After two unsuccessful runs for statewide offices in 2018 and 2020, for lieutenant governor and auditor general, respectively, Mt. Airy resident Nina Ahmad has shifted her sights to city politics.
After two unsuccessful runs for statewide offices in 2018 and 2020, for lieutenant governor and auditor general, respectively, Mt. Airy resident Nina Ahmad has shifted her sights to city politics and last week announced a run for City Council at-large.
Ahmad, who emigrated from Bangladesh when she was 21, previously served as Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for two years in Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration. She currently serves as the Pennsylvania State president of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
While deputy mayor, Ahmad launched the city’s Commission for Women, managed the Office of Black Male Engagement, and the Youth Commission.
The Local spoke with Ahmad about her background as a molecular biologist, Philadelphia’s transportation woes and how she feels the overall health of the city can be improved. The Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You don't see many scientists running for office. What about your science background might make your approach to legislating different from other elected officials?
My work as a scientist was looking at mechanisms of diseases. These were genetic diseases, and we were trying to understand what were the elements that made something happen and how it was inherited. So I bring a very mechanistic approach, data driven of course, to look at how something works or doesn't work.
So I want to use available information and craft policy and legislation based on what we know, and the hypotheses we're proposing. Do we actually follow through after we pass legislation to see, one, see how it's implemented, and two, whether we got results? And three, is there a need to tweak that policy?
The follow through and accountability is something scientists do all the time. And one other thing is, no result is a bad result. Even if it didn't prove your hypothesis, it is a data point.
You ran for a few offices in the past. What have you learned from those experiences, and what makes you think you'll have better luck this time?
I think I'm a much better candidate this time around.
The lieutenant governor experience was very unexpected. I had originally started running for a congressional seat, which kind of disappeared due to redistricting. And then I was advised that there's a lieutenant governor's race going on, so I entered it late and had to learn a lot of things on the fly. That was trial by fire. Still, in spite of the late entry, with no name recognition and with other established people running, I was able to come in second in that race, which blew my mind.
I was able to do that because I tried to reach as many people as possible, listen, and craft my responses or positions, based on, again, the gathering of data – by listening to people and doing my own homework.
When I ran for auditor general, I had already had that statewide race under my belt. It was a very contentious six-way primary. I was the only Philadelphia candidate. And you know, I did very well in Philadelphia.
That was a difficult year to run for anybody who was running down ticket from a president because the Democratic Party was so focused on making sure we got the top of the ticket. We had no straight ticket voting, we had new mail-in voting going on, we had a pandemic, you name it, it was there. But that put me into a position to really understand the issues in Philadelphia, how I was able to mobilize Philadelphia to vote for me, and I'm taking all of that into this race.
What do you see as your top issues for this campaign?
A healthier city has a stronger future. That's what I'm working for. That means that when we are looking at the root issues – whether that’s crime and gun violence, housing, or the environment – we need much more of a public health lens.
For example, look at gun violence. It is primarily impacting our young people. And the areas where we have high gun violence are the same areas that are underserved, so there’s already so much trauma happening. So we have children living there who are traumatized.
I, as a child, lived through a war, so I understand what trauma does to you. It completely changes your view of the world, your fight or flight reactions. And when you're under 25, your brain hasn't fully developed.
I have had 21-year-olds tell me, “I'm going to be dead in a few years, more than likely, and I'm going to get respect even if it needs to come with the barrel of a gun.”
When children are thinking like that, that's a failure on our part, as adults.
No child should ever think that. So I really want to look at how we are treating the children in our city.
And that's going to be my focus – whether it's education, housing, or environmental racism. I would focus on wellness. How are we doing as a city in terms of being healthy?
Economic healthiness is also something I'm going to be looking at. When we have a family where a child is going to school with asbestos in the walls, lead in drinking water and teachers who are under-resourced, and then they come home to a parent who is working three jobs because we haven't raised the minimum wage, they have to survive in this kind of environment. How does that prepare you to become a functioning member of society?
