‘Willing to take the political risk’: Del. Ibraheem Samirah explains his brash brand of activist politics

By: - August 29, 2019 12:01 am

Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-Fairfax) holds up a sign as President Donald Trump delivers remarks during the 400th anniversary celebration of the first representative legislative assembly at Jamestown on July 30, 2019 in Jamestown, Virginia. The ceremony marks the 400th anniversary of the Virginia Assembly’s first meeting held in Jamestown’s Church in 1619. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, was so new to the General Assembly when he stood to protest President Donald Trump during a speech at Jamestown last month, it’s not clear that reporters covering the event initially recognized him as a state lawmaker.

Since then, Samirah, who won his seat in a February special election and served just six days of this year’s legislative session, has emerged as one of the body’s more outspoken members, penning an op-ed critiquing the so-called Virginia Way, debating the Roanoke Times editorial page about civility and, most recently, challenging U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, in a Twitter thread that accused her of using “Republican talking points against fellow Democrats” and urged her to support an impeachment inquiry against Trump.

But while he’s new to the General Assembly, Samirah, a 28-year-old Palestinian-American dentist, points to years of experience as an activist that he says should make his actions in Jamestown unsurprising. He recalled making banners as a student at Boston College during the 2016 election pushing Bernie Sanders to support Palestine. Later that year, he was filmed standing with a group of protesters outside the Democratic National Convention and dumping a bottle of water on the head of Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera — an incident he hasn’t directly acknowledged but, in response to questions, did not deny.

His brash approach to politics drew scrutiny during his February campaign for office, with his Republican opponent accusing him of anti-Semitism for Facebook posts in 2014 that, among other things, compared funding Israel to supporting the Ku Klux Klan. Samirah apologized for his language but dismissed the criticism as a smear campaign.

As one of two Muslim lawmakers in the state, he says he’s felt compelled to speak out since entering the General Assembly. And he notes he’s also been on the receiving end of inflammatory attacks, including at his first town hall in May, when an attendee asked him how he planned to implement Sharia law in Virginia.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Virginia Mercury: All of a sudden it feels like I’m hearing more from you than many of your Democratic colleagues combined. Did you just find your voice when Trump came to Virginia or was it more an issue of finding an audience?

Samirah: It’s a battle between me wanting to get a lot done for everyday people of Virginia, especially people that don’t have the best means to find the best jobs and live the best life that they can live. But at the same time, I also do come from a background that’s so unique and has not had much exposure and is deemed to be not part of America by the majority of Americans and a huge swath of Democrats as well.

This isn’t a party-line issue. This is across the board — people view Muslims as less. Not American, not part of the fabric. Now you’ll hear stories about how much of a shame the Japanese internment camps were and how disgusting it was to put Japanese Americans in concentration camps just for being Japanese. Being in this moment and realizing that — this specific moment could be looked at in that same fashion 15, 20, 40 years from now, makes me realize that we could stop it right now. We could do a lot of the fixing for these bigger societal problems right now.

You’re one of the first Muslim lawmakers elected to the General Assembly, right?

I’m the second. But I’d say I’m probably the first person who’s willing to take the political risk of identifying with it. I ran on being a member of a community that’s marginalized.

So just the mechanics of deciding you’re going to stand up during President Trump’s speech at this big formal event in Jamestown and protest — how did you decide you were going to do that?

It’s a learned experience. Being an activist on college campuses and outside campuses as an organizer on the ground … knowing the mechanics of calling attention to an issue in the right time, the right moment.

Democrats were saying, “We should walk out.” I said, “That’s perfect, we should walk out.” So I took it from there and customized it using those experiences of raising my voice, speaking loud and clear about an issue and making sure it reaches an audience.

The next part of it was, what messages do I want to send? I think the first and most important one for me was just, generally speaking, standing up for democracy. I wanted to make sure corruption was called out for what it is. … Similarly, with his usage of the term “go back home” in reference to the four congresswomen of color that President Trump targeted in the weeks prior — making them feel less American. … I realize I am seen as less and I have to fight back against it.

