Trailblazing scholar heads to the N.J. Assembly with eye on public access

Jan 3, 2022

Sadaf Jaffer will be one of the first Muslims to serve in the Legislature

Sadaf Jaffer is used to being first.

She was the first South Asian woman to serve as a mayor in New Jersey, and the first Muslim woman to serve as a mayor in the United States. When she gets sworn in next week as one of the newest members of the New Jersey Assembly, she and fellow newcomer Shama Haider will be the first Muslims to serve in the Legislature.

But it was during a casual conversation with her daughter, now 7, when it sank in what her trailblazing means.

“We were talking about a man who was running for mayor somewhere, and she was like, ‘A boy mayor? That’s silly!’ and then she started laughing so hard. And I said, ‘This is it! This is why it’s important!’ Because for her, the most normal thing in the world is that her mommy is a mayor, and that means women must be mayors,” Jaffer said. “And that’s the future that we want to build – where anything is possible for anyone.”

If Jaffer seems upbeat and unjaded for a politician, it’s intentional. It’s also surprising, given she’s a Muslim woman of color in an era when political speech often starts at disrespectful and plummets to dangerous.

But that’s just how Jaffer is.

“I’m very a results-oriented person. I don’t like to complain. If I see a problem, I like to be involved in making it better,” she said.

An academic in the Assembly

A Harvard-educated scholar of South Asian studies, Jaffer teaches at Princeton University. The Chicago native will be one of just a few academics in the Statehouse, including Princeton University physicist Andrew Zwicker, whose Assembly seat she’ll fill after he moves to the Senate.

At 38, she’ll also be one of the youngest legislators in a state where close to three quarters of state lawmakers are 50 or older.

In Trenton, the Democrat will represent the 16th District, a collection of towns in Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset counties. She hopes to focus on a few priorities:

  • Inclusive public health
  • Equitable education, with a goal of expanding funding to public and higher education, especially for traditionally underserved students
  • Green economic recovery, including green jobs and investments in clean energy infrastructure and open space

Selaedin Maksut is excited to see what Jaffer and Haider will do in the Assembly. As executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations of New Jersey, Maksut knows that representation matters, especially as the Muslim population grows. New Jersey has more Muslims per capita than any other state, accounting for 3% of the state’s nearly 9.3 million residents, Maksut noted.

“It’s important for everyone to see people who look like them in political office. When you have that, it’s encouraging and inspiring,” Maksut said.

Muslims, in particular, “bring experiences and ideas that are unique to them,” Maksut said. “Many are children of immigrants. They may know what it’s like to face state-sponsored oppression. They understand firsthand the difficulties marginalized groups experience. In public office, they can take that and translate it into policies that can help and uplift marginalized people.”

Jaffer has a few ideas brewing for specific bills, including investing more in mental health services in schools and ensuring school curriculum includes the contributions and history of indigenous people and Muslim Americans. She testified this month before a state Senate committee in support of another bill that would require schools to teach Asian American history.

Jaffer comes to the Legislature from Montgomery, the township in Somerset County where she served two terms as mayor before deciding to run for statewide office.

As an assemblywoman, she aims to continue a mission she started as Montgomery mayor: making government more participatory, especially among younger generations.

“People who are involved in government and politics are living in a very specific world where everyone’s informed and they know what to do, and they know how to be engaged, and they know what the issues are. But the vast majority of the public doesn’t,” Jaffer said. “A general goal of mine is just to make government more user-friendly and accessible to everyone.”

In Montgomery she held town halls, created educational videos, formed a budget and finance advisory committee, and established a youth leadership council. She also launched Montgomery Mosaic, a social justice discussion and action group, to fight bigotry and hate after someone left pork on the car of a local Muslim family.

Speaking of Islamophobia …

Jaffer entered politics when Donald Trump was president, a time when it wasn’t unusual to see the nation’s commander in chief stoking Islamophobia on social media.

“Honestly, I was scared, because I had seen the reaction that Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar had gotten at the national level,” she said. “It’s intimidating to think about all that negative attention being focused on you.”

In New Jersey, another legislative newcomer has drawn most of the attention since the Nov. 2 election — and for quite opposite reasons.

Edward Durr made plenty of headlines when he defeated Senate President Steve Sweeney in a stunning upset in South Jersey’s 3rd Legislative District, but it was the Republican’s tweets denouncing Islam as a “false religion” and “cult of hate” that made the story go national.

“I think that it’s very telling that at the same time Shama Haider and I are being elected that he’s also being elected,” Jaffer said. “It’s a sad reality that Islamophobia is pervasive in our society and our state.”

Maksut agreed Islamophobia remains deeply rooted, two decades after 9/11.

“Just because Trump is not in office anymore, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia didn’t just go away,” Maksut said.

Durr publicly apologized for his anti-Muslim tweets and met with Islamic leaders a week after the election. But even if that hadn’t happened, Jaffer said, she would greet him as she would any other legislator. Human connection is the key to compassion and tolerance, she said.

“Person-to-person interactions are so important. We want to be the best of ourselves and hope it brings out the best in others,” she said. “It shows how important it is to continue to speak out against hate speech and educate the public and build bridges between communities, because ultimately, hatred stems from ignorance.”

It’s a lesson she underscores often in the classroom with her students.

“The American dream is an aspiration and something we’re always working towards,” Jaffer said. “There have been terrible things in our history and our present, and we just have to keep trying to build those bridges of understanding and create a more positive future for ourselves and future generations.”

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