While Democrat Leticia Perez and Republican Andy Vidak are receiving the lion’s share of media attention in California’s 16th State Senate District special election, at least one of three long-shot candidates in the race is running like a man on a mission, one who doesn’t believe that defeat at the ballot box on May 21 is necessarily a foregone conclusion.
Meet Mohammad Arif, a 43-year-old immigrant rights advocate from Bakersfield who hopes to become the first Peace & Freedom Party member of the California legislature in history.
An immigrant himself — he has was born and raised in the Punjab region of Pakistan before emigrating to the U.S. in 1991 — Mohammad Arif is no stranger to politics. At the age of sixteen, he joined the Peoples Students Federation (PSF) and later became actively involved in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a center-left, democratic socialist party founded in 1967. Long led by members of the prominent Bhutto-Zardari family, the Pakistan People’s Party is currently affiliated with the Socialist International.
Arif’s lifelong interest in politics continued after relocating to the United States and gaining his citizenship more than a dozen years ago. In fact, he was one of 135 candidates who ran for governor of California in 2003 in the circus-like recall election that replaced incumbent Democratic Gov. Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The good-natured Arif vied for the state’s highest office again in 2010, finishing third in the Peace & Freedom Party primary with 14.5 percent of the vote. He was understandably disappointed by the outcome and believes that his candidacy that year might have been damaged by the inadvertent misspelling of his name as “Mohammed” — with an “e” instead of an “a” — in the ten million voter pamphlets mailed out by the Secretary of State.
“If you Google ‘Mohammed Arif,’” he said wistfully, “you won’t find me. You’ll find the bad ones,” including, it just so happened, an individual by that very name who had been recently convicted of waging jihadist attacks in western India under that country’s Prevention Of Terrorism Act.
It was one of the first names that popped up in a Google search.
Arif is hoping he’ll have better luck in this election. At least the Secretary of State’s office spelled his name right this time.
The affable Arif, who earned a Master’s Degree in Economics from Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan, and later studied law in the United States, refrains from publicly criticizing his opponents, focusing instead on his own background and attributes, stressing that he has much more in common with the district’s struggling residents than either Perez — a protégé of disgraced former State Sen. Michael Rubio — or Vidak, the lone Republican in the race, both of whom are considered ahead of the pack in the five-candidate field.
He even refuses to criticize Perez, the presumed frontrunner, for running for the seat only three months after being sworn in to her first term as a Kern County Supervisor. He also preferred not to comment on the fact that Perez had to change her residency just to qualify for the race.
“Both major parties are only interested in obtaining power,” he said. “They’ll do whatever it takes to achieve it.”
The Peace & Freedom candidate and founder of United Moderate Muslims of America for Peace — a national organization he helped to launch this past year — is more concerned with the substantive issues facing the district.
“I want to represent the working class, not the tiny wealthy minority who fund campaigns,” said Arif, who’s fluent in several languages and conversant in several others. “I am an immigrant, like many residents of this district. I have known hard times, like most of the people in the San Joaquin Valley. And I want to help bring peace to our people, equality and respect for people of all religions and backgrounds, and unite people rather than divide them.”
In a recent interview, the Peace & Freedom aspirant told Uncovered Politics that he wants to be “the voice for the downtrodden and the impoverished in Sacramento. I want to fight for them. I’ll be a one-man lobby for poor and working people in the legislature.”
Reminiscent of muckraking author Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty in California) movement during the Great Depression — a crusade that nearly carried the plucky, lifelong Socialist into the governor’s mansion — one of Arif’s four campaign cards includes Sinclair’s famous slogan.
If elected, he said that he’ll use 75 percent of his legislative salary to create a non-profit foundation to help poverty-stricken residents of his district, providing legal assistance, temporary shelter, and drug treatment for the chronically unemployed, the homeless, victims of domestic violence and others who are simply down on their luck.
“Everything I do,” he said modestly, “comes from my heart.”
The lawmakers in Sacramento — Republicans and so-called “business-friendly” Democrats alike — have it completely wrong, he says. “They’re beholden to the rich and powerful who fund their campaigns. Everybody knows it. The role of government should be to protect those who need protection, to be a power for the powerless, to restrain those who, when they are not restrained, prey upon the weak.”
