Syed Taj on the separation of church and state, going up against extremist conservative candidates, and running for the House of Representatives as a Muslim

    I’ve spent a great deal of time these past few weeks explaining why it is that I think that folks shouldn’t vote for either the Tea Party activist Kerry Bentivolio or the white supremacist Daniel Johnson in the race to represent Michigan’s 11th congressional district, but I haven’t really made the case as to why people should support their Democratic opponent, Dr. Syed Taj. To be honest, I didn’t know much about him. So, on Friday evening, after work, I set out to meet Dr. Taj, and find out what he was all about. What follows, in four segments, is video of our wide-ranging discussion, shot at his campaign headquarters in Novi. I hope you find it as informative and inspirational as I did.

    [I’d recommend watching the videos, but, as I realize that some of you won’t, you’ll find my very rough notes concerning what’s covered in each segment directly preceding the embedded video.]

    SEGMENT ONE: In this first part, Dr. Taj and I discuss the fact that this race, according to the powers that be, wasn’t supposed to be competitive. Given the recent redistricting which took place, which removed the traditionally Democratic communities of Redford, Garden City, and part of Dearborn Heights from the district, it was felt that the 11th would remain a Republican stronghold in perpetuity. As it turns out, though, that might not be the case. Once the incumbent Republican, Thaddeus McCotter, was disqualified for having submitted a nominating petition full of forged signatures, it became anyone’s race. (When McCotter was forced out, there wasn’t time for the Republican party to field a qualified candidate for the primary. As a result, they were stuck with Kerry Bentivolio, a Tea Party conspiracy theorist, who had the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time. As he’d already filed his paperwork to challenge McCotter in the primary, he essentially became the party’s candidate for the House of Representatives overnight, once McCotter’s forged petition came to light.) And, as a result, Taj is receiving quite a bit of support from individuals and groups outside of Michigan, who see this as one of the few House seats in America that could be flipped from red to blue… Taj, for what it’s worth, had wanted to run against McCotter, and felt as though he was beatable. And he’d been planning to take him on for years. When Taj ran for the Canton Board of Trustees in 2008, it was with that in mind. He tells me that he wanted to see if he was electable, and, as it turns out, he was. He became the first Democrat to be elected in the heavily Republican area in recent history… General consensus had been that, as a non-white, non-Repbulican, he would never be able to win, but he did. And, upon entering the Congressional race in 2011, McCotter began attacking. (This, obviously, was before McCotter was forced out of the race.) McCotter attacked Taj as a socialist agent of Obama and Pelosi. (Taj says this approach was probably taken by McCotter in order to get more donations from his supporters.) …But, as Taj points out, the Republicans missed something when they redistricted the area. Michigan’s 11th, as Taj notes, is a highly professional district, with a great number of Asians. His district, he says, is 10% Asian. And the numbers are even greater in three big population centers he’s running to represent. Canton is 15.8% Asian. Troy almost 20% Asian. And Novi almost 15% Asian. Many of these folks may have voted Republican in the past, Taj sasy, but they may switch parties to vote for another Asian. And, perhaps more importantly, the Reppublican party is not the party that it was ten years ago. Reagan wouldn’t recognize the party as it now exists, Taj says… We also talk economics and tax policy. We can’t just continue to cut our way to prosperity, Taj says. We continue to fire public employees, he says, and that not only impacts quality of life, but it negatively impacts consumer spending. And people, it would seem, are agreeing with him – even Republicans, some of whom formed a group called, “Anybody but Thaddeus” to show their support… But, in spite of the fact that Bentivitio isn’t well-liked, even in Republican circles, some are coming to his support, realizing that he’s the only shot conservatives have, even if he does have extremist views. And Bentivolio is trying to mitigate the concern of moderate Republicans by moving toward the middle. (He didn’t go to a recent, local Tea Part Express stop, even though he’d previously signed on as a speaker.) But we’ll have to see what happens. As Bentivolio isn’t raising much money in the district, he may not be able to compete. Of course, the deep-pocketed PACs supporting him from out-of-state, could come through and start buying TV ad time for him. (Bentivolio’s local fundraising numbers, according to Taj, are anemic.)

