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Pakistani-Americans Jaffer, Haider Make History, Win NJ State Assembly Seats

Sadaf Jaffer and Shama Haider have also become the first Muslim American women ever to be elected to New Jersey's State Assembly. Republicans strong performance aside, the election brought many surprises across the nation.

By A Correspondent
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Sadaf Jaffer (L) won from NJ Assembly District 16 while Shama Haider (R) won from NJ Assembly District 37.

Former mayor of Montgomery Township, NJ, Sadaf Jaffer has become the second Pakistani-American and a Muslim ever to be elected to New Jersey State Assembly from District 16. She joins Shama Haider to add her name to the history books of US politics after winning a hotly-contested District 16 seat, which was once held by Republican Jack Ciattarelli, who was defeated by Phil Murphy in a close gubernatorial race.

“I am truly honored that our team has earned the support of the voters in the 16th district,” Jaffer, now Assemblywoman-Elect, was quoted by InsiderNJ as saying. Jaffer sealed her victory three days after the November 2 ballot, which saw a very strong Republican showing in traditionally Democratic districts.

Jaffer waited for the postal ballot count to build her lead over her closest Republican rival Vincent Panico. She was at one point leading Panico by a razer-thin 35 votes which increased to more than 1600 on Friday (November 5) as the postal ballot counting progressed. By the last count, Jaffer had secured 37,217 votes against 35,617 of Panico. Candidates usually claim victory when the number of postal ballot awaiting counting is less than a candidate’s lead.

“Thank you to all of the volunteers who knocked on doors, made phone calls, and encouraged civic engagement in the community. I am grateful for our campaign staff and supporters with whom we share this victory tonight,” Jaffer said, adding: “My election to the General Assembly brings us closer to having a State Legislature that reflects the diversity of our state, and I hope this inspires people from diverse backgrounds to get more involved in public service. I am looking forward to working with Senator-Elect Zwicker and Assemblyman Freiman to serve the people of New Jersey and build a stronger, healthier, and more prosperous future.”

Jaffer teaches at Princeton University and has served two terms as Mayor of Montgomery Township, becoming the first South Asian American Woman elected Mayor in New Jersey. Both Jaffer and Haider earned high-profile endorsements of their candidacies. Among those who endorsed them included New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.

SHAMA HAIDER’S CONVINCING VICTORY

Contrary to Jaffer’s close contest, Shama Haider had smooth sailing, defeating her Republican rival by a margin of more than 15,000 votes in NJ State Assembly District 37. She received 31,707 votes against her closest Republican challengeer Edward Durfee’s 15,695 votes.  jaffer and Shama have become the first Pakistani American women ever to be elected to a US legislature. Both also won the distinction of being the first Muslim member of the NJ State Assembly.

“I am extraordinarily proud of our campaign,” NorthJersey.com quoted Haider as saying. “I’m grateful to my historic running mates, who have been an immense support through these months, and I am immeasurably grateful to all the people who worked and volunteered to make this victory possible.”

Haider is a former Tenafly councilwoman who has been more active in US politics than the favorite pastime of many Pakistani-Americans – community politics. She also has the distinction of having served as a secretary of Pakistan’s former first lady Begum Nusrat Bhutto, mother of Benazir Bhutto, and grandmother of Pakistani opposition politician Bilawal Bhutto.

New Jersey’s Muslim community has made strides in local politics in recent years, winning seats across the state as mayors, council members and school board commissioners.  Despite their growing political power, no Muslim has ever served in the state Legislature.

New Jersey is a heavily Democratic state but November 2 ballot showed Republicans becoming more competitive. Like the race for Governor in which incumbent Philip Murphy defeated his Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli by a razor-thin margin, elections for state assembly and Senate seats were also largely close contests. Both houses, the state Senate and Assembly are currently controlled by Democrats. Each of the state’s 40 legislative districts has one senator and two Assembly members.

The surprisingly strong showing of Republican candidates in the state, which President Joe Biden won last year by a healthy margin of 16 points, has raised alarm bells for the Democrats. America will elect a new House of Representatives and more than 30 senators in next year’s mid-term elections. And the possible success of Sadaf Jaffer and Shama Haider in such an environment will make it historic.

Pakistani Americans’ political activism has a relatively short history. Late Saghir Tahir (also known as Saggy) was the first Pakistani American ever to be elected to a US legislature in 2000 on a Republican ticket. Tahir won the New Hampshire State Assembly seat from Manchester’s District 9, a constituency where only one Pakistani family lived in those days.

OTHER ELECTION SURPRISES

The November 2 election brought many firsts and surprises. In Dearborn, Michigan, Abdullah Hammoud, 31, (D) was elected as the first Arab Muslim Mayor of the city. Dearborn has the distinction of being home to highest Muslim population in any American city.

Boston also had its share of the first when it elected first Asian American as the city mayor. Michelle Wu, of Taiwanese heritage, is a former student of Senator Elizabeth Warren. In another first, Sam Joshi, barely 28 years old Indian American, was elected as Edison, NJ, mayor. Similarly, Cincinnati elected a 39 years old Indian Tibetan as the mayor while Hoboken Mayor, a Sikh American was re-elected for a second term.

Shahana Hanif, a Bangladeshi American, became the first Muslim American who was elected to New York City Council from a district in Brooklyn.

In New Jersey’s Senate District 3, Edward Durr (R), a truck driver who spent $153 on his campaign, was poised to stage an upset. He is likely to defeat the incumbent Steve Sweeney (D).

One of the most interesting results came from Titin Falls, NJ, where incumbent Mayor Vito Perillo won re-election at the age of 97. Perillo has become one of the oldest mayors in American history. He will be 101 when he leaves the office in 2025. Perillo won the maoyral election in 2017 at the age of 93.

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