In addition to calling for higher taxes on the wealthy while trimming taxes and “user fees” that hit poor and working-class people the hardest, Arif’s platform — mirroring that of his time-honored party — calls for higher wages, including a sharp increase in the minimum wage, which, contrary to what conservative economists at the Heritage Foundation or the libertarian Cato Institute and those employed by major corporations claim, would actually help create jobs.
Arif believes the state’s current $8.00 minimum wage should be closer to $16 per hour.
The Peace & Freedom candidate also maintains that infrastructure improvements are the quickest and most effective way to create jobs and stimulate California’s sagging economy. As of March, California’s official jobless rate stood at 9.4 percent — the fourth-highest in the nation and well above the national unemployment rate of 7.6 percent.
“We have thousands of bridges, water lines, and other basic units of our infrastructure that need immediate replacement or repair, and we need to build much more advanced city and rural communications and transportation systems as soon as possible,” he said, citing the recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimating that the U.S. needs at least $3.6 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2020 to maintain a passing grade.
According to the ASCE’s 2013 Report Card, which gave the U.S. a less-than-stellar D+ grade, California alone has a staggering 2,978 (12%) structurally deficient bridges and another 4,178 (16.8%) that are considered “functionally obsolete,” while 68% of the state’s roads and highways are in “poor or mediocre condition.” Moreover, the ASCE estimates that the state will need to spend $39 billion in drinking water infrastructure improvements over the next twenty years and projects an additional $29 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs.
There’s a lot of work to be done, said Arif, arguably the most pro-labor candidate in the race — the recent endorsement of Perez by the powerful SEIU (Service Employees International Union) of California notwithstanding.
“Both nationally and at the state level, we need to develop full-employment policies that should lead to a shorter workweek with no cut in pay, and more vacation time for all workers,” he added.
Peace & Freedom Party leaders are encouraged by the progress of Arif’s long-shot candidacy.
“As Arif gathered his signatures as a Peace and Freedom Party candidate, the official Democratic Party apparatus decided to support a candidate whose mentor was the disgraced former senator. Arif found himself suddenly popular, and a local paper covering the first debate called Mohammad Arif the ‘crowd favorite,’” said Kevin Akin, the party’s state chair.
“With support from many immigrants, and a good reaction to his campaign from working people in general, Mohammad Arif is getting the Peace and Freedom Party message across to tens of thousands of voters from Fresno to Bakersfield.”
Despite being vastly outspent by his two leading opponents — as of two weeks ago, Perez had raised $429,900, including $320,000 from the California Democratic Central Committee, while Vidak reported receiving a not-too-skimpy $323,407 — Arif insists that his bare-bones campaign, relying exclusively on small contributions, will make up the difference in shoe leather and sweat equity.
“I’ve been campaigning 70 hours a week, visiting every neighborhood in the district,” he said, adding that he has probably met and spoken with more residents of the sprawling district than all of the other candidates combined. “I’m campaigning seven days a week, morning ‘til night,” he said with a hint of pride in his voice.
“It’s been exhausting,” he continued, “but I will work just as diligently as a State Senator. I plan to be the hardest working and most accessible public servant possible.”
That would be a nice change for the underrepresented and ill-served residents of the district.
“This district was cheated of real representation in the past by a state senator who actually represented Chevron,” said Arif in a reference to ex-State Senator Michael Rubio of Shafter, who abruptly resigned from office in February to accept a government affairs job with Chevron Corp., thereby leaving the district unrepresented in Sacramento and temporarily denying the Democrats a super-majority in the State Senate.
Rubio, once seen as a rising star in California politics, was chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee at the time of his resignation.
Unfailingly polite and courteous and armed with a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor and the determination of a man committed heart and soul to a greater cause — the cause of “humanity,” as he says repeatedly, meaning a better life for impoverished and working-class Californians — the hefty Peace & Freedom candidate continues to pound the pavement in search of votes as the campaign enters the homestretch.
“I’m running to lose my weight,” he jokes, “and I’m running to win my race.”
Echoing a similar remark by comedienne Roseanne Barr, the party’s 2012 presidential candidate, Arif also said that he plans to “keep running until I win,” whether it’s this year, next year — or in 2018.
The May 21 special election is being conducted in the old 16th Senate District, using the same boundaries that were in place when Rubio was elected in 2010, before the most recent redistricting of the state legislative boundaries. The district includes all of Kings County, about half of Fresno County, the western portion of Tulare County, and a western portion of Kern County, including part of Bakersfield where Arif resides.