Dr. Sadaf Jaffer became the first South Asian woman to serve as mayor of a municipality in New Jersey, and the first Muslim woman to serve as a mayor of a municipality in the United States. Jaffer is a Postdoctoral Research Associate of South Asian Studies at Princeton University where she teaches courses on South Asian, Islamic, and Asian American studies. She got her start in politics when she ran for local office in 2017 and won, becoming the first and only Democrat on the local government in Montgomery, NJ, in many years. In the following year, the Democratic Party won two more seats and Jaffer became the Mayor. She is now running for New Jersey State Assembly in Legislative District 16.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background: where you were born and raised?
SJ: I was born and raised in Chicago. My parents had immigrated from Pakistan and Yemen. I went to college in Washington D.C. at Georgetown University, and then I lived in India for two years studying Urdu in Lucknow. I did a Ph.D. at Harvard University in South Asian Studies. Later, I moved to New Jersey after I met my husband and we both ended up getting a position at Princeton University. We have a 6-year-old daughter.
As a South Asian Muslim woman in politics who belongs to an immigrant family, how do you define your identity? How has that translated into your work as Mayor so far?
SJ: My goal is to try to make a positive change and be a caring member of my family and my community. I want to advocate for people to have the rights that they deserve. That drives me in all of the work that I do, whether it’s teaching my students about Islam in South Asia or South Asian American literature and film; leading my community during a pandemic; leading them by having conversations and discussions about racial injustice, and how we can address it; or by serving as a candidate and trying to learn about what people in my district want. I would definitely say that my South Asian identity is very important to me and it manifests itself in lots of different ways. A really important thing to me is that we see South Asian American culture as an integral part of American culture – that there isn’t necessarily a dichotomy. If I want to wear a Saari to my swearing-in – which is what I did for my second term as mayor – that should just be me representing a part of my identity that is important to me.
You recently completed two terms as mayor of Montgomery Township, New Jersey. What was it that made you want to get into politics?
SJ: I had considered myself an activist for many years and specifically as someone who cared deeply about human rights issues. Over time, I started to feel like advocacy was having its limits. I felt like ultimately the elected officials were making the decisions that they thought were the right ones. That’s when I started thinking that I should advocate for people who shared my values to be in those elected roles, or that I should eventually run myself.
I participated in a candidate training program for women from the Democratic Party who are interested in running for office, called Emerge New Jersey. It was through that program that I learned about the nitty-gritty of connecting with the State Party, County Party, and the Municipal Party. After that, I was campaigning for someone who was running for Congress when I was asked to run for office. In Emerge, I learned that the United States ranked 75th in the world in terms of women’s representation in politics and if I want other women to participate then I believed that I should also step up and do it myself. Ultimately, it was because I wanted to see the values that I hold dear reflected in the policies of my government.
What has your experience as a representational figure in politics been like so far? Has it been what you expected it to be?
SJ: I don’t think I really knew what to expect. Being thrust into a role as a representational figure, I definitely feel a sense of responsibility to speak to the broader community, and to be the example that there’s such a hunger to see political engagement from our communities. It mostly comes down to mentoring and advising people on how to get involved – that is also one of the reasons why I got into politics. I had never known anyone who had run for office before. I want to open up the process to more people. I want them to feel empowered, so I’m very happy to help encourage individuals from diverse communities to get involved in the political process. I see that as a responsibility that I am very proud to fulfill.
You are now seeking a Democratic nomination for the NJ General Assembly. If elected, what are some key issues you plan to focus on as a legislator?
SJ: My platform is basically focused on prosperity and justice for all. I believe that the government can be a source of good. The first thing that I would want to focus on is investing in green jobs and sustainable recovery. Our economy has shifted dramatically over the course of the pandemic and now we have an opportunity, as we get things restarted, to do so in a sustainable manner.
The second would be civil and human rights which is a passion of mine and is really why I got involved in activism to begin with. There are a lot of things that can be put in place to ensure that we are diversifying our police department; that we’re acknowledging indigenous rights; that we are providing maternal healthcare. Those are some of the things that I would be very passionate about advocating for when I get into the State Assembly.
Lastly, what is the one factor you feel is necessary for anyone to run and get elected to office?
SJ: Go for it. Women and minorities win elections at the same rate as white men, but we just don’t run as often. So, you’ll just have to jump in and you’ll learn as you go. If you’re interested in politics, I would say the best thing for you to do is to connect with your party and start campaigning for candidates you believe in. Through their experience, you will learn. There is a hunger and a need for people with new perspectives, dynamics, ideas, and a strong work ethic.
Fatima Naqvi is a Rutgers University graduate who currently works as a Legislative Liaison at the New Jersey Department of Education.