PATERSON – The man who rose to power by declaring a ban on Muslims entering the United States didn’t count on Freeholder Assad R. Akhter, who makes a countering statement in his own quiet, reserved and well spoken way, reluctant to speak as a member of a group – though he happens to be Muslim – and always striving to emphasize America and its political traditions.
The door swung open in Abu Rass and in walked Akhter, a U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) staffer who last year secured the support of the Passaic County Democratic Committee to become the first Muslim to serve on the freeholder board.
Now he’s in campaign mode, a pretty much constant condition, coming as he does from Pascrell world, but there is also the practical demand of a crammed elections timeline. As the replacement on the board for Hector Lora (who vacated his countywide seat in order to take over as acting mayor in the City of Passaic), Akhter will run this year to finish the remainder of his predecessor’s term and then, if he wins, run as the incumbent in 2018 for a full, four year term.
“I’m enjoying it,” the new freeholder told InsiderNJ, referring to his transition from staffer to elected official. “I like the fact that I can speak in my own voice and give my own opinions and thoughts and not worry about the repercussions. [Freeholders] Bruce James, John Bartlett and Sandi Lazzara and others have taken me under their wing to give me an understanding of how the county works and all the things the county does.”
The 36-year old Akhter cut his teeth in federal government, 11 years a staffer for Pascrell, the scrappy South Paterson product who relied on Akhter in his D.C. office prior to pulling him back to the district in time for redistricting and the possible threat of a 2012 Democratic Primary.
Akhter’s rise in government coincides with the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who in the GOP Primary called for a ban of Muslims entering the United States. The two events are related. Following Trump’s election and Lora’s move to the Passaic mayoralty, Passaic County insiders anticipated County Democratic Party Chairman John Currie and his executive committee installing a Latino to fill the vacancy.
But instead they tapped Ahkter.
“It’s hard to dismiss the timing of all this with everything going on at that federal level,” he told InsiderNJ. “I’m as upset as everyone else, not just the Muslim American community, but all of us, as Americans. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve right now. I’ve never seen this kind of energy and this kind of engaged citizenry, which I wish we could have had before the election. I definitely think it helped me. As excited as people are about my appointment, Democrats in other communities are more excited. They’re glad the Democratic Party made that statement.”
Ahkter’s parents immigrated to North Brunswick from Pakistan. He is a graduate from Seton Hall University.
In this ward where the Italian American Pascrell grew up, Turks, Syrians and Lebanese Americans have long had a toehold. More recently, the Palestinian population has grown, while Bengalis have grown in the city’s second ward.
“I’m South Asian,” Ahkter said. “There is not a huge South Asian community in Paterson.” He added with a laugh, “I’m probably the only Pakistani in Paterson. A few in the older generation may be more resistant to me but not his generation.
“At the end of the day, we’re all under attack,” he added.
In the aftermath of Trump’s attempt to will an executive order banning Muslims from seven Middle Eastern countries, Ahkter says he doesn’t sense fear so much as an emboldened patriotism. “I think people are more determined than ever to do something, and we are secure in our citizenship. i have had people say to me that if they start a Muslim registry, ‘I’m registering as a Muslim.’ People here are not going to go quietly.”
In that vein, the freeholder board at its February 14th meeting passed a unanimous resolution in opposition to Trump’s travel ban. unconstitutional ban.
“We don’t know what the push back will be,” said Freeholder James, Akhter’s mentor and ally on the board. “What we plan on doing is to follow the laws. We’re going to be watching. It’s not our job to enforce what Trump wants to enforce if it’s not legal.”
“I’m not too worried,” Akhter said of possible reprisals come budget time. “New Jersey resoundingly rejected Trump and rejected Christie as well.”
Having been on the Pascrell Team when the congressman won a resounding victory in the 2012 Democratic Primary – against the odds – and over the course of the past decade and numerous fights, the new freeholder said he intends to work with the same vigor demonstrated by Pascrell’s office – and with the same hyper-local visibility.
“He [Pascrell] votes and then he gets on a train and comes back here,” he said. “He’s the consummate congressman. Working for Pascrell you get an education in working every campaign and working person to person and never taking an election for granted. He likes to be here with the people. He’s never forgotten where he comes from, his word is his bond, and you make relationships before you need them.”
Akhter will soon leave Pascrell’s office, just as another Pascrell alum – Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, now chief strategist for Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign – did before him, to focus on his own political career. the Passaic freeholder told InsiderNJ that he is proudest of working with the Ways and Means Committee-stationed Pascrell during that time when the congress passed the wall Street bailout bill and the Affordable Care Act.
“I’m happy to have had some small part in those things,” he said.
Of the overall mood of distrust and dislike for politicians, Akhter says he chooses to see politics as noble work, and is focused at present on county business. “Politics is public service,” he said. “It’s the means by which we serve the public. I know my place. I’m a freeholder right now. I promised people I wouldn’t let this go to my head. I’m not going to get ahead of myself.”
He learned from those tough contests that his boss was in, and he knows the drill.
“I am running hard,” Akhter said.