door and Mamdani begins talking about foreclosures. “It’s their fault,” the man interrupts, referring to the people losing their homes. He thinks there is too much regulation oppressing landlords as it is: “If a kid wants to eat lead paint it’s his problem.”
We leave the building laughing. Nothing would have convinced that guy.
We find a couple at home, a woman and a man, both Working Families Party voters, supporters of Bernie Sanders. They are thrilled that we can change their registrations for them on the spot.
“Oh wow, you can do that for us right now?” she says. “That would be very convenient.”
“I’m more progressive than he is,” the woman says of her boyfriend.
The boyfriend shrugs, “I don’t know what that means.”
After canvassing, Mamdani and I eat soup dumplings at Bund on Broadway and talk about how this campaign came to be.
Mamdani was born in Kampala, Uganda, to inspiring parents: his father is the anti-colonialist scholar Mahmood Mamdani, and his mother is the filmmaker Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding). But the candidate’s story begins before that.
His great-great-grandmother came to East Africa from Gujarat, India. Four or five of her children had died very young; according to family legend, a village elder told her the only solution was to “cross the ocean.” East Africa had a significant South Asian population; the British brought Indians over as indentured laborers to help build the railroads in the nineteenth century, many of whom stayed and prospered.
The family lived first in Tanzania, then Uganda, for generations. In August 1972, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin announced on the radio that every Ugandan of South Asian origin had to leave the country within ninety days. Instantly the family was rendered stateless. They weren’t even allowed to bring more than $50 out of the country. They lost everything.
Mamdani’s father’s family lived in refugee camps in Britain, facing attacks from skinheads and exclusion from British society. Zohran recalls a story his father recently told him about their time in Britain. “After they left the camp,” he says, “they moved into a more permanent residence. They would still, every Sunday go to Gatwick [airport in London] and watch the plane take off to Entebbe, Uganda’s international terminal, and would just sit and let their hearts kind of soar with the plane as it climbed in the sky and just crash as the plane disappeared. Every week they would go and they would watch.”
Eventually Idi Amin was overthrown, and the family returned to Kampala. Yet, Mamdani says, “they were never able to reclaim who they were before expulsion.” His grandfather had been a poet and auctioneer, a much-loved community leader. After the expulsion, his grandson says, “he never worked a day in his life. The only way I knew him was apparently as a shadow of himself.” Zohran Mamdani, who lived in Kampala until he was seven, when his family came to the United States, says his uncle and grandparents would always ask, “Where are we going to settle?” He reflects, “Even though they were back in Uganda, there was a sense that this place could never be permanent, could never be home.”
Mamdani identifies with his Chhaya clients who face losing their homes through foreclosure, as well as the tenants all over New York State facing eviction. What the Ugandan state did to his family “on the basis of racism,” Mamdani observes, is the same as what the state does to working-class Americans at the “behest of capital. You know? It may be motivated by a different reason, but the end result is they’re taking your home from you, they’re leaving you with nothing.” He draws a powerful connection, too, to sanctuary for immigrants: “How do we let people feel at home?”
Indeed, looking at the candidates New York City–DSA is supporting this year, Mamdani observes, “These are candidates coming from communities who are constantly being told that we’re not at home in this city, this state, in this country.” The organization is using its “organizing power, which we’ve accumulated over years, to make very clear that everyone belongs here.”