In 2011, life took a challenging turn for Aisha Wahab and her family: Their home in Fremont, California, was foreclosed on, her parents lost their business, her father’s health began to deteriorate, and Wahab was laid off from her job. Her family was priced out of the increasingly expensive city, and they were forced to move slightly farther north to Hayward, a Bay Area suburb located roughly 30 miles from San Francisco. It wasn’t the first time Wahab’s home life was turbulent. A child of Afghan refugees, she was born in New York and spent years in the foster care system with her sister on both the East and West coasts. The pair was officially adopted around the time Wahab turned nine.
After her family’s move to Hayward, Wahab attended several city council meetings that discussed housing, safety, and immigrant rights in the community. During those meetings, Wahab said, she saw a lack of leadership and vision among council members. Housing in particular was an issue that she didn’t feel was being properly addressed. That’s when Wahab, an IT consultant by day, decided to launch her bid for a seat on the Hayward City Council.
“I felt like there was so much that could be done if they had even just one voice stating some of the concerns and some of the problems, and that’s when I ended up deciding to run,” Wahab said.
In 2018, Wahab joined a record number of women of color who ran for elected office. Wahab’s victory in the race for the seat on the Hayward City Council made her one of the first Afghan American women elected to public office in the U.S. She has been making national headlines since taking her seat in January 2019, and has advocated for some major progressive changes in Hayward, including more affordable housing and an accelerated increase in the minimum wage.
Her experience with housing in the Bay Area—one of the most expensive housing markets in the country—became her platform. In an interview with Prism, Wahab shared her story.
Winning over constituents
Wahab’s path to the city council wasn’t easy. On the campaign trail, she encountered blatant discrimination targeting both her and her family. Then, at a candidate forum weeks before Election Day, a constituent asked Wahab if her campaign was accepting any funds from ISIS.
“I’m very aware of the misinformation and misrepresentation of my small ethnic community,” Wahab wrote in a Facebook post after the incident. “I always answer the many emails and questions I receive, no matter how racist it may seem, as I feel it is my responsibility to inform people that actually ask and may generally be curious.” Wahab said that despite the woman’s comments at the forum, the conversation didn’t end there. After a back-and-forth, the woman eventually told Wahab she would vote for her and took a campaign sign.
“It’s such an honor to be able to give my community, who are often overlooked and vilified in the media, a win,” Wahab said.
One night during the election cycle, someone broke into her car and stole her only campaign supplies.
A new progressive voice
Wahab brings a unique perspective to the Hayward City Council. She’s a millennial, a woman of color, and she rents her home. She said she has spent much of her time on the city council ensuring that the most vulnerable populations in the community are seen and heard. She has the receipts to prove it, too.
Wahab recently voted in favor of a citywide minimum wage increase, which is scheduled to take effect later this year. She has also voted for measures to support displaced residents and fight against unnecessary rent hikes, and has been vocal about her interest in plans that would help ease the city’s housing shortage.
“A community is only as strong as its weakest,” she said. “I really just want to make sure that I’m able to provide for my family, have a more permanent roof over my head and stability in my life. And then I want to be able to expand that and give that and provide that as much as possible to the rest of the community.”
Although she’s had several victories, her time as a city councilwoman hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Last year, Wahab proposed a “Diversity Day” parade to celebrate the city’s impressive demographics. The idea was ultimately voted down. Wahab has also sparred with other council members over the city budget on multiple occasions.
“I personally think that the city spends far more than they can account for as to the return on investment,” Wahab said. “I consistently vote no on certain projects. I’m like, ‘Where’s money coming from? Are we projected to be in the red again?’ My city council does not feel the same way as I do. And I think that that’s going to show in the next couple years during another economic downturn.”
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
In April 2019, Wahab announced her plans to run for Rep. Eric Swalwell’s seat in California’s 15th Congressional District. At the time, Swalwell had been campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. Though Wahab said she didn’t initially plan to run for Congress, she said she couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I have always felt that federal issues really do affect our day-to-day lives,” Wahab said. “It’s time that we see more people that come from my background and that understand my issues voice their concerns at the federal level.”
Wahab suspended her campaign a few months later. Though she didn’t share all the reasons she decided to drop her bid for the seat, she said finances played a significant role. “When Eric decided to drop his campaign [for president], we knew he could roll his federal presidential dollars into his congressional seat,” Wahab said. “That was a huge factor.”
Still, Wahab isn’t discouraged. Though she has no immediate plans to run for another elected position—she will hold her seat on the city council until 2022—she hasn’t completely ruled out doing so in the future. For now, she’s juggling her home life, a position as a government official, and new demands accompanying her recent promotion at her day job. To prevent overcommitment and burnout, Wahab said she’s taking everything day by day.
“I just want to ensure my own work is met to the standard that I’m satisfied with, both on the city council and in my personal life,” she said. “I want to make sure that I’m satisfied with the quality of what I’m doing before I engage in anything else.”
Wahab won’t be up for reelection until 2022, but she’s still paying close attention to the 2020 presidential race. Though she was a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2016, last month Wahab endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. She said the two have a shared vision of what the country could look like.
As she looks ahead, Wahab hopes she has opened the door for other women of color who are considering running for local office. For those looking to start their own campaigns, she has a piece of advice: Listen to your inner voice above all else. “When you run for office, you will have consultants in your ear, you’ll have random strangers in your ear, you’ll have a lot of people giving you their opinion,” she said. “And at the end of the day, this is your race. It is you who is doing it. And you really have to listen to your voice, first and foremost, to ensure that you are comfortable and confident in what you are doing.”