What’s it like to be the first Muslim woman to run for mayor in a U.S. city? Or, being the first legally blind person to run for Mayor of Rochester? Regina Mustafa can answer both of those questions; and, she has answers and ideas for the growing pains the city of Rochester is undergoing.
I met Regina Mustafa for the first time at Collider Coworking where she keeps office space. My first impression three-word description of her: personable, passionate, and knowledgeable. She’s gorgeous and stylish too. Those two details are perhaps a bit irrelevant for someone who wants to lead a city that is in the midst of significant transformation into a Destination Medical Center.
In addition to leading the nonprofit Community Interfaith Dialogue on Islam; Regina is a wife, the mother of two young children (6 and 8), and a community leader. She’s just two years shy of joining the 40-something club.
“The three top issues on my platform are affordable housing, livable wages, and building a multi-modal transportation system,” Regina said during our conversation. She has a vision of a downtown that all diverse communities can enjoy, not a select few. “The people who call it home deserve to continue calling it home. Not to feel pushed out.”
An Interview with Mayoral Candidate Regina Mustafa:
Q: I know we have much more substantive topics to cover, but since my blog is 40 Fit N’ Stylish, do you mind talking about what you think makes a woman stylish and a bit about your personal style?
I love a woman in a pair of heels. I wear them too. I’m already 5’10. In heels, I’m over six feet. I like the headscarf. It is not often seen as stylish. Since I wear it, I like to have fun with it. I do consider myself stylish. The headscarf is great, because you can pin anything to it. I like getting pieces of antique jewelry. For a fancier event, a bold clip in the back. I do like makeup. It is my sin, my vice. I am guilty. I style my hijab a certain way. Everybody asks me how I do it and I don’t tell them. It’s my secret. I’m not telling you. You’ll have to figure it out on your own. It took me a long time to figure it out.
We talked about the hijab, people’s perceptions, and prejudices…
“If non-Muslims do have a problem with the headscarf, it’s a scapegoat of dealing with our own problems with women in this country, with what’s going on in our own homes and our own backyards; our own places of work. It’s my choice. It’s the way I express myself. It’s an outward expression of an inner reality. They are not copyrighted from the Muslim community. Peoples’ hang ups, peoples’ low self-esteem are often played out on a woman’s body. Even other women suffer from the effects of patriarchy and they perpetuate this bullshit. A woman choosing to cover her hair is a form of empowerment. There is not one form of feminism. There’s many forms of feminism. There’s many ways of viewing feminism. I believe covering my hair is a form of feminism.”
Regina has experienced micro-aggressions from others. A woman once posted on her Facebook page, “I’m living for the day Muslim women can take off their headscarf.” She’s been asked, “What male family member makes you wear that?” and “Why don’t you take that off, it’s hot?” Those comments are not helpful, they are belittling.
Q: Do you feel that racism has increased since the 2016 presidential election?
We have the stats to prove it. I work for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Southeast Minnesota as an Outreach Director. There is this emboldened, greenlight of acting out. In the past year I ‘ve had two death threats.
Q: You’ve mentioned that being legally blind is an asset to the community. How so?
I’m legally blind due to a genetic disorder. I’ve been living with legal blindness for 13 or 14 years. We [people with disabilities] have to work twice, ten times as hard as able-bodied people to just be on the same playing field. Living in a world that’s not made for you, not catered to you. There are not many accommodations for people with visual or hearing issues. We’re using our other skills, our other senses, to get the job done. You live with this hurdle to overcome. Your whole day is based on how to get around that. Somebody who has that skill – that’s an incredible asset that can benefit the entire community. There’s a lot of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations that are just not enforced.
Q: Rochester has never had a female Mayor. Do you think the city is ready for one?
A: I think it’s been ready for a female leader. Nationally, statewide, locally we see the effect of men in politics. If you listen to your youth – they’re ready for something different. They’re tired of the old boys way, the lack of transparency. They’re ready for somebody who can relate to multiple generations, and people from different walks of life. I’ve experienced a lot of support from men, women, young, and the older generation. I mean I have to realize that for women stepping into any political realm is still going to be challenging. A woman is going to be more questioned for her reasoning for getting into politics. I’m very excited to go into the summer and the rest of they year with the support that I am getting.
Q: Why run for Mayor of Rochester?
A: This has been the home of my community leadership. Rochester is not becoming a diverse city. It’s been one. Yet, we do not see that represented in our leadership, City Board, and Commissions.
When she started serving on the City of Rochester Ethical Practices Board she was the only Muslim on any City Board.
