Meet Sam Rasoul, the Palestinian-American running for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia
Washington DC, The New Arab - Sam Rasoul grew up listening to both Arabic and country music. These days, as he campaigns for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, in a crowded primary that will take place in June, he continues to navigate between the rural and urban parts of his state.
As the son of Palestinian immigrants who made a new life in the Appalachian mountains of western Virginia, Rasoul helped with the family's corner store. There, as part of a small minority in that area, he says they "learned to build bridges, to talk to people, and meet them where they were at."
Though he sometimes got comments about his identity, he says it tended to be from people who wanted to get to know him and were curious about his culture.
Early in life, he decided to go into public service. In 2008, at age 25, when he ran for Virginia’s 6th congressional seat, he became one of the youngest candidates in the state of Virginia to run for elected office. Though he was unsuccessful the first time round, in 2014 he won a seat as a state representative, where he is now in his eighth year. Winning as lieutenant governor would make him the first Muslim Palestinian to win a statewide race.
It was around the time he started his political career that Virginia's demographics and political leanings began to change markedly. Once a longtime red Republican southern state, Barack Obama's 2008 presidential victory in Virginia showed that it was truly competitive. In recent years, the state has become more Democratic at the local and state levels, while nationally it is no longer considered a swing state.
"It's been great to watch the evolution of the demographics and the policies that are uplifting people's lives,” Rasoul tells The New Arab. Among these recent changes are the expansion of Medicaid healthcare benefits, raising the minimum wage, and the abolition of the death penalty (the first southern state to do so).
He hopes to build on these policies with further healthcare expansion, better broadband, and a green energy plan that puts people ahead of special business interests.
Rasoul sees this as an important moment to seize on implementing progressive policies.
"When I was first elected, we were in the extreme minority. After the 2017 election, I saw that things were changing, so I tried to seize the moment for progressive policies, and not special interests," he says, noting that consistency is key to winning people’s trust.
As for winning over the state's more conservative voters, he says, "I've always tried to frame things as pro-Virginia, and not anti anything."
This week, he was endorsed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose support is often seen as a strong stamp of approval for progressive candidates. Along that line, endorsements have come in from the Sunrise Movement, Our Revolution, and United Rural Democrats. He has also been endorsed by Rick Boucher, a former congressman who represented part of Virginia’s coal mining area, which he sees as a sign he can appeal to rural areas.
In an effort to reach a wide range of Virginians, he has decided to visit all 95 counties in the state. In doing so, he has been to some deep red areas. On a trip to Dickinson County, where the vast majority of voters are Republican, he received a surprising warm welcome when someone put a half-page color ad in a local newspaper with the words: "Sam Rasoul for Lt. Gov, on the road in SWVA" — to let people know the time he'd be there, so they could go out and meet him.
"It certainly makes you feel welcome. I don't forget that," he says, speaking from his car, as he continues touring the state. "While there might not be a whole lot of people in these areas, everyone counts."
Though he acknowledges that his rise in politics probably "wasn't in the cards" for what his parents expected for him when he was growing up, the seeds of his life in public service might have been planted early on.
"I'm thankful I grew up as an ultra-minority. It forced me to empathise and build bridges," he says. "When you're fighting for justice, you have to fight for everyone."
Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington D.C., covering US and international politics, business and culture.
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