Amir Malik, candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives, receives tea at Rafi Sohail's residence in Blaine, MN on November 1, 2020. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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When Amir Malik first ran for the state House of Representatives as a DFL candidate in 2018, he didn’t have any experience campaigning. But he managed to register 1,000 new voters, most of them Muslims, in Blaine through his newfound love for door-knocking. He lost that race by just 150 votes. 

The enthusiasm carried over to his second try this year, but the result was worse. Malik, 42, lost his bid to unseat Republican incumbent Nolan West in District 37B by more than 1,000 votes. West won a third term with about 53 percent of the vote. 

Malik said he detected a feeling among voters that politicians were beholden to special interests and their party leaders. And he argued that Blaine was ready for a different kind of representative —someone who didn’t work in politics, had a progressive agenda, and an understanding of immigrant issues. 

The son of Pakistani immigrant parents with a background in education, law, and civil rights, Malik was definitely different than West, who had a history of posting racist and homophobic comments on social media. But in the end, West received more than 14,000 votes to just short of 13,000 for Malik.

Blaine voters elected West in 2016 despite social media posts that praised the Confederacy and said that Abraham Lincoln was the “worst president.” In 2008, West posted “it’s lynching time,” following Barack Obama’s election. West was forced to resign from his job as a legislative intern. He won two terms anyway, and added a third on Tuesday

Neither candidate was available for comment immediately.

An educator and expert on employment discrimination

Unlike his opponent, Malik did not have a background in politics. “I don’t see it as a career. I see it as a way to lose touch with the people,” Malik said in an interview with Sahan Journal before Election Day. Throughout his career, Malik tended to gravitate toward roles where he could work directly with people.

Starting in 2003, Malik worked for five years as a lawyer on Wall Street, where he defended billion-dollar corporations. But his supporters and neighbors know him best for his background in education, which runs in the family. Malik’s grandfather started the first school in his village in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Malik’s father taught at the school until he came to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. Malik himself has a master’s in education.

While Malik attended the New York University Law School, he taught essay-writing classes and helped public school teachers with their licensing exams. After he left the corporate world, Malik moved to Saudi Arabia with his wife and kids to manage a group of English teachers. In 2016, they left Saudi Arabia and decided to settle in Blaine.

Malik became the civil rights director for CAIR-MN, where he specialized in employment discrimination cases.

“It was an eye opener,” Malik said, “It showed me a lot of problems in the system.”

Malik was disappointed by the lack of protection for employees, and how difficult it was to obtain evidence of workplace discrimination. Malik continued to defend employees as an investigator for the city of Minneapolis’ labor standards enforcement division, where he works now. Malik investigates cases such as employees not getting paid minimum wage. He said he tends to work with a lot of vulnerable lower-wage employees.

Malik described his neighborhood as a suburb with small town features. There’s just one house between Malik’s and a large park with a pond where his kids could go kayaking. Malik has four kids ages 17, 15, 13, and 3. Down the same street on the other side of Malik’s home, there’s another park where he plays baseball. “It gives my children a chance to have the kind of childhood I had,” he said.

Blaine has an estimated population of 67,496, an 18 percent increase since the 2010 census. Malik said he noticed more young families moving to the area. The median age in the city is 38 years old. Malik’s campaign also tapped into the increasingly diverse community in Blaine. The Asian population makes up the second largest group at 7.9 percent; it has also more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.

In 2016, the district voted for President Donald J. Trump by 4 points. But in 2018, the district voted for Governor Tim Walz by 5 points. That same year, West won by less than 1 point. Because West won by such a narrow margin, the DFL looked to flip District 37B.

Jerry Steinworth was a DFL campaign manager 30 years ago. He is retired now, but he has been advising Malik in his last two campaigns and regarded him as an “incredible candidate.”

“You only see someone like this once every 30 years,” Steinworth said. He urged Malik to reach out beyond the Muslim community to other immigrant groups such as the Latino and Hmong communities. 

The issues are not partisan 

Malik said district residents’ frustrations cross party lines—especially when it comes to the reconstruction of an intersection at Highway 65. Malik said the highway has clearly split the city—one side is seeing development, while the other is stuck on the other side of a problematic highway.

Young families contributing to the district’s expansion also made up a large part of Malik’s supporter base. When he knocked on their doors, Malik said they didn’t care that he’s an attorney. They saw him as an educator.

“They’re very education-focused. They want what’s best for their children,” Malik said. “It comes down to the basic things: They want their children to be educated, they want to be able to get from point A to point B, and they want to be able to afford healthcare.”

Malik knows, he says, because those are his friends, and in some cases, they were his campaign volunteers.

Friends became campaign volunteers

Yusuf Abdulahi, a UnitedHealth Group analyst, first met Malik at a parent-teacher conference in 2016. Their sons became friends and so did Abdulahi and Malik. The two families sometimes go ice skating together. This time, he drove people to the polls. 

Lubna Moon met Malik’s wife, Rim, at Pioneers Academy in Brooklyn Park where they were both teachers. Moon and her husband became fast friends with Malik and Rim. So close, in fact, that their families quarantined together during the early months of the pandemic.

“They’re just a beautiful family. They have strong family values like education, honesty, and integrity,” Moon said. Moon started out on a phone bank, but got few responses and said she felt that she could do more. So she decided to knock on doors. Moon and her husband did door-knocking on the weekends for several weeks.

Sumera Islam, a financial analyst at Wells Fargo, is also a close family friend of Malik’s. They met at the mosque in Blaine when Malik had first moved. Islam said that Amir’s campaign got the mosque community excited about politics.

“When Amir decided to run in 2018, it was really encouraging all of the Muslim community, that we will get better representation,” Islam said. “The whole community rallied behind him.”

Islam volunteered to gather and organize data for the campaign. She also has helped out with voter mobilization efforts, which included circulating voting information in different languages. Volunteers also organized voter registration drives, informational seminars, and caucus training at the mosque.

Malik may have lost on Tuesday, but his community is energized.

“A lot of us in the Muslim community have been on the sidelines,” Islam said. “Amir brought us out of our shell. We’re not sitting on the sidelines anymore.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.