An Ethiopian American politician on the Rise
Alexander Assefa, an Ethiopian born American citizen, is about to make a rare political history. Nominated as a Democrat, he is certain to be elected, notably as he has minimal challenges from others, including from the Republicans. The noted activist moved to the United States in 2000 after spending few years in Kenya as a refugee. Here, he reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on politics, his biography and gives advice to those Ethiopians in the United States, which has the largest concentration of Ethiopian immigrants, to follow in his footsteps. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You are set to become a member of the Nevada State House. That will be a first for someone of your background. What made you run in the first place?
Alexander Assefa: I am someone who have always advocated for those who are marginalized, neglected and left voiceless in the political system. I am very actively engaged in the affairs of my community. I strongly believe in the equality of all people, regardless who they are or where they came from; no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other attributes – all people should be treated equally under legal guarantees.
I have witnessed and fought against discrimination and for social and economic equity for far too long. Our East African origin community (Ethiopians and Eritreans) here in Nevada has experienced its share of isolation, marginalization, income inequality, and blatant discrimination. Often times, we don't know how and where to fight back. This, in addition to the election of Donald Trump as President, propelled me to say enough is enough. I was forced by the circumstances around me to enter the political arena and fight for justice, equality and the protection of our interests as one people
Why do you think there are few Ethiopian born candidates and that few were successful?
There are two major reasons why we don't participate in the electoral system:
First, the belief that we are inferior to other Americans and that we are not good enough to be elected, has contaminated young minds. This dangerous mentality exposes us to be ruled by others who are taking part in the political system and are in charge of policy making and prescribing the laws with which we must live by.
Second, there is undeclared disassociation or refusal to assimilate with the American society. We tend to believe that this is not our country and we are simply immigrants, therefore the affairs of this nation is not our business. Yet, this is where we live, pay taxes, own homes and build families. This refusal to take root and take ownership of our communities again exposes us and our children to be led by others who don't know or care to understand who we are as people and what is important to us.
Third, some of us don't even know that we can vote or run for office. Heavy price was paid for our right to vote and this amazing democracy that we all enjoy. Many people died to protect and preserve this freedom for us. For those of us who immigrated to this country, it was legally given to us when we took on the American citizenship, along with the civic responsibilities it carries.
A combination of these, or all of them, are reasons for Ethiopian-Americans to not run for office or even vote in elections.
You had a choice to become either a Republican or an independent. Why the Democrats?
I find the Democratic Party beliefs to align with my beliefs and values. My party believes: we are all equal and stronger together, equal opportunity for all people regardless of race, religion, gender. We succeed as a nation when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and the law applies to all fairly. My party also believes in building an economy that lifts up all Americans, not just the rich and the well connected.
Share with me about the highlights of your biography?
I was born and grew up in Ethiopia, also lived in Nairobi, Kenya. I immigrated to the US in the year 2000. Completed High School in Columbus, Ohio and attended college in southern Virginia, where I became a pilot and also graduated with a degree in Political Science.
I permanently moved to Las Vegas in 2006, where I am a political advocate for the poor, marginalized and for those left voiceless in the system. I am also a business owner and the Chairman of the Clark County Democratic Party, Transport & Tourism Caucus. I also serve on various boards in the Las Vegas valley, among them, on the Board of Advisors at the African Community Center - a refugee resettlement agency in Southern Nevada.
There are many who continue to question the wisdom of unions. You have a background in activism within unions. Some say the unions are the architects of the black middle class family. Why are organized workers unions important in 2018?
Unions are the spine that keeps working families intact. It is because of unions that workers earn higher wages, better benefits, work-place safety, protections, collective bargaining rights and retiring with decency. In the 2018 mid-term elections, unions will play very important role in mobilizing voters and getting them to the ballot boxes. They will drive the numbers and ultimately elect politicians who will protect their rights, which are continuously under attack from the Trump administration.
What is your perception of President Trump?
This President, his policies and practices are inherently un-American. Virtually everything he stands for is contrary to what it means to be American. He recently took the liberty to insult African immigrant Americans like myself. Little did he know that we proud Americans, in fact, come from proud heritage and respectable rich history. By electing me into the Assembly, Democrats in Nevada, specifically Democrats in the 42nd district of the Nevada State Assembly, took the unique opportunity to send a loud and clear message - that an African immigrant like me can become a proud American and a leader in our state. This is a direct repudiation to the president.
Now that you are certain to be elected with no opposition from the Republicans, what issues do you want to champion?
I will be working on issues that directly impact and improve the lives of people. The issues on my radar during my first term in office are: healthcare, education, job creation, transportation and affordable housing.
There are many who are questioning the wisdom of elections in the United States. What message do you have for them?
If you don't vote, you are effectively silencing yourself and therefore should not complain when things go wrong. Not only is it important to vote, it is also a solemn responsibility of every citizen to elect those who reflect his/her values. Remember, your right to vote is a right that you were given for free, but many before you died in the protection and preservation of it. Use it.
How about to those who want to emulate your success in politics?
Stay focused and aspire to do better that you have done yesterday! Understand, success is not measured by how much money you have or how many degrees you have accumulated - it is rather how much you have positively impacted the lives of others. Give your knowledge and talents for the betterment of your community. Always remember all people are created equal.