Young Muslim woman joins several progressives in the fight to turn Delaware a deeper blue

Young Muslim woman joins several progressives in the fight to turn Delaware a deeper blue
The New Arab talks with Madinah Wilson-Anton, the first practicing Muslim elected to Delaware's state legislature, in her home district in Newark, Delaware.
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
08 November, 2022
Madinah Wilson-Anton at a café in her home district in Newark, Delaware. [Brooke Anderson/TNA]

Madinah Wilson-Anton is one of several progressive in Delaware's state legislature who has ousted establishment Democratic incumbents and is now working to push through progressive policies.

As the daughter of two African-American Muslim converts in Newark, Delaware, she grew up in an international environment in a community with Muslim immigrants from different parts of the world. At an early age, Israel and Palestine were always part of the conversation.

Her diverse upbringing led to her wanting to work for the United Nations. She studied languages (Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and French), and then turned to international relations. Her interest in policy eventually led her to turn to local politics.

Her language skills would prove useful when she ended up running for office and doing grassroots campaigning.

"Language is really helpful. When someone tries to meet you where you are, it means a lot to people. It makes a difference with how you're able to start a relationship with someone," she tells The New Arab.

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After completing her master's degree at University of Delaware, she worked for a state legislator, John Viola. When he talked about retiring, she saw an opening in 2020. And then when he changed his mind and decided to run again, she ended up in a tight race against her former boss, eventually winning by just 43 votes. 

"It was definitely awkward," she says about running against her former boss. But once she'd decided to run, she didn't think about turning back. Seeing the process up close made her think about the movie The Wizard of Oz, when the curtain is pulled back to show a regular man.

"If it's a Republican or a Democrat, they're people just like you and me," she says. "If it can be him, it can be me. It should be the person with energy and drive."

"One thing I try to remind people of is that it's bigger than our personal relationships. It's a duty. Whoever's doing it should be doing it a hundred percent," she says.

Wilson-Anton entered that first race at the beginning of the pandemic. She describes her strategy at the time as throwing everything at the wall in terms of phone banking, holding virtual events and using social media to engage voters.

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In her latest primary in September in the solidly blue District 26, she won against her Democratic opponent by a 30-point margin. She is on track to win on 8 November in the general election. And this last time around, she says her former boss was helping her Democratic primary opponent.

She says the main issue that stirred her to run for office was education inequity, something she became familiar with as a legislative staffer. She has also seen it as she goes through neighbourhoods at graduation time when the signs of different school names line the streets, a result of school lottery programmes that send students across town instead of to the local neighbourhood school. 

She sees Delaware as a microcosm of the country, noting that the north is very Democratic, while the southern part is more rural with conservative values. 

"Delaware is pretty cool," she says. "What's really cool about the 26th district is there's the microcosm in one. The neighbours are from all over. There's the old and the new. It's where I grew up. I'm partial to it."

"We have a lot of diversity. A lot of people are surprised at the options. We have some great Middle Eastern restaurants. We have everything in this tiny state," she says. 

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It's unsurprising to hear Delaware touted, not just because Wilson-Anton is a politician representing the state, but because it's often overlooked. It's a state with stunning scenery on the east coast that many people pass through en route from Washington DC to cities in the northeast, but where few stop to visit. 

In fact, one can take commuter trains all the way down the coast from Boston to Washington, DC. But the chain breaks in Delaware, where infrequent buses are the state's only means of affordable public transportation. 

Joe Biden, who started his national political career as one of the youngest US senators in US history at the age of 29, just one year older than Wilson-Anton is now, has arguably put the state on the map more than anyone. As senator, he was well known for his commutes between Delaware and Washington, DC. And as president, he takes regulars trips to his home in Wilmington and to speak at the university.

While studying for her master's in public policy at the University of Delaware, she joined the Biden Institute upon its establishment. There, she had brief encounters with Biden, whom she describes as down to earth and approachable. In one instance, she offered to make him coffee, but he insisted on doing it himself.

She says that as president he's more progressive than she expected, though she also understands there are limits to what he can do given the make-up of the House and Senate.

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She sees the country's turn toward right-wing extremism as well as progressivism as a response to failed neoliberal policies, including her state's longtime role as an international corporate tax haven.

"A lot of neoliberals are not delivering to working class people," she says. "If that's not working, people will go to the other side. People are turning to fascism."

"A lot of people look at both parties and don't see anything different," she adds.

In Delaware, she says people are lucky to have options. In this election cycle, she is one of several progressives, all women, who has beaten a Democratic incumbent and is expected to win in a solidly blue district. She says the Working Families Party in Delaware has been instrumental in supporting promising progressives in the state.

She says she plans on staying in state politics because being part of a small state assembly allows her to have a louder voice than she would in national politics.

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Emgage-Action, a Muslim American advocacy group, endorsed Wilson-Anton in her first primary and has continued to do so with each race.

"We're actually e very proud of our endorsement," Mohamed Gula, Emgage-Action advocacy director tells TNA. The group typically gives candidates a survey to fill out on their policies. Gula says she included policies in her responses they hadn't thought to ask about.

"I really love when they're grounded in their local communities," he says. "I think her future will be that, especially if she continues working as she has been. We'll be there every step of the way."