The other big health epidemic going on in Philadelphia is the opioid crisis. The number of overdose deaths went up last year, and is now the highest it's ever been. What do you think can be done?
Just like gun violence, it's a multi-pronged issue.
We have pill mills, doctors selling drugs. They pushed these opioids. Then we have the street level dealers and the open drug market. Why are we allowing this to even exist? We have the capability to stop this.
Second is, again, it comes from trauma. People are self medicating. We don't have comprehensive health care with a strong mental health care component. So people are left to their own devices.
We also have to look at why the drug market is thriving in Kensington, but not in some other parts of the city. We’re subjecting people who are not addicted, and don't have this health issue, to living there. They have their homes, they’re children, and they’re stepping over needles and human excrement. That's not fair.
We have to think of a solution that takes into account the people who are suffering from the different points of view of this opioid crisis. And we have to have full community engagement when we are coming up with solutions.
What is your stance on safe injection sites?
Safe injection sites are tools to address those who are sick, right? We need a place for people to be able to come and get resources.
We have to do it in a way where our community understands that this is not just a flocking of drug dealers. Is it a mobile injection site? Is it connected to the hospital in some way? Do our federal laws allow us to do that?
Most importantly, we cannot let the solution be crafted without people who are impacted. The people who are closest to the pain must be at the table.
Switching gears to the Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy communities, what do you think can be done to return SEPTA's ridership to pre-pandemic levels, so we keep our two regional rail lines, Chestnut Hill East and West?
Yeah, this pandemic has really changed how we live. We have the ability to work from home, and SEPTA has to take that into account in their business model.
What other things can they do to sustain themselves, while our ridership is leveling off? We need to encourage people to use SEPTA, even when they're doing things other than going to work, like going to the grocery store or the doctor's office.
If we want a culture change around using public transit, we need to have greater availability, more frequency and better connections.
So when we think about buses, for example, just as looking at ways to increase how frequently [modes of transportation] come based on peak hour, I understand they have to make business decisions, but they also have to understand that is in itself, a self-perpetuating way to reduce ridership - by not being available.
My daughter lives in New York. She doesn't have a car, and completely travels by subway all the time. That's where our investment should be – making public transit a fully-available network that’s easy to use.
More importantly, we have to make it safe. SEPTA is not safe at the moment.
We need to make sure their cameras are monitored. This is something I brought up as the president of NOW, when we were having these sexual assaults. We’re still having them, and they're still not monitoring the cameras in real time. Hello? This is a low-hanging fruit that will give people confidence to take SEPTA.
There’s buzz about a subway for Roosevelt Boulevard, and talk about extending the Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard. How do you feel about that?
The Roosevelt Boulevard subway is great, I think. Some neighbors feel nervous about transporting crime, but I don’t think that’s a real concern.
I think we should make public transit more available and at the same time tackle the safety issue. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.
When I went to Japan many years ago, you didn't drive anywhere. You just take the high speed train line going from Kyoto to Tokyo in a fraction of the time we would here in this country. Why are we not having investments in high speed lines?
This is maybe not just a SEPTA issue, but if we went from here to Harrisburg, here to New York – that culture change would happen.
What are some things I haven't asked about that you would want people to know?
That I'm very grateful to Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania as a whole. I came here as an immigrant. For me to be able to do the things that I'm doing - running for office - they’re not things you see immigrants do a lot.
Getting that opportunity makes me very thankful, and hopeful. I've been able to build a living, get an education, raise a family, put roots down, create a community and be really supported by Philadelphia.
Part of why I'm running for this office is me saying thank you. My children think the neighborhood they grew up in was the nicest, best neighborhood in the world, with neighbors who step in and help you when you need it. I want everyone in Philadelphia to have that experience – a safe, healthy, prosperous environment and a chance to drive their own destiny.