Politics & Government

Vermont, home of Sen. Bernie Sanders, elects a Muslim as its Democratic Party chair

Vermont’s Democratic Party has elected the nation’s first Muslim party chairman. Vermont is also home to independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who here addresses thousands at a pro-union rally near Nissan Motor Co.'s Canton, Miss., plant, Saturday, March 4, 2017.
Vermont’s Democratic Party has elected the nation’s first Muslim party chairman. Vermont is also home to independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who here addresses thousands at a pro-union rally near Nissan Motor Co.'s Canton, Miss., plant, Saturday, March 4, 2017. AP

The most remarkable fact about Faisal Gill isn’t that he might be the first Muslim to ever be elected chair of a state party.

It’s that he now runs the Democratic Party in Vermont, perhaps the most liberal state in the union, only 10 years after running as a Republican candidate in Virginia – and serving as a lawyer in the administration of President George W. Bush.

“It is a clearly a remarkable journey,” said the 44-year-old, who on Saturday was elected chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party. “People would say, ‘Wait a minute, you used to be what?’ ”

Gill said he served as a lawyer in the Department of Homeland Security under Secretary Tom Ridge before narrowly losing a race for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2007.

That race persuaded him to change parties in 2008, Gill said, citing the hostile reception he had received from fellow Republicans he says were uncomfortable with a Muslim candidate.

Now he counts himself as one of the most prominent Muslim politicians in the country at a time when many members of the community have expressed deep concern with President Donald Trump. Democrats have called Trump’s executive order to temporarily halt immigration from some Middle Eastern countries, an order revised and reissued by the White House on Monday, a de facto ban on Muslim immigration.

Gill said he planned to speak out on the issue, saying he was “very open about my religion.”

“I say that right now, if you’re a Muslim American, and if you think you can be involved in politics . . . I think you have to be involved,” Gill said. “You have to be public. You have to say, ‘Look, President Trump’s America is not the real America.’ ”

Gill, who emigrated from Pakistan when he was 8, said he was the first Muslim to ever run a state party, for either Republicans or Democrats.

It’s a difficult assertion to verify, but Muslims do hold few prominent political posts. The first Muslim politician wasn’t elected to Congress until 2006, when Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat, won his race in Minnesota. Ellison ran unsuccessfully this year to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee, falling to former Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

Gill said some Americans were afraid of the Muslim community because many of them simply didn’t know anyone who was a part of the religion. He hopes that he can help change that perception.

The change might already be happening: Gill said he thought it was great that a state like Vermont, which is overwhelmingly white, would be the first to have a Muslim as a major party chair.

“To elect a Muslim immigrant to state chair says a lot that people really do care about the content of character, and that the Democratic Party is practicing what it preaches,” Gill said.

In the state of independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, Gill, son of a Washington, D.C., cabdriver, doesn’t call himself a die-hard liberal. The party needs to return to a message focused on the economy, he said, even when talking about something like climate change.

The focus has to be on how something affects jobs and the economy.

“How is the Democratic Party and its polices going to create jobs and put food on the table and put my kids in college?” Gill said. “I want to put us back on that message.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty

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