    SEGMENT TWO: Taj and I talk about the PAC entitled Liberty for All, which has the stated mission of supporting Republicans dedicated to the Libertarian principles of Ron Paul, and their financial support of Bentivolio. Taj says his fundraising in more grassroots. Over 800 people, according to Taj, are currently contributing toward his campaign, but, as of now, PAC money hasn’t played a big part. He is, however, beginning to get donations from from individuals outside of Michigan, as people around the country begin to see this as a winable race. I ask if the Democratic party has contributed much, and he tells me that, while they don’t contribute cash, they’ve been helping in other ways. For instance, the party paid $20,000 for polling, which he couldn’t have afforded on his own, and they’ve sent consultants to help get his campaign infrastructure up and running… Taj’s first TV ad aired after last week’s presidential debate, on CBS. Now, they’re beginning to air more broadly. TV ads, he says, are imperative, as he needs to introduce himself to voters. While many people just vote party line, he says, many want to know the person they’re voting for, and television is the way to reach them. All the major regional newspapers have endorsed him, he says, but he needs to have people actually meet him. This is especially true as his controversial Republican adversary, Kerry Bentivolio, is in hiding. Bentivolio, we agree, has likely been told not to talk publicly, as, when he does, he comes across as an extremist… Taj, who positions himself, on his website, as “an independent voice,” talks about the Republican ideas that he likes. He says that he’s “pro business,” and would like to bring down the corporate tax rate, assuming loopholes could be eliminated. He says that he would like to offer more tax credits to companies that are bringing jobs into Michigan, especially for those American companies that are closing plants abroad and bringing jobs back to the United States… Taj says that we need to preserve Social Security and Medicare. Everyone has a right to afordable quality halth care, he says… I point out that Romney recently said that people don’t die because of lack of insurance, to which Taj responded, “He’s lying.” We see them in the ER at the end of their life, he says, as they’re preparing to die. We need to change the paradigm, says Taj, moving toward a more robust system that incorporates preventative care, which, relatively speaking, is cheap. “Romney is lying through his teeth,” says the doctor… Obamacare is a good platform, in his opinion. Yes, there are issues, but, now that the legislation has been signed, he says, it’s relatively easy to tweak things. (You need much fewer votes to make edits than you do to implement legislation in the first place.) People he says, will begin appreciating Obamacare more in he future, once they have an opportunity experience the positives first-hand.

    SEGMENT THREE: We discuss his opponent, Daniel Johnson, who recently sent a robcall to potential voters, asking if they were concerned about “the future of the white race.” We discuss how Johnson could have gotten on the ballot, and what kind of following he likely has. (Fringe parties, according to Taj, don’t have to get the same number of signatures in order to be on the ballot.) …Taj says he didn’t debate his opponent in the Democratic primary, as he’s a follower of Lyndon LaRouche, not “a real Democrat.” (Taj has said that he’d debate him in the general election, though, if he were running. He just wouldn’t debate him as a Democrat, thereby helping to perpetuate the lie.) Is it possible, I ask, that Johnson, the white nationalist, was attracted to this particular race because of the fact that he (Taj) was running? Taj, in response, talks about how the 11th district isn’t divided along race lines, and how Johnson isn’t likely to gain traction. Taj talks of all the caucasians that he’s treated throughout his career, and cultivated friendships with… I ask if there are any Democratic platform issues that don’t sit well with his fellow Muslims. Taj says no. He says he believes in the separation of church and state. “I have no right to impose my religious beliefs on other people,” he says. “Every human has a right to choose.” He says the same thing about gay rights. (A hot pink cell phone with a rave-like ring tone interrupts our meeting, sending Taj into the hall.)

    SEGMENT FOUR: We continue our conversation about his mosque, and how his campaign is being greeted by fellow practitioners of Islam… We talk of the other two Muslim men who currently serve in Congress, and how, if he wins, he’s likely to attract a great deal of scrutiny. I ask whether he’s ready for it. He says he doesn’t anticipate it being a problem, as he doesn’t intend to just push a pro-Muslim agenda. “I’m not just representing Muslims,” he says, “but everyone.” …I ask about moderate Islam, telling hime that some readers of this site claim that there’s no such thing. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, he says. 99.9% of Muslims are moderate and peaceful, he tell me. He goes on to say that all of fundamentalists, regardless of their religions, are “brothers to each other.” They share more in common with each other, he tells me, than they do with the non-fundamentalist practitioners of their religion. “They should be together,” he says… Taj talks of the open houses that he’s held at his mosque in Canton. We’re newer peole in this society, he says, and we need to let people know us. So, he invites non-Mulsims into his mosque, and provides English language translations of the Quran for those who are curious. People who say that there is no such thing as moderate Islam, he makes clear, do not know the Quran. They cherry pick phrases out of context, he says. The Quran, if they read it, would dissuade them of this notion. Islam, he says, shares much in common with Christianity. The Quran mentions Christ over 100 times, he points out. Moses is also mentioned. They’re are all forefathers, says Taj. They were all prophets sent by God. We’re all connected, he says. The message is the same. “These are all the messages of God.” They tell us that we should take care of our neighbors and the poor… When I ask about polling, he says that he’s now neck and neck with he Republican rival. And the TV ads, which just started, he thinks, will help push things in his favor… I ask about charter schools. “I do not agree with for-profit charter schools,” he says. “They’re stealing money from public schools.” He says that Engler allowed this to happen, and we discuss the fact that, on many fronts, things which were set in motion 30 years ago or more, are just now coming to fruition. He notes that a lot of our charter school legislation originated at Grand Valley State University decades ago… We talk about Michigan, which he moved to in 1982, when he and his wife decided that they wanted to live near her brother… I ask how he will adjust to the toxic environment in DC, when he wins. I want different things, he says. I don’t want money and power. I can make more money as a physician, he tells me. This country has given me so much, I just want to be a part of it. I want to create opportunities for the next generation.

    And that’s why I enthusiastically endorse Syed Taj for Congress.

    Please share this with all of your friends in Michigan’s 11th district. And, if you have a few dollars, please consider joining me in making a donation… With any luck, my next interview with Taj will be in DC.

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