Lieutenant governor candidate Dr. Nina Ahmad has only held one political office so far, and she’s never before run statewide.
But to anyone who questions whether the first-generation Bangladeshi-American from Mt. Airy has broad enough appeal to be voted in as Pennsylvania’s second in command, she points out her early success.
With only eight days to do it — compared to weeks for the other candidates — her team managed to collect enough signatures to enter the race. Furthermore, a good number of the signatures came from outside Philadelphia.
“I had the relationships to mobilize to get 4,289 signatures from 11 counties,” Ahmad said, suggesting that the robust response “reinforced to everybody that I have the ability to do this statewide.”
Why was Ahmad late to the lieutenant governor party in the first place? Because she hadn’t originally intended to run for that office.
A quick switch
Back in December, she stepped down from her position as Philly’s deputy mayor for public engagement to throw her hat in the ring to replace Bob Brady as rep for Pa.’s First Congressional District. Then the state Supreme Court declared the district map unconstitutional, and threw a wrench into Ahmad’s plans.
It was during the weeks-long legal challenges over redrawing the map, Ahmad said, that a member of her campaign team suggested she go for lieutenant governor instead.
“I had conversations with my team, with my advisers, with funders and donors,” she recalled, “and they were very excited with the energy I had generated in my congressional race.”
After floating the idea past Mayor Kenney, Gov. Tom Wolf and folks at EMILY’s List, a political action organization dedicated to getting pro-choice Democratic women elected, Ahmad officially announced her candidacy on Feb. 26.
Ahmad had eight days to collect at least 1,000 signatures including 100 from at least five counties to file her nomination petition by the March 6 deadline. The other candidates for lieutenant governor had been allowed to start collecting signatures since Feb. 13.
Crafting a message, and getting it out
Once her petition was filed, Ahmad, a scientist who has lived in Pa. for about 30 years, realized she had to connect with voters beyond her core constituency in Philadelphia.
“I want to get into their home to be able to tell them who I am,” Ahmad said. To do that, one thing she needs is money. Her team has been working on raising enough for airtime on TV, radio and other platforms that will reach all Pennsylvania voters.
The message she’ll present in those ads will be similar to the one she’d honed when she thought she was running for Congress. “I had started running … to really bring a progressive voice and integrity to public service,” she explained. “ Even though my district disappeared my platform stayed the same.”
Some of the issues highlighted in Ahmad’s platform are expanding access to health care, equal access to quality education, equal pay for equal work, raising the minimum wage to $15 and mass incarceration.
Ahmad also stressed her intention to focus on science and technology education to create more jobs and bring parts of the state including central Pennsylvania into a cleaner, energy-based economy.
“Pennsylvania allows me a platform to do some of the things that I really care about,” Ahmad said.
What difference can a lieutenant governor make?
Ahmad sees a lot of opportunity in chairing the Board of Pardons, which oversees clemency applications for individuals requesting a pardon or commutation of sentence. The board reviews cases at a hearing, and then votes on which ones go to the governor for recommendation. If elected, Ahmad said she wants to look into how those recommendations are being made.
In her belief, holding prisoners in their old age who have “redeemed themselves for whatever ill they did to society” isn’t economically feasible.
“We have to really take a good hard look at who’s there,” she said, “Why they’re there and who is someone that we could move into society.”
Ahmad also plans to use her position to advocate for state legislature bills about sexual harassment and abuse, like the #METOO Act Pa. Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky introduced. She also hopes to tap back into the welcoming spirit she felt when coming to the United States, but sees dwindling under President Trump.
“African-American men are really at risk,” she said, “and we as a country have to face that. I desperately want as a state to face that, talk about it, have honest conversations around it.”
Bridging the divide
“We can be a much more cohesive state with a cohesive economy, where we’re all going towards the future,” Ahmad said.
Pennsylvania voters are all over the political spectrum, but Ahmad thinks she can unite them. Most of western and eastern Pa. leans Democrat, while the majority of central Pa. leans Republican, according to voter registration data from the Department of State.
“We have a urban, rural divide in the state of Pennsylvania,” Ahmad said. “I really want to be someone who helps build that bridge between these communities.”
She is no stranger to coalition work. Before getting into politics, Ahmad was president of the National Organization for Women, a feminist grassroots activists organization. As deputy mayor for public engagement, she oversaw several offices and commissions, such as the Office of Black Male Engagement and the Commission for Women, that required her to bring different coalitions with differing goals to the table.
“Do we have problems? Yes,” she said. “But do we have solutions? Yes. We just have to work together to find broader solutions that people can all work together on.”
To enact her strong vision for her role as lieutenant governor, Ahmad first has to win the primary election on May 15, where she faces not only incumbent Stack but also five other Democrat candidates. Then comes general election on Nov. 6.
Right now, Ahmad is “cautiously optimistic” that her campaign is doing well.
“The biggest thing that people have understood,” she said, “is that I am a fighter, and I will fight for them.”