Were you waiting for a specific moment to stand up?

That was such a conundrum, because I hadn’t thought about it all. I thought, “Oh, you know, if I get it in, I’ll just do it.” … My confidence had severely dropped when Trump started to talk. … He was such an eloquent speaker and I just didn’t see how I could protest him at that very moment or how I could do it in a way that made sense to my colleagues, in particular. I know how a lot of them would think, you know, is it appropriate in that very moment to do something? That’s what I think of as the Virginia Way … Is it deemed appropriate? Is appropriate the word that should control this conversation? Then I heard the president mention Martin Luther King Jr. and all these great words and mentioning the struggle that Martin Luther King fought for, and that’s when it hit me hard and my confidence went back up. … Maybe 30, 40, 50 seconds later — that next applause break, I started saying it aloud, “Mr. President, you can’t send us back. Virginia is my home.”

You faced a lot of criticism, mostly from Republicans. One of the things that came out was House Speaker Kirk Cox initially said he was considering censuring you, then later said, no, but he needs a talking to from his caucus leaders. Did you hear anything from your caucus leaders? Did they say anything?

Yeah. Everybody supported it, as far as people who came and talked to me. Not one single person has not supported it. I think the biggest surprise should be that someone like myself was expected to stay silent in the face of this president. I think expecting somebody whose father is not allowed reentry into this country until this very day to sit down and just shrug it off — the president’s here. … There’s no way somebody of my background could just sit there and let it go. It’s such a poor assumption, I don’t even know where to start. So for everybody that was shocked or surprised, I ask them to think about how that would have looked 10 or 15 years from now when the world looks back on this time and era of America and thinks, “What a racist time.” … I think a lot of the people who stood behind it implicitly on that day will be disgusted with themselves.

So you didn’t get pulled aside by (House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn)?

No. They were supportive, if anything. They applauded me for my bravery. They said, “Only you could have done that.” That’s sort of the reinforcing message that I got. What I read online, in The Washington Post, (was) that there were a few delegates who thought I stole the limelight, that they viewed me negatively for that. That’s a shame if they think I was out for the limelight and not potentially risking my safety as a result of this protest. They’re crazy if they think that’s worth the limelight.

And then there’s only one (Democrat) who came out in public, (U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia Beach), who came out and said it was outrageous that I did that. She was saying she was shocked. I called her out for it online.

Last week you criticized Luria, contrasting her response to comments by freshman Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan to how she has responded to Trump when he’s made remarks widely understood as racist or anti-Semitic. I get the sense a lot of Democrats would prefer to avoid these kinds of friendly-fire debates. Why do you think it’s important for the party to publicly debate this stuff?

No. 1, I’m looking out for just a few other people around the country of my background that are elected. I haven’t counted, but I would guess there are less than 10 Muslims elected to any legislative position anywhere in the country. That is something I take to heart, especially when the president is going after them on an almost weekly basis. But No. 2, I’m also looking out for Elaine. She must be crazy thinking that she can call my comment outrageous when she won on the back of Donald Trump. There’s no way that she thinks that she won her election in 2018 for standing up to protests of Donald Trump. Her election in and of itself was a protest of Donald Trump. And she needs to recognize that. She needs to recognize that this is for her good — to stand up for truth when it matters. …

Many of her colleagues have decided to support impeachment. She should follow their lead. That is the right thing to do. A former Republican from Michigan did it too. She can do the right thing and she can support impeachment inquiries against Donald Trump.

Luria and U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico — they’re in traditionally Republican districts, and they’ve obviously taken deliberately moderate stances on some of these issues and feel like they’re representing their districts by doing that. It sounds like you don’t think that’s a good strategy for them. 

Absolutely not a good campaign strategy. You have Republicans ready to primary the president inside the Republican Party. Party membership for Republicans is down across the country. If they want to go with the same old Virginia way, which is, oh just be nice, you’ll get by in politics, then they should know that’s not the way to be a great politician and a great representative. That’s a route for a short career in politics.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.