Nina Ahmad is a 2023 Democratic candidate for Philadelphia City Council at-large. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The reason Nina Ahmad is running for City Council might sound “very hokey,” she admits: to say thank you to the city.

Ahmad was born and raised in Bangladesh before moving to Philly 40 years ago to pursue an advanced degree at Penn.

A scientist by trade who’s been involved in politics, government, and activism for about two decades, Ahmad is looking to bring the sum of her experience to Council — in part to show her appreciation to a place where she felt warmly welcomed and has since raised a family. 

A Mt. Airy resident in her 60s, Ahmad is vying for one of seven at-large seats, two of which are reserved for members of a non-majority party. She’s one of five Democrats nominated to appear on the November ballot, likely alongside several Republicans and two members of the Working Families Party. If elected, she’d become the first South Asian American to ever serve on Philly’s legislative body.

On her campaign site, Ahmad traces most issues back to health, describing her main goal for the office as making Philadelphia “a healthier, stronger city.” Her top three priorities are addressing gun violence as a “public health epidemic,” turning Philly into a “national model for community and mental health,” and “putting the environment front and center,” per the Committee of 70. 

In the 27-person Democratic primary, Ahmad was endorsed by the City Committee, several labor unions, and a few activist organizations. She came in fourth, with 8% of all votes.

Much of her campaign has been self-funded. Ahmad triggered the city’s “millionaire’s amendment” shortly before the May primary by contributing more than $250,000 to her own campaign. Per campaign filings, her chief source of income is JNA Capital, a finance consulting company for development and real estate in which she holds a 49% stake.

She was one of just three non-incumbent Democrats who won a City Council primary this cycle, whether district-level or at large. What’s she all about? Read on.

‘Evidence-based’ legislating

Ahmad first came to Philly in 1983 to pursue a PhD in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s been a medical fellow at Thomas Jefferson University and has worked as a molecular biologist.

If elected, Ahmad plans to use her scientific background to inform her approach as a councilmember to work toward an “efficient, transparent government that really works for people.” That would mean using data in decision-making, she said, to “build on what has worked and redirect what hasn’t worked.”

Philadelphia City Council candidate Nina Ahmad talks with constituents during an open house for at WHYY on April 11. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For instance, looking at ways to follow up with patients who’ve ended up in the hospital with gunshot wounds — a group that’s statistically likely to report being involved in shootings in the future.

She’d also look to bring a public health perspective to the role, she said, approaching lawmaking by addressing Philadelphians’ trauma from high gun violence rates, lack of affordable housing, lack of access to well-paying jobs, and lack of access to health care.

A long political resume

Ahmad’s experience living through the Bangladesh Liberation War means she’s always been “very aware of politics,” she told Billy Penn — even if she didn’t fully grasp as a young person everything that was going on around her.

Her start in politics came much later, after she saw how one of her scientific discoveries “mobilized and galvanized” people by giving them new and actionable information. 

She decided she wanted to take that ability beyond just the world of science.

So Ahmad got involved with Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. She eventually went on to serve as chair of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs, as a member of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and as deputy mayor for public engagement under Mayor Jim Kenney.

Ahmad has also been involved in the nonprofit National Organization for Women, where she’s been head of the Philadelphia chapter, a national board member, and president of the Pennsylvania chapter, where she currently serves.

Two statewide runs (albeit unsuccessful)

In 2018, Ahmad made a bid for lieutenant governor, losing in the Democratic primary to now-Sen. John Fetterman, who went on to win the general election as well.

Two years later, Ahmad won the Democratic nomination for Pa. auditor general, but lost in November to Republican Tim DeFoor by a margin of 3 percentage points, around 209k votes. Ahmad attributes that in part to a lack of resources to counter Republican attacks and the Democratic Party’s laser focus on winning the presidency. 

Much of Ahmad’s support for those statewide roles came from people in Philly.

In the auditor general primary, 72% of Philly Democratic voters chose her — the only candidate from the city out of six — versus 36% statewide. In the general, 79% of Philadelphians voted for her over DeFoor.

“I saw how overwhelmingly well I did in Philadelphia, and my name recognition was very high,” she said. “People knew the work I’ve been doing.”

In pivoting to a local race, Ahmad wanted to bring “serious people with good experience” to the city at a pivotal moment. She also wanted to serve in a legislative role, she said, to help effect change that would go beyond her time in office.

First councilmember of South Asian descent?

Ahmad would be City Council’s third ever Asian American member and its first South Asian American member if she’s elected in November.

She wouldn’t be the first person born outside the U.S. to ever serve on Philadelphia City Council — there were several 20th century members who were born in other countries, including Ireland, Italy, and the former Soviet Union — but her immigrant background would be rare among councilmembers of the past several decades.

Philadelphia City Council candidate Nina Ahmad speaks during the 2023 People’s Forum for City Council At-Large at Congregation Rodelph Shalom on March 26, 2023. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ahmad believes that perspective would be valuable in working to address issues particularly relevant to immigrants, like language access disparities, and in thinking about how to grow the city by drawing more people to Philadelphia, both as residents and tourists.

“Being someone who still has recent memory of being from somewhere else, I think I can help in creating some robust ways to do that,” she said.

Saying ‘thank you’ to Philadelphia

Ahmad’s overarching reason for running for Council, she said, is that she wants to thank Philadelphia for being good to her and her family over the years by putting her skill set to use.

Philadelphia is a place with a “lot of promise,” she said, that’s been there “for good times and for bad.”

The Philly where she arrived in the 1980s was “grittier” than it is today, but she could still feel a “warmth” that endeared her to it, she said.

The narrow streets and people everywhere reminded her of her hometown in Bangladesh, and she got to know her neighbors and had people who looked out for her. 

“I raised a family here, my children grew up here,” Ahmad said. “We are immigrants, so I don’t have extended family here. My neighbors, my friends, are my extended family … we share meals together, they’re there for big occasions, birthdays and big things for our family, any celebration. That’s Philadelphia.”

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...