Fatima Iqbal-Zubair: Meet the Muslim progressive taking on California's Democrats

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair is trying to unseat an incumbent Democrat with grassroots support. [Photo courtesy of Fatima Iqbal-Zubair]
10 min read
Washington, D.C.
02 November, 2022
In-depth: Fatima Iqbal-Zubair is one of a growing number of young progressives in the US running to unseat an incumbent Democrat.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair wasn't going to let a new election map stop her from running for office. 

After she was drawn out of her district, she sold her house and moved her family into her home district of south Los Angeles so that she could run for office there.

It was important for her to run in the district where she'd been serving as a tutor and a mentor, where she had seen the effects of income inequality, underfunded schools, and environmental injustice. It was also important for her to take on the incumbent, Mike Gipson, a fellow Democrat, whom she believed was not serving the best interests of his constituents. 

"I'm not waiting my turn," she tells The New Arab on her decision to run against Gipson. "He's failed us. I'm not going to stand by while people are struggling to survive. I wouldn't have run if he was doing a good job. I'm not a career politician. I'm running because of his record."

She adds, "I'm the unapologetic activist. I'm not going to be careful".

"I know this race is winnable. We got so close in 2020. We have a plan to get us to win, but we can't afford to make mistakes"

It's always a risky move for a newcomer to challenge a same-party incumbent, given their institutional support and name recognition. But it's far from unheard of these days for young progressives to take on their party's establishment. 

Prominent examples from recent years include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in 2018 ousted Joe Crowley, who was so confident he would win that he didn't attend his own debate; Jamaal Bowman, who in 2020 beat then-House Foreign Relations Chairman Eliot Engel; and Cori Bush, who in 2020 ended a decades-long political dynasty when she beat Lacy Clay on her second attempt.

Iqbal-Zubair was ready to take that plunge, even if it meant running her campaign without the bulk of her party's support. She was no stranger to starting from scratch.

A life on the move

Iqbal-Zubair spent her early childhood in Dubai, where her parents, originally from Sri Lanka, had been raising their family in a relatively comfortable and stable life. But with the outbreak of the Gulf War and the invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s, and with fears of further regional instability, her parents decided to relocate the family of four to Canada.

There, they settled in Saskatchewan, the first province in the country to offer a universal province-wide hospital care plan, a 1947 policy that would impact healthcare service in the rest of Canada and would leave an important mark on Iqbal-Zubair.

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Just before she started high school, her family moved to Bergenfield, New Jersey, where her father had found a job. 

There, she excelled in her classes and in sports, winning races as a cross-country runner while dressing in her own modest style.

"I was super focused on school, I volunteered on weekends. I was one of those high school kids trying to get a good [university] application. I felt a lot of pressure to do well," she recalls.

"A lot of my high school life was defined by sports. I was state cross-country champion. I was wearing tights under my shorts. I had a shirt under the [team uniform] tank top. I was kind of proud of it in a way." She recalls thinking at the time, "I can run really fast and look different than everyone else". 

She completed high school and university in New Jersey, the place where until that point she'd stayed the longest. Though with her science studies she was working toward a career in medicine, it ultimately led her to a love of teaching. 

A sign points to a polling station during early voting ahead of the US midterm elections in Los Angeles, California, on 1 November 2022. [Getty]

After 9/11

She hadn't yet finished high school when hijackers flew airliners into the World Trade Center, just a half hour's drive from where she lived across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

The attacks that killed around 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on 11 September, 2001 shocked the world, including Iqbal-Zubair, whose proximity to the epicentre meant she knew people who had nearly died that day.

"There was a feeling of sadness and uncertainty," she recalls.

What she wasn't expecting was the intense backlash against Muslim Americans. Her mother, who had long worn a hijab, experienced cruel comments by strangers that she hadn't seen pre-9/11.

"A pivotal moment for me was 9/11," she says. "I didn't think my life to change a lot. I believed in the American dream."

At that time, she was focused on studying science, working her way towards a degree in medicine. Meanwhile, the world around her had changed, as Muslims were viewed with more suspicion. Hate crime, police surveillance and everyday insensitive comments towards Muslims increased.

"It's far from unheard of these days for young progressives to take on their party's establishment"

"I saw the world change," she recalls. "The way I presented myself mattered."

Nearly a decade later, in 2009, when she moved out to California to pursue her career in tutoring, she decided to wear the hijab.

"I think it's part of the reason I did it. I don't know if I would have done it if 9/11 hadn't happened," she says. "There were a lot of narratives around terrorism that influenced foreign policy." 

She also noted that at that time media representation of Muslims was even less than it is today, making her personal representation of her community all the more important.

Seeing the underbelly of California's inequality

She left New Jersey for California, where she worked as a tutor. She settled in Carson, a working-class town in south Los Angeles. 

From there, she would drive to clients' homes to tutor their children in mathematics, computer technology and science. One day she would be giving lessons at a mansion in Beverly Hills, and another day she'd be in a housing project in the low-income and densely populated area of Watts. 

