In a letter that will be filed next Monday, Islam is petitioning the FEC for an advisory opinion that would permit her to use campaign funds to pay for health insurance. Her short-term goal is medical coverage. But in the long term, this daughter of working-class immigrants from Bangladesh also wants the regulations changed so that more lower- and middle-income people can afford to seek public office.
In other words, more people like herself.
“Running for Congress is an expensive endeavor and often cost prohibitive for working Americans,” Islam wrote in her filing. “Running for office while working — even part-time — severely limits your ability to campaign effectively. People with financial security are better positioned to campaign full-time while living on their savings.”
This isn’t, as Islam points out, simply because the rich hanker for political positions and power, while their working- and middle-class counterparts do not. It’s because people who lack significant financial resources face structural barriers that make it harder to get in a race and stay in.
Such as how to pay for health insurance.
Islam explained during a telephone interview she initially thought she would hold down a part-time position while competing for the congressional seat. She found that impossible. Running for Congress is a full-time job. She has instead put her student loans into forbearance and canceled her health insurance and is living off savings.
She knows she’s taking a risk: “If something happens to me, I could end up with thousands of dollars in medical bills.” But Islam says she can’t afford to do anything else. The average cost of an individual policy in 2019 was more than $7,000.
True, Islam was paying $120 a month. There was a trade-off involved. In technical terms, Islam says her policy did not comply with the Affordable Care Act. In layman’s terms, that means it wouldn’t have covered such events as the hospital bills if she got hit by a car while canvassing. “Junk,” she called it.
Islam is far from alone. Georgia, led by a Republican governor, is one of the 14 states that have refused the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. As a result, it has the third-highest rate of uninsured residents in the nation. In her letter to the FEC, Islam cites census figures showing that 117,000 people in her district lack health insurance. Thousands more almost certainly are underinsured. “People are put in a difficult place because they are not able to qualify for Medicaid, or a subsidy for a plan on the exchange,” Islam explained.
Georgia’s 7th District — which sprawls out over suburban Atlanta — was once a conservative Republican stronghold. But it’s now majority-minority, with a large population of residents born outside the United States. In the last election, in 2018, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, who emphasized her support for the Affordable Care Act and getting health-care costs under control, almost unseated Republican Rob Woodall, losing by just over 400 votes. Woodall took the hint, and announced his retirement after this term. Bourdeaux is once again running in the Democratic primary, as are a number of others.
Islam, who has been endorsed by the progressive group Occupy Democrats and been compared to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by NBC, supports Medicare-for-all. She says she learned the importance of health care early on. Her parents got by in the United States with low-wage employment. When her mom injured her back while working at a warehouse, she needed to fight for workers’ compensation for her medical expenses. “Health care is a human right. We’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t offer some form of basic universal health care,” Islam said.
Monica Klein, the political consultant advising Islam, previously worked with Long Island’s Liuba Grechen Shirley, who successfully petitioned the FEC for permission to use campaign funds to cover her child-care expenses. Klein told me she sees similarities between the two woman’s quests. “Like Liuba, Nabilah isn’t just running for office,” she said. “Liuba and Nabilah are both working to dismantle the conditions that keep Congress overwhelmingly white, wealthy and male.”
But Islam is unlikely to meet with similar quick results. That’s got nothing to do with the merits. President Trump hasn’t bothered to nominate candidates to fill the three openings on the six-member commission, leaving the FEC short of the necessary quorum needed to hold meetings or issue rules.
This is obviously a bigger issue than Islam’s request. As Jeff Hauser, the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, noted, “Without a quorum, campaigns seeking to push — or shred — the envelope of legality can do so bolstered by the certainty the FEC cannot open investigations or issue fines.”
But requests for rulings that come in during this period don’t go away. The FEC will consider them when a quorum is restored. Islam’s request could eventually make it easier for other less-than-privileged candidates to run for office. That’s a win, no matter how Islam ultimately performs. “I really believe that we need more people like me, more people with my working-class background who grew up with parents that worked low-wage jobs,” Islam said. “If there are more Nabilahs in Congress, I assure you, things like Medicare-for-all, things like a living wage, $15 an hour, would just be a no-brainer.”