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Bangladeshi immigrants are winning a seat at the table in the ‘club’ of Philly politics

In a city where politics have long been Black and white, a group of Bangladeshi immigrants is fighting for a seat at the table.

Mohammed Hares (right) talks as Mohammad Bhuiyan (left) and Jahed Chowdhury (center) listen.
Mohammed Hares (right) talks as Mohammad Bhuiyan (left) and Jahed Chowdhury (center) listen.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Mohammed Hares wanted to run for one of the smallest slices of power there is in American politics: a party committee position, with just about a half-mile of turf in his West Philadelphia neighborhood.

The ward leader had other plans.

It was 2018, and Pete Wilson, the Democratic leader in the Sixth Ward, told Hares that the women who held the two committee seats in his neighborhood had been there awhile and did good work. Hares, on the other hand, was a Bangladeshi community leader who moved to Philadelphia in the 1990s, whom Wilson later said he “didn’t know from a can of paint.”

Hares ran anyway — and won.

“People surprised,” he recalled last month with a grin, after describing how he had knocked on doors to campaign in a language other than his native Bangla. Three other Bangladeshis also won committee spots that year. Now, they’re hoping their party positions can boost efforts to aid their community.

It’s an increasingly common story in Philadelphia: Insurgent outsider beats the establishment. But while much of the new energy in city politics has been driven by progressives seeking to move the local Democratic Party further left, the Bangladeshis are breaking ground on a new front. Aside from being famously insular, Philadelphia politics has long been Black and white — though a growing portion of the city doesn’t fall into either of those categories.

“It’s a bit of a club,” said Nina Ahmad, a Bangladeshi immigrant and the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania auditor general, the state’s elected fiscal watchdog. She won the June primary despite much of the party establishment backing her opponent.

The Bangladeshis' bid to build clout suggests that local Democratic leaders will have to do more to engage immigrant communities.

"If the old, decaying infrastructure is not going to catch up to the times, the times are going to catch up to it,” said Siobhán Lyons, who chairs Second Generation, a political action committee supporting candidates from immigrant communities.

Friends in high places

Bangladeshis in Philadelphia number fewer than 2,000, compared with tens of thousands in the largest immigrant groups like those from China and Mexico. They turned to politics for the same reason others before them did: to help their own community.

Hares, who left the Bangladeshi port city of Chittagong on a student visa in 1986 and first arrived in New York, remembered how hard it was as one of the few Bangladeshis in the city in those early days. “I cry sometimes," said the father of four.

As more Bangladeshis came to the United States, largely through the diversity lottery visa program in the 1980s and ’90s, they formed associations like the Bangladesh Community of Pennsylvania to help immigrants find jobs, good schools for their kids, and financing to start small businesses. “Our community grown up,” Hares said.

In Philadelphia, their initial advocacy work was outside politics. In West Philadelphia, for example, they organized against proposed school closures in the early 2000s. But they soon realized the power in being able to count elected officials as allies.

In 2010, when they lobbied then-Mayor Michael Nutter to add the Bangladeshi flag to the scores of flags that line the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, it took months just to set up a meeting, said Jahed Chowdhury, 43, president of the Bangladesh Community of Pennsylvania.

Now they’ve built relationships with state lawmakers and members of Philadelphia City Council. They’ve hosted fund-raising events for the likes of Mayor Jim Kenney and U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans.

“Now,” Chowdhury said, “we call direct to Dwight Evans.”

In June, after Bangladeshi business owners' stores in West Philadelphia and Germantown were destroyed in the looting that followed the early peaceful protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, Chowdhury organized a Zoom meeting. Evans' chief of staff, Anuj Gupta; Councilmember Jamie Gauthier; and Ahmad were there. Chowdhury, who runs a variety store at 40th and Market, brought almost two dozen Bangladeshi business owners to speak.

Tamzid Bhuiyan spoke about the damage done to his father’s then-weeks-old electronics store on 60th Street, which cost thousands to repair.

“At the end of the day, we just wanted to be heard,” said Bhuiyan, 28.

Winning power in ‘an old city'

Breaking into power structures is hard for immigrants, who face language barriers, xenophobia, and the daily grind to build a life in a new country.

“It is hard to break the cycle of work and family, work and family,” said Abu Ahmin Rahman, a retired chemist who for decades has helped elect Bangladeshis to office in Delaware County, such as Upper Darby Township Councilmember Sheikh Siddique and the four Bangladeshis on the five-person Millbourne Borough Council.

It’s also hard to break into the power structure of Philadelphia politics, especially if you aren’t white or Black and born in this country.

“We’re an old city here,” said Ahmad, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor before winning the auditor general primary this year. “Politics has been done in a certain way ... but I think that’s changing.”

The city is 15% Latinx and almost 8% Asian, according to 2019 census data. Nikil Saval, an Indian American, became the city’s first Asian American ward leader in 2018. He’s now headed to Harrisburg after beating State Sen. Larry Farnese in the June primary (there is no Republican candidate in the district). Of the 69 Democratic ward leaders, three are Latinx — and all of them are Puerto Rican.

“There’s a perception that there’s no real opportunity for immigrants in the political parties,” said Republican City Councilmember David Oh, a Korean American and the first Asian American elected to City Council, in 2011.

“They need an invitation in,” said Oh, who has consistently won reelection without the backing of the local Republican Party, “and who’s going to invite them?”

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That’s precisely what makes the Bangladeshis' political engagement noteworthy, said Joe Khan, a Pakistani American who ran for Philadelphia district attorney in 2017.

“They’re not necessarily being invited to the table," he said, so they’re fighting to claim their seats at it instead.

Or as Ahmad put it: “The Democratic Party has embraced them, or they have made themselves be embraced.”

She added with a laugh: “I’m not sure which it is.”

Councilmember Helen Gym believes the Democratic Party can only grow and benefit from this kind of immigrant involvement.

“They open up a whole realm of individuals who are often neglected or marginalized in traditional electoral politics,” said Gym, a Korean American whose first bid for Council in 2015 was not supported by the local Democratic Party. Gym, who in 2019 received more votes than any other Council candidate since 1987, is now the leader of a fledgling progressive wing in Council and frequently discussed as a potential candidate for higher office.

The Bangladeshis, she said, can reach certain voters in their native language, and they have the trust of their community.

And the Bangladeshis know how to rebound after setbacks.

In the 2019 primary elections, they backed longtime incumbent Councilmember Jannie Blackwell, also a longtime ward leader and political giant in West Philadelphia. Blackwell was ousted by political newcomer Gauthier, the daughter of a Caribbean immigrant.

"We worked for Jannie,” Chowdhury acknowledged.

But after she lost, they quickly reached out Gauthier, inviting her to dinner at Chowdhury’s brother’s house.

And now, Chowdhury said, “we work for Jamie.”