"I loved working with low-income students," she says. "I saw the gratitude of students when things weren't always handed to them." 

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She says her experience with hard-working students from low-income areas fueled her love of teaching and political activism. She saw up close how inequality was manifested in low-quality drinking water.

"I was spending time in communities that were being left behind," she says. "One thing that influenced me was I saw the water quality was bad. A lot of students would laugh about it and say that's how it is," she says, cynical humour she saw as a coping mechanism for difficult living conditions.

"I could sit here year after year educating great minds," she says. "At that point, I understood the importance of leadership in community issues."

As she began her transition into politics, she decided to continue in the education field, where she remains the leader of a girls' robotics team in south Los Angeles.

Gabriela Vizcarra, a 12th-grade student who joined the student-run team last year, says of Iqbal-Zubair, "She's really helped me. Before I joined robotics, I didn't think I'd do robotics. I didn't think engineering was for me. I never got the opportunity to be hands-on in that field."

Vizcarra, who lives near the underserved area of Watts, says she plans on pursuing a career in aerospace engineering and is applying to California's prestigious Caltech and Claremont colleges. 

"I never had anything STEM-related around me. I never thought there would be. In this area, there aren't many educational resources," she says. "For me personally, she's been very inspiring. Growing up, I've only seen men doing powerful things. I never had a female role model. Seeing her, with her own team and as a politician, she's doing it all. She's helping her community. It's a very powerful message."

California's State Capitol building in Sacramento. [Getty]

Taking on California politics

Iqbal-Zubair started her life in politics and activism by getting involved in local causes and taking a local role with the Democratic party, which gave her both a window into politics and a voice in a system she hoped to change.

Then, in 2020, she decided to run for State Assembly to run against an incumbent whom she believed had not been sufficiently advocating for the needs of his constituents. Her campaign, launched at the beginning of the pandemic before the vaccine was widely available, garnered her 56,875 votes against political incumbent Mike Gipson's 83,559 votes. 

Though it wasn't enough for her to win the election, it was enough to convince her she had a shot if she tried again once the pandemic restrictions had eased and she could get out and talk to constituents face to face. 

Though no public polling is available so far, internal surveys from Iqbal-Zubair's campaign show that a substantial proportion of voters support her progressive positions. 

She says that until now Gipson has avoided debates with her. The New Arab reached out to Gipson's office multiple times for comment but did not receive a response. 

"We have a supermajority of Democrats in the California legislature and a Democratic governor. There's so much we can do. There's so much potential if progressives get a majority in the legislature"

"There have been three opportunities for him to show up," Iqbal-Zubair says, referring to local meetings and forums. "He doesn't feel the need to debate. I think he is weak and a coward."

At a town hall meeting in April, anxiety over his campaign might have surfaced when he lashed out at a young activist questioning his record and said that Iqbal-Zubair "wasn't from this country" which was recorded on video.

Though Gipson is an African American Democrat with roots in south Los Angeles, he is what many progressives in the party would call a corporate Democrat, someone who takes corporate donations and whose policies often reflect the positions of these donors.

According to Los Angeles Daily News’s coverage of Gipson's 2020 election, he had until that point received $170,780 from the oil and gas industry since entering politics. An earlier article in 2019 by the Los Angeles Times, said that he has been one of the state legislature's top two recipients of travel gifts.

Gipson is part of the California state legislature's supermajority, which earlier this year did not have sufficient votes for a bill that would have provided healthcare to all residents. 

"We have a supermajority of Democrats in the California legislature and a Democratic governor. There's so much we can do. There's so much potential if progressives get a majority in the legislature," says Iqbal-Zubair. 

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"There are so many bills that were once laughable that are now possible. The single-payer [universal] healthcare fight has been going on for so long. We're moving in the right direction. I'm deeply hopeful," she says.

Having built momentum and increased name recognition through advocating for progressive causes, she has won endorsements from prominent unions, women's organisations, environmental groups, healthcare groups, and political action groups, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, California Women's List, the Sierra Club of California, Healthcare for All Los Angeles, and Emgage.

"When we went through the endorsement process, we sent out questionnaires to everyone who was running. We sent one to her opponent. He didn't write back, but she did," Mohamed Gula, executive director at Emgage Action, tells TNA

"After speaking with her, we saw that she was organising around a lot of issues to uplift minority communities. She seemed like a candidate we could support and be proud to support."

But these endorsements, though significant, will be difficult to match the high-profile and numerous endorsements for Gipson, whose support includes the California Democratic Party, a slew of major unions, as well as California Governor Gavin Newsom and US Senator Alex Padilla. 

Moreover, his strong showing in the District 65 primary, in which the top two candidates are chosen to face off in the general election, he won around 70 percent. 

Still, the Democratic progressive victories over the past several years show that well-established Democratic politicians will need to continue to prove themselves if they want to keep their seats. 

"I'm trying to say I'm a better Democrat," says Iqbal-Zubair. "We have to get everything right. It's a lot of pressure." 

She says, "I know this race is winnable. We got so close in 2020. We have a plan to get us to win, but we can't afford to make mistakes." 

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews