Dr. Nina Ahmad is far from your typical politician. But, maybe that’s what it took to be one election away from becoming the first woman of color, and only current woman and person of color, in Pennsylvania’s executive branch.
Nina has a PhD in chemistry, a medical fellowship under her belt, and numerous board and leadership positions in diversity-oriented nonprofits. She served on the National Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders under the Obama Administration and then became Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement under Philadelphia Mayor Kenney.
Her resume is unquestionably impressive and more than qualifies her for this position. But equally striking is Nina’s deep conviction that America can be better than we are in this current moment. She’s making it her mission to bring an activist spirit to the Auditor General’s office and focus on lifting up women and other marginalized communities. Plus, she’s a big fan of dimsum, so you know her head and heart are in the right place.
Here’s our interview below, edited lightly for clarity.
AM: Thanks so much for your time. We’re huge fans of yours at AAAFund, and we were so excited you won your election! So I was hoping we could just start with why you’re running?
NA: I’m running really to restore the values of our country. Those values are why I came to America in the first place. I’m an immigrant and I left a war-torn country that was in great disarray after a long, hard war for independence. Millions were killed, and so many women and girls were brutalized.
Back then, the United States was just this beacon of hope – it was a land of opportunity, where everyone has a chance to succeed and rise above their circumstances. Seeing the country now, though, these last four years — that hope has evaporated. I felt so targeted – I’m a Muslim, Asian, scientist – everything I embody was under attack. So having lived through a fight already, I thought it was my job to stand up for what I believe in. I had the opportunity to come here [to this country], to grow roots, to find a career, to have a family. I recognize that these are huge privileges and I want to continue making sure others have these opportunities too, and to knock down the barriers for others.
So thank you to all the Pennsylvanians for letting me have this opportunity, and I just want to pay it forward and work on saving America. It’s my second time running for office, and my first time was also for a statewide office. I wanted to pick a statewide office because we have people with my values fighting for these things in local government. We have these champions in federal office and local office. But we didn’t have someone like me in the executive office in Pennsylvania.
We’re the fifth or sixth largest [state] population in the country. Someone needs to make a statement, saying that people like me are there. This is an independent office, it’s answerable only to Pennsylvanians. That means it can be a platform for progressive change, because it’s a larger landscape to work in and it can paint a portrait of what America could look like.
The executive office in Pennsylvania has been blank and white for so long; the judicial races have people of color at the statewide level, but those are very different races with different kinds of oversight and responsibility. This is the kind of office that can impact people in their everyday lives. And my election to this office changes the narrative about who an AAPI is, what a woman can do, what a scientist can contribute. I can work to preserve religious freedom, progressive values, and more. But all the things that make me different can sometimes make it a harder race to run.
AM: That’s so inspiring. You’ve gone through so much already, and you touched on this a little already, about how you were inspired to run by your belief in American values. I’m curious if there’s anyone, anything that inspires you?
NA: Yes, absolutely, my daughters inspire me. I have two daughters, and the older one was in 4th grade when 9/11 happened. There was a friend she’d known since kindergarten, a good friend, and that day, he called her Osama bin Laden’s daughter. It started a whole thing: we had to talk to the teacher, his parents, and all of this stuff. She just had so much grace in handling that situation, you know. We took the boy to a baseball game and they sat together, they were classmates, they sang in choir together, and they’re actually still friends today. She often helped him with math, singing, some other things; he told her later that he was angry at her for being better at all these things and that because of that, she reminded him of his older sister, who was also seen by the parents as better at things. So [my daughter’s] grace was a huge lesson as an adult to see.
And my younger daughter is 20 and she helps me with my social media. And that’s been something of such great value that she’s given me and the campaign, in connecting me with other age groups and people, and advising me on when or what to say. I think they see me as an individual, not just their mom, and that — they really inspire me.
AM: You also already talked a little about this, with your daughter’s experience in school and how your campaign has been groundbreaking for Pennsylvania. Which by the way, that is shocking to me that there’s never been a woman of color in executive office! Given that you’d be this “first,” how has your identity shaped your race, more specifically? Like maybe the way you tell your campaign narrative, or any challenges on the trail?
NA: When I ran in the primary, there were six people, and it was very hotly contested. But I won with a large margin of the vote! I was separated from the closest runner up by 140 thousand votes. It’s clear to me that Pennsylvania is ready to elect someone like me. It’s a mostly white population – about 80% – but what most people want is an inspiring message to hear, and to see what the candidate’s character is, not the color of their skin. You know, I would love for us to get there, to a place where it’s not about my skin color.
On the other hand, my faith, and my identity in that respect, is quieter because it’s very personal. I deeply believe in the separation of church and state, so my faith hasn’t come up much. Unless, actually, it’s people from my same faith. I don’t wear a hijab, and some people think I don’t fit the ideal of what a Muslim should look like. And to that, I say, look at the first wife of Muhammed. She was a widow, not a virgin; she was a businesswoman, and helped him get resources. She was also older than him! I like to call him the first feminist!
So that’s the frame I look at through for religion: as a liberating experience. And sure, not everyone wants to say that about Muslims or Islam, whether they are Muslim or not. But I’m a permissive person. Equity is driving my mission and the narrative that I want to tell. The whole Auditor General position makes sure there’s accountability and transparency with how the state’s money is spent. So I want to be there, spearheading how equity can be infused throughout our state government system. I want to see how equity can be distributed to Pennsylvanians.
I’m an activist by nature. Being an activist for women’s issues is a big part of my identity that I tell people on the campaign trail. One of the biggest wastes of money in our state government are the sexual harassment settlements [against state workers]. They’re all NDAs, so we taxpayers don’t even know what we’re paying for. Pennsylvania has spent $3.2M on sexual harassment NDA claims [over eight years]. So Pennsylvania ended that practice of hiding sexual harassment claims with NDAs.
We could be using that money to support schools, like paying for simple things like toilet paper – things that should be paid for but sometimes aren’t. I want to address the broad issue of violence, violence of all kinds, with this office – police violence, school violence, violence against women. I’m an advocate and an activist, and I’m about leveling the playing field for women, and marginalized communities, communities of color and low income.
AM: I love that! So given this laser focus on marginalized communities, and I guess I don’t think of a very large AAPI population when I think of Pennsylvania, what’s a policy you’re excited about, or something that your office can implement, that will benefit AAPIs?
NA: Bullying in schools. We – our community – face that a lot. So I’m thinking about, how can our public school budget be used as a metric to show how children thrive in schools. You heard about the bullying of AAPI kids with the coronavirus? We need to push back, in the government, when we see this happening. My government office can crack down on harassment due to race or hate crimes, and really send the message that we won’t tolerate mistreatment, and that we will put real resources behind that message.
And another important thing with AAPIs, especially AAPI seniors, is the price of prescription drugs. We know prescription drug costs are too high and the government can do more to control that. So I want to dive into the supply chain management side of things and look for any efficiencies there. It will help so much to have transparency around these issues, to help AAPI seniors. I want to make sure that AAPI populations in high density areas have enough resources, and to help AAPIs see themselves in government. I hope they see me as a role model, encourage them that they don’t have to be doctors. That they can be politicians, and that I can help open up that pathway for them in public service.
And finally, I want to touch on language access, such a fundamental issue in the delivery of gov services. I want to see an audit and evaluate the performance of those language access services, if they exist, and understand how the rules and regulations around them are put in place. I know language access is available in [Philadelphia] so I want to see how well is that [Philadelphia] system working, and can we bring that to other places? The auditor general can assess implementation of that kind of thing.
AM: I really didn’t know much about what the auditor general did, so this is amazing and I’m so glad – Pennsylvania is so lucky to have someone like you running for it. I don’t want to take up too much of your time, so I’ll just end with asking why you support the Biden-Harris ticket, and what would you say to AAPIs who maybe aren’t excited about them or are maybe thinking about not voting?
NA: Yeah, of course! So my first answer – why I’m running is also the same reason why Joe Biden is running. It’s about restoring the soul of America. I feel like we’re on the same message there and that theme resonates with me.
There are all these critical things we need him to keep his promises on – the ACA [Affordable Care Act]; important Supreme Court cases coming down the pipeline. He’s said he’s committed to appointing a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and he picked a woman, like he promised, for his vice president. And she’s not just Black but also AAPI!
It’s the same way Obama made us feel hopeful [in 2008]; this is a hope-inducing ticket. Kamala Harris is similar to me in that she is the daughter of immigrants with a science background. Kamala is the product of all those pieces of her identity. I want to help Pennsylvania turn blue, because it did go red by a small margin before. I can cover that margin, and more, and help Biden and Harris, candidates up and down the ticket, go blue. I want to be a conduit to help them reach out to communities of color, especially the AAPIs. I think I can be helpful and I deeply believe in this ticket.
I understand what people at the federal government level can do and what we can make happen here in the state. I understand what representation means, from my time on the Obama Administration AAPI Council, and what can be done with good people. We need representation that understands trauma – people focused on creating policies on refugee resettlement, welcoming immigrants, figuring out what and who is delivering services. People who understand trauma and diversity are important to creating empathetic policies. I bring all of that to the table.
Ally Mark is an AAAF media fellow, based in Chicago. She is a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s environmental engineering program and now works at a Democratic political communications consultancy. You can find her baking scones and sourdough bread or camping in the woods.