An Uphill Battle Lost: Tahirah Amatul-Wadud and the Value of Challenging Complacency in Incumbent Politicians

by Allison Scharmann ‘21

I voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Not officially of course—I was ill-equipped to navigate the fourth grade, let alone a ballot—but in spirit. I picked up the pen and my mother held her hand over mine, guiding it down the long, white piece of paper and asking me what I thought about each of the candidates and questions and how “we” should vote. I couldn’t come up with much outside of “Barack Obama is good” and “dog racing is bad,” but the introduction to voting had the desired effect: I was hooked. There was nothing I wanted more in that moment, and in every election season that followed, than to fill out that ballot myself.

As the time to vote came closer, my motivation to vote shifted from dreams of civic participation to fear of a fascistic reality TV show host and confessed sexual harasser stealing the presidency I had been so proud to see Barack Obama win just eight years earlier. I pre-registered to vote in order to ensure that I would have a say in choosing the Democratic candidate I would invest my vote in that November, but when I looked at my first ballot it wasn’t the clash of Bernie and Hillary that caught my eye. I realized, scanning the names down the ballot, that being a Democrat in Massachusetts meant there wasn’t much variety in my primary choices.

The Bay State, notorious for high rates of incumbency and Democratic party dominance, is often lacking in competitive primary races. This is not to say that long-term incumbents are unqualified for their positions or do not deserve to keep them, but long-term political incumbents, by nature of their status and ease in achieving re-election, slip easily into complacency, political apathy, and valuing of special interests over constituents. My own congressman, the near three decade incumbent and ranking Democrat on Ways and Means Committee Richard Neal, inspired a progressive group in Western Massachusetts to put out ads with a photo of his face and the lines “Has anyone seen this man? (yes, he’s your congressman)” to draw attention to his perceived absence from the many rural communities he represents.  

One solution to this problem is to enact term limits for federal offices and for state offices where they don’t already exist, an intriguing, but complicated idea. Assuming term limits won’t be enacted anytime soon, another way to hold incumbents accountable is to run competitive primary candidates against them, forcing them to double down on their commitment to their constituents or risk losing re-election. This particular phenomenon has drawn national attention in 2018, as a wave of progressive, diverse, and often young Democrats took on some of Washington’s most elite and established politicians. Women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley made headlines challenging and ousting incumbents in New York City and Boston. Even Western Massachusetts’ 1st District, thanks to progressive candidate Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, saw a competitive Democratic congressional primary.

This fall Amatul-Wadud mounted an inspiring challenge to incumbent Representative Neal. Informed by her intersecting identities as a Black Muslim woman and her work with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Massachusetts, Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, and Boston Children’s Hospital Family Advisory Committee, the attorney and activist ran on a platform centered on Medicare for All, high speed internet access, civil rights, and environmental justice. Wadud attracted grassroots progressive support and pushed Neal, a politician accustomed to re-election so secure Republicans historically haven’t bothered to challenge him, farther left and farther out in the open. In the weeks leading up to election day Amatul-Wadud began to attract heightened media attention for her “Ocasio-Cortez potential” and, unlike last year, I found myself excited to vote in my Democratic Primary.

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud saw in Western Massachusetts the same struggles and challenges that I did. She felt the same frustration at being part of a region ignored not just by its Congressperson, but by its state government two hours away in Boston. In campaigning across the array of cities, suburbs, and farmtowns we both call home, Amatul-Wadud inspired voters to ask more of their political representatives. When all the votes were counted Tahirah Amatul-Wadud did not win, but Western Massachusetts as a whole is better for her pursuit.