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Election highlights diversity in politics

Monitor staff
Published: 11/11/2018 4:39:58 PM

New Hampshire’s Legislature – a political body historically made up of mostly older white men – appears to be getting more diverse after Tuesday’s election.

Former state Rep. Melanie Levesque, of Nashua, narrowly defeated incumbent Kevin Avard to become New Hampshire’s first black state senator.

In Concord, Safiya Wazir, a former Afghani refugee, made history when she was elected to represent Concord’s Ward 8 in the House.

Wazir was certainly a first for the city of Concord, but the first former refugee to hold statewide office is believed to be Richard Komi, a Nigerian refugee who represented Manchester’s Ward 5 in 2009. Komi won another term in Manchester’s District 43 on Tuesday.

The state doesn’t keep demographic data on candidates or elected officials, so whether historical wins or demographic shifts happen in the Granite State is mostly anecdotal.

In August, Secretary of State Bill Gardner said in an email that he was “not aware of any refugees who have held office in New Hampshire and I have checked among the office staff as well.”

On Wednesday, Gardner said he remembered Komi, as well as a Pakistani immigrant and late Manchester state Rep. Saghir Tahir, whose obituary states that he was one of the first Muslim-Americans ever elected to legislative office in the country.

Gardner said he didn’t bring them up because he wasn’t sure of the circumstances by which they came to the United States. And he questioned whether that information should be readily available to the public.

“It’s almost like you're checking to see if they should be here,” he said.

The state only asks for a candidate’s age, address, whether they want to declare a party affiliation and whether they are registered to vote when they sign up to run, Gardner said. Everything else, he said, is a matter of privacy.

“Think about it – is it the role of the government to ask all these questions of people who would like to run for office, or is it the role of the public or of the press, representing the public, to get this information?” he said. 

There is one state resource where candidate biographies are published – the signature “blue books” which serve as yearbooks for the Legislature and can include miscellaneous information on a legislator’s education and previous public service. Gardner pointed out those books are put together by a third-party service and any information is voluntary.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, less than 5 percent of the state’s 424 legislative seats were held by people of color in 2018. That’s less than the state’s overall makeup; in 2017, about 93 percent of the state was white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Wazir – who defeated a lifelong Heights resident to secure Concord’s Ward 8 seat – joins Latha Mangipudi, the first Indian immigrant to hold statewide political office, who was re-elected for a fourth term, and Manuel Espitia, who picked up a first-term seat in Nashua.

Ronnie Cooper lost a bid for state rep in Derry; Carlos Cardona, who is Puerto Rican, lost his race in Belknap County by 140 votes; Nepalese candidate Madalasa Gurung didn’t win either of the two state rep contests in Hooksett. Higher up the ticket, Steve Negron, who is of Mexican descent, and Eddie Edwards, who is black, each lost their bid for a congressional seat.

Both Komi and Mangipudi said it’s heartening to see diverse candidates winning political office in New Hampshire.

“I am just so thrilled that we have an opportunity to show who we are as Granite Staters,” Mangipudi said. “We are strong and resilient, and diversity is a celebration here.”

What it means to be first

Richard Komi’s journey towards political involvement began long before he came to New Hampshire.

A member of the Ogoni People, Komi fled political persecution in Nigeria after he was targeted by the government, which at the time was a military dictatorship that “visited tremendous violence against my people,” he said. Komi spent time in a Benin refugee camp before he arrived in Manchester on Sept. 13, 1999.

When he first ran for office in 2008, he remembers that former president Barack Obama had just been elected and that New Hampshire’s State House was controlled by the Democrats. The political climate, he says, was much more civil.

Things have changed. Nigeria is now a democracy, although “one in its infancy,” Komi said, and he said he looks forward to working with a Republican governor. He says what he went through in Nigeria makes his political involvement more significant.

“Those seeds were sown in Africa,” he said. “They became actualized when I ran for office here, and it was a dream come true when I was sworn in.”

Komi said he never thought about whether he was the first refugee to run for office.

“I was focused on getting elected and seeing what change I could bring to the House,” he said.

Similarly, Mangipudi didn’t make too much of being the first Indian immigrant to hold office until she said it was brought up by her opponent in 2013.

“I never felt different,” she said. “I raised my children here, they were born here and raised as Americans.”

Things got tougher in 2016, she said.

“Beginning the last term was really difficult,” she said. “I felt like I had four strikes against me – I was a Democrat, brown, a woman and vocal.”

Wazir’s story has drawn parallels to Ilhan Omar’s, the first Somali-American elected to Congress in Minnesota.

Wazir wasn’t available to comment for this story, citing other engagements. Much was made of the details of her family’s backstory: they fled persecution from the Taliban, and Wazir worked multiple jobs in Concord to support her family.

But Wazir primarily focused on promoting her platform of improving education, health care, and affordable housing during her campaign, saying she wanted to represent everyone in her ward. 

Komi said it’s good to see more minority candidates running whether they win or not. 

“Even though they may not have been successful, there will be more,” he said. “… As time goes on, more and more immigrants will become involved in the process. This is just the beginning.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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