Q: What drives you to do the community leadership that you do?
She has served the Rochester community include: serving on the Olmsted County Human Rights Commission, forming the nonprofit organization Community Interfaith Dialogue on Islam (CIDI), advocating for affordable housing. In recognition of her community leadership Regina has received the following awards: Champion of Diversity Award from the Diversity Council of Rochester, Bridge-Builder Award from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Mayor’s Medal of Honor, Rising Champion of Justice by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Minnesota.
A: The primary motivator for the work that I do in the community are my children. I want a better future for them. One where they can be who they want to be and not live in fear of whatever that identity is. Racism is an increasing problem. It’s not getting any better.
Q: Let’s talk about your platform. What concerns you about and what do you hope to do about affordable housing, livable wages, and transportation in Rochester?
Blogger’s Note: After discussing Regina’s platform with her, I feel like a much more well-informed citizen of Rochester than I had been just an hour before. She is intelligent, intense, and well-informed. It is not possible for me to cover in a blog post the breadth and depth of what she expressed during this part of our conversation.
A: Affordable housing is definitely my top concern. You can’t have affordable housing without establishing a livable wage. Doctors can’t do their work if the people doing the custodial work can’t afford to live here and work at Mayo. The public transit piece is very dear to my heart since I use public transportation. I know the importance of having a walkable city with safe bike paths. We need to have somebody at the table who has a vision of Rochester as a transit first community and not a hop-in-my-car first community.
Regina pointed out that if a person has more money, paired with a great transportation system that’s more affordable, there’s more money for them to put toward where they’re living.
Affordable Housing and Livable Wages…
“You can’t have affordable housing if we don’t have the livable wage piece. The only way to get affordable housing fit. It’s going to be like aligning the planets.”
“A couple of years ago, I worked in food service. [Like many do, she took the job to get a foot in the door at Mayo Clinic]. I made a pitiful, pitiful amount. I worked there part-time alongside people who worked there full-time and went right to their next job from there. They can’t afford to take off from work and go see their health professional. They do hard, very labor-intensive work. Luckily, I have a spouse. No way in heck could I have done that job and provided for my family.”
Some suggest that if people can’t afford Rochester rents that they should move beyond city limits. Regina doesn’t believe that option is a solution. “That mindset further creates the problem of neighborhoods that are segregated,” she said. “Anybody who wants to stay in Rochester should deserve to be able to stay here and have a decent place to live.”
Some potential solutions Regina has for affordable housing and livable wages:
- Redefining affordable housing in Rochester, because outlying very high paying jobs are skewing the Annual Median Income (AMI). As Regina explained, AMI is used in determining affordable housing.
- Giving landlords incentives to rehab some of their existing apartment building. “Existing units are totally becoming shit holes and you can quote me on that. We can’t talk about DMC with people living in filth. What can we do to help these landlords refurbish?”
- She agrees with much of Minneapolis Mayor Frey’s proposal for affordable housing. Regina has been paying attention to how other cities from Saint Louis Park, MN to Philadelphia, PA (her hometown) are creating affordable housing for residents.
- Using Tax Increment Financing (TIF) toward affordable housing.
- Rezoning so we can have smaller lot sizes.
To become a transit-first community….
“We need designated and safe bike paths and pedestrian areas along the major corridors. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), that seems to be the way the City Council is swinging and I support BRT over Rail. Rail doesn’t seem practical. Multi-modal ways of getting people from point A to point B. I like the BRT so much, because it has the flexibility for future technology.” Regina also talked about a vision of supermarkets, parking, and housing at BRT transfer stops.
Q: What sparks the passion?
A: I think it’s really interesting. The nuts and bolts is really, really fascinating. The people who are there: the builders, City Council, city staff, the City Administrator, grassroots organizations…all these personalities get brought to the table. It’s a pretty damn good thing I find it interesting. I wouldn’t be running for mayor if I didn’t.
Q: Did you always want to become a politician?
No. Absolutely not. It’s one of the last things on earth I ever wanted to do. It just blossomed. I never thought I’d be an Interfaith Advocate. I never thought I’d get into nonprofit work. The choice of becoming a community leader or wanting to get into the political realm, you can’t separate it from Rochester itself. It’s a small city. It has this cosmopolitan feel. It’s extremely diverse. It’s a size that’s hungry. Hungry for new ideas. Hungry for uniting around a cause. It’s a city that wants to latch onto arts. It really is a city where if you have an idea, have a passion, you can really make your footing.