Fayrouz Saad, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, is running for Congress in a competitive toss-up race to represent Michigan’s 11th District, just outside Detroit. A former official at the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, Saad would become the first Muslim-American woman in Congress.
But first she has to win a Democratic primary with four other contenders, including Haley Stevens, another former Obama administration official our Running Women project is following. There are also a half dozen Republican candidates, including another candidate we’re watching, Lena Epstein, who was co-chair of the successful Trump campaign in Michigan.
The stakes are high in this epic battle to succeed Republican Rep. David Trott, who decided not to seek reelection after a campaign scandal. Now considered up for grabs, the race is destined to attract national attention and money, as Democrats try to seize the opportunity to flip a seat and Republicans try to hang on.
Wading into the fray, we sat down with Saad, who has received training and support from women-in-politics advocate Emerge America, to talk about her decision to run and strategy to win. Excerpts from our conversation, below, have been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about the moment you decided you were going to run. What pushed you to say, “OK, I’m going to do it?”
Fayrouz Saad: I’ve had an entire career in public service. I’ve worked at the state level, federal level, local level. And then of course I was in the Emerge training program. So running for office was always something I guess I saw in my future potentially. But after the elections in 2016, I took that step back. Now it feels like there’s a need for more. There’s a need for more voices, more people who are ready to fight.
And so where’s my role in this? It felt like it’s running for office, and particularly running for U.S. Congress, because I just feel like there is a lack of progressives and diversity in Congress, a void in diverse views and people who are ready to fight.
When you decided to run, you were facing an incumbent. Why did you decide to go for this seat?
I often say I think I scared him away, because he [withdrew] after my announcement. But it’s because I saw a need. I have been engaged in some of the Indivisible groups and had done some grassroots organizing in this district. I had also been part of launching an organization that was organizing the Muslim-American community to be civically engaged.
I saw that in this district people wanted change, that people were really upset with Congressman Trott. He didn’t seem to align on very basic principles and values that people believe in, like [access to] healthcare. And on top of that, he was completely absent from the community. He had only held two town halls his entire time in office, one of which was [in early 2017] and many people were left waiting out in the cold. And so I just really believed that he was vulnerable and that, most importantly, this district wanted change.
Now you face a huge field. How has your strategy had to shift?
It didn’t shift. I think what changed were the dynamics of the race. You’re going from running against an incumbent — so there’s always that perception that you’re a challenger and there’s an incumbent, and he’s a multi-millionaire. That has its challenges, right? When he announced he wasn’t running, it took that out of the picture, and so it changed the message a little. Now it’s: I’m running in an open seat, and it’s a swing district. I can win this.
I always believed I could win it. And I always believed the seat was viable and I was a viable candidate. And so it didn’t really change my strategy. My strategy was always: Go in, go in strong, be strong on your message, talk about the issues and work the hell out of the field. Because that’s where this race is going to be won and lost.
In the primary field, how are you differentiating yourself?
Running strongly as a progressive is one of the most important things to me and my campaign. Also, it’s the experience I’ve had at the state, local and federal level.
I worked in the Michigan House of Representatives, and I was 22 at the time. I learned at an early age how crafting legislation, how crafting policy works. I went to the federal level, so understand how to navigate D.C., how to work at a 50,000 foot level. At the same time, I was going into communities and still working at a grassroots level. So it’s a really interesting nexus. I have an understanding of how these state and federal policies are affecting people on a day-to-day level.
You mentioned Emerge. What did you get out of its training?
You learn how to run a campaign, you understand the skillsets involved — everything from fundraising, which is probably one of the hardest parts about running for office, to what is a field strategy, compliance and regulations, all the things. They really give you insight into the whole [process] and a deep understanding of what the entire ecosystem of running for office looks like, and then how to implement.
But for me, the most valuable thing was this cohort of women who come together and are all supporting one another. One of the first things I did was talk to my [Emerge Michigan] executive director before I announced, before I did anything. And she talked me through it. She supported me and gave me advice on what to do and where to go from there. That’s incredibly valuable. Even to this day, I call them my Emerge sisters.
There are several women running. What are the chances of this seat going to a woman?
I mean, I think I can win, right!? So 100 percent that it can, not just go to a woman, but go to me. Because it’s going to be about the values, and it’s going to be about working hard. And I’m ready to do that.
How has your fundraising gone? How much have you been able to raise? How much do you have to raise to be competitive?
Campaigns are expensive. It’s definitely one of the most challenging pieces to running. I raised a quarter million in my first quarter, and I’m very proud of that number because I am a first-time candidate. And so it shows that I’m viable. It shows that people believe in me — that came from over a thousand individual donors. So it’s going to continue to take hard work, but I’m doing it and I’m going to continue to do it.
I’m going to friends and family, calling people, asking, doing that awkward thing: “Can you give me $50?” “Can you give me $1,000?” Making the ask everywhere I can make it.
I don’t know who it’s easy for. If you find someone who says, “This is easy, and I love it,” please give them my number so they can tell me what makes it so easy. It’s difficult, because it’s always uncomfortable asking for money, at least for me.
But it’s not just about me. It’s about, again, the values I want to fight for that I know you [my donors] believe in. I’m working to fight against what I see happening in Washington and coming from this administration.
What are the top issues for your would-be constituents?
Speaking very anecdotally, it’s healthcare — you hear it again and again and again. Healthcare is a right, and I believe that that’s how we need to look at it, and that’s how we need to look at it from a policy perspective. Trott was one of those that voted to repeal the ACA, and people were incredibly upset about that.
It’s an off-year election when turnout is typically low. How are you going to get people out?
I’m a community organizer, that’s how I define myself. I always joke that I was a community organizer before Obama made it cool. And so I think community organizers, we just hustle. And we just know how to work the field, how to bring people together. There are so many ways to ensure the vote gets out — everything from ensuring you have an effective absentee ballot strategy, that you’re knocking on doors, that you’re calling people, you’re identifying where your voters are and you’re getting to them. And as long as you’re willing — and I’m willing — to put in the hard work, than it can be done.
Your district is predominantly white, though it also has people of all sorts of backgrounds. How are you taking that on as a woman of color?
What I’m seeing, every day almost, is that people are focusing on the issues. And it really shows me that that’s what people are going to be paying attention to and what they’re looking toward.
Democrats, especially, are so fired up right now. Do you feel that energy in your district?
It’s a reenergized everyone base. It’s independents and Republicans and Democrats and people who are engaging at all levels. It’s really encouraging, and it’s one of many reasons why I decided to run and why I really believe that this district is flippable. I saw the energy in the people that were coming out, that were upset, that were unhappy with Trott.
Independents and Republicans as well?
Yeah, totally. I’ve been in a few rooms where people have said, “I’ve never been engaged before,” “I voted Republican,” “I voted both,” “I consider myself an independent.” They want to see change.
This interview is part of a project, Running Women, looking at women-led organizations working to elect more American women to office and following 15 of their most compelling 2018 candidates.