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Nina Ahmad is poised to become City Council’s first South Asian lawmaker — and first immigrant in decades

Ahmad ran two failed bids for statewide office. This time, she built her own coalition of labor unions, Democratic officials, and social justice groups.

Nina Ahmad, Democratic candidate for City Council at-large, at the United Democratic Spring Dinner in Philadelphia earlier this month.
Nina Ahmad, Democratic candidate for City Council at-large, at the United Democratic Spring Dinner in Philadelphia earlier this month.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

In 1981, Nina Ahmad was living in an attic outside Detroit, learning English from reruns of Happy Days, and studying chemistry at a commuter school. It was a lonely time for the young immigrant, who moved to Michigan after enduring years of war in her native Bangladesh.

“In a sea of people who didn’t look like me, didn’t sound like me, I just had to hunker down and make do,” Ahmad said. “I didn’t have the luxury to complain or feel like I can’t do this.”

Ahmad moved to Philadelphia two years later to attend the University of Pennsylvania, kick-starting a successful career as a molecular biologist, women’s rights advocate, deputy mayor, political candidate, and real estate developer.

Next year, she is poised to add City Council member to that resume.

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Ahmad, 64, won one of five Democratic nominations last week for at-large seats on Council. In deep-blue Philadelphia, Democratic nominees are all but guaranteed to prevail in the general election, putting Ahmad on track to become the first South Asian and the first immigrant in recent memory to hold a seat in the legislature.

Her path to victory was far from certain in political circles.

It was Ahmad’s third run for elected office, following two unsuccessful bids at the state level. Running in a crowded field of 27 Democrats, she described herself as an outsider who had to fight for credibility among donors and win over allies.

The Democratic City Committee recommended but did not officially endorse her. She picked up support from dozens of ward leaders in the city. And she self-financed her campaign, delivering her message to voters on television while stacking endorsements from a patchwork of labor unions, Democratic officials, and social justice groups.

“Just ‘cause you maybe cleaned up your block doesn’t make you City Council material,” said Ernest Garrett, president of District Council 33, the municipal workers union that backed Ahmad’s bid. “You need to be more active in the community — and with her background, the way she talks, her vision — she sounded like she could have been a good mayoral candidate.”

Ahmad casts herself as a fighter for marginalized groups, and a trained scientist who will bring a data-savvy lens to complex budgetary and development issues. She said her first term will focus on “low-hanging-fruit” solutions to addressing crime and economic growth in struggling neighborhoods.

From war-torn Bangladesh to Penn student

After the Bangladesh Liberation War broke out in 1971, Ahmad recalled, her childhood was spent at home with her mother in Dhaka, abiding by strict curfews as genocide and guerrilla warfare ravaged the country.

As a young Ph.D student at Penn, she saw Philadelphia’s challenges — income inequality, gun violence, and the crack epidemic. She recalled seeing the smoke from the 1985 MOVE bombing from her apartment in West Philadelphia.

“When I see things like this, it brings back all kinds of memories,” she said. “One of the things I sympathize with is young children in the city who are terrified of bullets flying around them.”

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After Penn, she worked as the director of molecular biology at Wills Eye Hospital, launched a small biotech business, and cofounded a successful real estate financing firm called JNA Capital Inc. with her husband, developer Ahsan Nasratullah, while raising their family in East Mount Airy.

Gregarious by nature, she found her political spark in 2004 when she began organizing immigrant communities around Howard Dean’s ill-fated presidential campaign.

“My goal is to take the energy Dean has generated and use it to pull in people who are disenfranchised and felt they never had a voice,” she told The Inquirer at the time.

In 2009, former Mayor Michael Nutter appointed her to his Commission on Asian American Affairs. She later landed a job as the president for the Philadelphia chapter for the National Organization for Women, and then moved to Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration as his deputy mayor for public engagement.

“She always organized women, she always marched, and she always made sure our voices were heard,” said State Rep. Darisha Parker, who endorsed Ahmad.

Ahmad left City Hall in 2017 to float a short-lived campaign against then-U.S. Rep. Bob Brady — a move that made her some enemies in Democratic circles. She went on to spend over $1 million financing unsuccessful bids for lieutenant governor in 2018 and auditor general in 2020.

Some began to quietly criticize her as a perennial candidate, hungry for any public office she could get. But Ahmad said the statewide campaigns drove her back to the local stage.

“What those races taught me was that Philadelphia is looked at in a very poor light in Pennsylvania, and I want to rectify that,” Ahmad said. “We are an economic driver in this state.”

This year’s Council at-large race was dominated by a battle between business interests and progressive groups, but Ahmad did not fall neatly into either camp. She built her own coalition and, aided by over $250,000 in personal contributions to her campaign, finished fourth in the crowded contest.

“No one ever gave her a fair shake,” said political consultant Kyle Darby, who did not work for any candidates in the race. “But she fought, and she fought. She really did it her way.”

Navigating a return to City Hall

While allies said Ahmad’s immigrant roots and advocacy career will lend her a unique perspective on Council, her ties to development could be a source of scrutiny.

Real estate holdings are a hot-button issue for lawmakers, given Council’s wide influence over land use and development in the city. But she’s not the first candidate to have development ties — former Councilmember and mayoral candidate Allan Domb owns more than 400 Philadelphia properties. And Ahmad said she would come up with a plan to avoid conflicts of interest.

While she is removed from day-to-day operations, she still owns a 49% stake in JNA Capital, and remains active advising what she describes as community-oriented development projects. The company’s portfolio includes the Crane Chinatown apartment tower, the Africatown in Southwest Philly, and a historic theater restoration in Delaware County. Its development partners also include political heavy-hitters like the University of Pennsylvania.

“We’re going to have a financial disclosure and talk to the ethics board to find out how we handle this,” she said.

If elected, Ahmad said she would seek economic relief by seeking automatic enrollment in tax breaks for homeowners who are leaving money on the table and by cleaning up tangled-title ownership for inherited properties.

While Council’s power is limited on gun violence, she would also like to facilitate conversations between city agencies and “eds and meds” leaders to bring more gun violence disruption services to local hospitals.

“This is a virus — it’s a pathogen — and I would like to begin treating it with services in the emergency room,” she said. “I want to be sure we are looking for the lowest-hanging fruit.”