Atlanta may have its own AOC

Nabilah Islam put her student loans in forbearance so she could afford a bid for Congress. But her fundraising prowess could make her a player in one of the nation's toughest districts.
Image: Nabilah Islam is running for congress in Gwinnett County, Ga.
Nabilah Islam is running for congress in Gwinnett County, Ga.Nabilah for Congress

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — For a woman who grew up in the Gwinnett County suburbs northeast of Atlanta as the daughter of South Asian immigrants, Nabilah Islam isn't that unusual.

Her parents came to the country from Bangladesh and worked hard — her father as a file clerk for the IRS and her mother flipping burgers and toiling at a warehouse until she literally broke her back — so their children didn't face the political and economic hardships they left behind.

And like many of her first- and second-generation American neighbors, Islam is struggling to make ends meet: At 29, she has put the remaining $27,849.63 on her student loans into forbearance and just decided to cancel a health insurance plan she described as "bogus."

What makes her stand out from most of the other residents of Georgia's hypercompetitive 7th Congressional District is that she's running to represent them in the House. And, with Democrats from all over the country landing in Atlanta this week for Wednesday's presidential debate, she should get a chance to connect with a wider group of potential donors and validators.

"I don’t have a unique story," she said in a recent telephone interview with NBC News. "It’s very common. But people like me don’t run for Congress. People have been inspired by the fact that I am running for Congress and giving this district a voice and taking on the risks I have in order to do so."

It's also a story that's now becoming more familiar in Washington, as young progressive women without traditional political pedigrees or deep pockets — like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. — have not only won election to the House but become prominent political forces.

But from the standpoint of national political trends, there is one huge difference.

If Islam wins a double-long-shot bid to capture the Democratic nomination and the general election, she'll have done so in an area that — unlike those represented by "AOC" and Omar — is a true swing district rather than a haven of liberalism.

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The district is a mix of older traditionally Republican suburbs infused with booming growth from domestic and foreign immigration: Its foreign-born population of almost 195,000, more than 82,000 of whom are U.S. citizens, is the largest in Georgia, according to the Census Bureau. In terms of racial and ethnic breakdown, 20 percent of residents are black, 20 percent are Hispanic and 14 percent are Asian, according to the Census Bureau.

Islam, who says she has endured harassment for her Muslim faith, said she wants to "give people a real voice at the table that understands their day-to-day lives."

There are reasons to think she'll get the chance to make her case, even if she doesn't start with the high profile of some of her rivals: At the same time Islam was having trouble running full time and making her personal budget work, she was bringing in more than $300,000 in campaign contributions through the end of September, according to the Federal Election Commission.

While others jumped in the race later, that sum made Islam the second-leading Democratic money-raiser through the end of the third quarter, after Bordeaux — and she has some area heavyweights in her corner, including former gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter.

The race is a bit of a free-for-all after the five-term Republican incumbent, Rob Woodall, announced his retirement following a 2018 re-election bid in which he defeated Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux by 433 votes. Bordeaux is seeking the Democratic nomination again, against several candidates, including state Sen. Zahra Karinshak, state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, former Fulton County Commissioner John Eaves and Islam, according to a list compiled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Islam's political experience doesn't come from being elected but from having worked behind the scenes on campaigns at the municipal, state and national levels. She was a regional fundraising aide for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2016 and worked on Carter's campaign before that. She wanted to take a part-time job while she ran for office but determined that she couldn't do both — and that her savings weren't enough to let her keep paying off her loans and her health insurance plan.

"Running for Congress is cost-prohibitive," she said. "It’s reserved for people who can do it."

On the Republican side, state Sen. Renee Unterman, former Home Depot executive Lynne Homrich, doctor Richard McCormick and several others have announced or are exploring bids for what promises to be one of the most hotly contested general election races on the 2020 House electoral map.

Islam said health insurance coverage — she supports the "Medicare for All" program touted by Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — is a priority issue for her.

The Affordable Care Act is "not doing what it was intended to do, and it's gotten even worse," she said.

And while she criticized Republicans for fighting to eliminate that law's individual mandate, she acknowledged that it would be more costly for her to consider giving up her own health insurance plan if she had to pay the Affordable Care Act's penalty for doing so.

The plan she does have isn't comprehensive enough to justify the cost, she said.

"I might as well not have it, is what it feels like," she said in the interview with NBC.

When open enrollment started Nov. 1, she canceled for 2020.

CORRECTION (Nov. 18, 2019, 6:35 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Islam raised more money than any other Democratic primary candidate in her district. She was the second-leading fundraiser, after Carolyn Bourdeaux, whose last name was misspelled.