Sameena Mustafa has had a successful career as a real estate broker working with nonprofits and small businesses in addition to a rising profile in the city’s comedy scene. In 2015 she cofounded Simmer Brown, a South Asian comedy collective. But the 2016 election made her take a hard look at the local political arena and decide to get involved. Now Mustafa, 47, is one of three Democratic primary challengers to incumbent Fifth District U.S. representative Mike Quigley, who’s held that office for nearly a decade. Mustafa believes he’s out of touch with the progressive values that she sees to be increasingly animating the district. If she wins, Mustafa would be the first Muslim woman in Congress and the first Indian-American woman to represent Illinois.
Here at the Reader we’re familiar with your comedy work. Have you always been doing comedy alongside your real estate career?
I started comedy in 2014, and that’s the newest venture. Real estate I started in 2003. I was still working full-time while I was performing. Comedy is a late-night venture, as it were, so it’s not something that would conflict with business meetings.
I had been creative when I was younger. I wrote poetry, and I wrote in high school. So I had that creative side of me, and it was one of those things where someone was like, “Take a class at Second City!,” and it was fine. I took another one and a friend suggested, “Hey, if you like this but you want something a little bit different, try this women-only stand-up and storytelling class,” and that was the Feminine Comique. My graduation was four years ago, my comedy graduation. I never actually performed onstage before that graduation. It was so different from anything I’ve done in terms of writing. I did debate in college, so I had no problem speaking in public, but this is very different—it was me bringing my political ideas, my creative side, and my comfort with being in front of people. Immediately I had an affinity for it. I really enjoyed it. I was nervous the first time I was onstage, but I loved it.
I can’t find any of your stand-up on YouTube. Is there a reason for that?
I see comedy as something you do. It’s something you can be doing for 20 years and still be learning and evolving—it’s like any craft. To me it was more important for people to come to shows. I didn’t want to do, like, a Facebook live. It was more about having the interaction and immediacy. We’re essentially creating an experience, a community in real time.
You’re running against an incumbent who’s held this seat for nearly a decade. Some would say that it’s not a great strategy for a first attempt at political office. Why did you decide to spend your time and money on a race that’s really stacked against you?
The electorate is looking for a different type of leader, one that’s grassroots, connected to the community, that isn’t somebody that’s been selected for them. If you look at the last ten years, Democrats have lost over 1,000 seats on every level including the White House. So it’s one of those things where all the data is pointing against your assumptions, yet you’re still holding those assumptions? To me this was a district, this was an incumbent that was important enough to challenge because we have a completely different environment than we did two years ago. And so to have someone in that seat who doesn’t advocate for the values of the voters of the Fifth District was an opportunity to bring that, to bring that leadership.
And having lived in the district as long as I have and had immediate contact with people from all walks of life and different parts of the district—you get a sense of what people value. When you’re in an environment like a comedy show, it’s a flash focus group. It’s not hard to figure out what people are thinking and feeling and what they care about. Mike Quigley refused to do a town hall following the inauguration, which was something being done by Republican lawmakers across the country. And I thought: Why is my Democratic congressman, in a very Democratic district, refusing to do them?
You’ve been living in the district for 30 years. When did you first learn anything about your congressman? And can you describe your relationship with the congressman over the years?
I knew who he was and, frankly, because he has never been challenged, I voted for him. I knew he had the baseline: he was pro-choice, he was pro-LGBT. Then when I started looking at my stack of leaders up and down the ballot and started thinking about the issues I cared about and started doing some research on some stances that Mike Quigley had taken, it occurred to me that he may be good on those two issues but there’s so many issues on which he is falling short. Or, frankly, is in opposition to the values that I hold and that the voters hold in the district. Mike Quigley is not someone who sticks his neck out on issues.
If you were elected, you’d be the first Muslim woman in Congress. What goes through your mind as you consider that prospect?
It would certainly be a milestone, but I’m optimistic that people in Democratic politics are increasingly accepting of leaders irrespective of their religion, gender, or ethnicity and are looking for candidates who stand with them on the issues and share their values. More doors are opening for candidates who have something to offer but who historically have not had opportunities to serve.
In light of the conversation that you participated in with the Reader last year, talking about feminism and intersectionality in what would be considered a nonmainstream way, how are you bringing your political consciousness as a feminist committed to intersectionality to this very mainstream political arena?
It’s in how I’ve organized my campaign, it’s in how I’ve talked about the issues. . . . I gotta tell you, we’ve talked to thousands of voters, and this is a progressive district. So when you approach them, they assume you’re agreeing on some baseline principles. Are you pro-choice? Are you pro-LGBT? Do you support the Dreamers, immigration reform? Are you going to be supporting health care access for all? This is something I’ve found is resonating with voters.
On the intersectionality piece per se, I have made it a point to have a very inclusive team. The majority of the leaders on my team are women and women of color. Those are the kinds of things that resonate with volunteers, with donors, with voters.
And are you also mentally preparing yourself to step into an electoral political space which requires compromise and working with people who have a radically different political understanding of things?
I’ve spent the last 13 years advocating for people and organizations that are founded on values—nonprofits that are working on important issues like immigration, sexual assault survivors. It’s something where I’m literally negotiating against people who don’t necessarily share those values and they are not really committed to those outcomes. And they have their own agenda, and they have their own profit motive, specifically in the space of commercial real estate.
As it relates to being a public figure and having criticism—I’ve been doing it for the last six, seven months. I have put myself out there in a way that’s public, and in some ways it was an extension of what I was doing in the arts community. Because when you’re onstage, you’re essentially saying, “I am open to anything. I’m declaring my values, I’m declaring my beliefs, and I welcome you to challenge them.” But I’m not shying away from being a public figure.
You’ve talked about how problematic gerrymandering is, how it creates this strange monoculture of an electorate in one particular district. Is there anything you’ve been either pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised by as you’ve been campaigning around the absurd contours of the Fifth District?
I know this district, this is the district I grew up in, my parents have lived here for over 40 years, and I felt confident in my knowledge of what the values were that I held and that were shared by the voters. And one thing that I keep getting positive reinforcement on is how much, despite the gerrymandering, how much the voters and the district value diversity and believe in inclusion and view it as one of our strengths. I’m getting phone calls, e-mails, and messages from people who are saying, “We want to help you, we support you, we share your values and we want to see a leader like you represent us.” It’s humbling, and it’s an honor. This has been an incredible opportunity to connect with people on values and policies that they care about.