Newcomer Ali upsets incumbent in Dist. 39 primary

Democrat could be the first Muslim American elected to the Maryland legislature

Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006

Riding the newcomer wave, Saqib Ali of North Potomac beat out incumbent Del. Joan F. Stern in the District 39 primary race with what political observers called a vigorous grassroots campaign.

‘‘As far as I could see, he followed the book on how to win an election,” said Gene Counihan of Montgomery Village, a state delegate from 1982 to 1994. ‘‘I saw him on the campaign trail more than anybody. He was out door-to-door; he had impressive literature. He wanted it.”

Last week, 31-year-old software engineer Ali was added to the heavily favored Democratic slate with Sen. Patrick J. Hogan and Dels. Nancy J. King and Charles E. Barkley for the November general election.

Barkley of Germantown and King and Hogan, both of Montgomery Village, dropped Stern from the slate in May, saying the team worked better without her.

Barkley and Counihan say ousting Stern likely attributed to her loss, while King said that Ali was a ‘‘breath of fresh air” to voters.

‘‘I think people were looking for a change,” said King, who has been in office one term. She said Stern ‘‘wasn’t the easiest person to get along with, and I think people noticed.”

Stern, who said she was going on vacation shortly after the election, did not return Gazette phone calls seeking comment. She was reached once and hung up to take another call. She did not call back.

Newcomer Ali not only beat out Stern, but also showed he could hang with the political veterans.

King won 28 percent of the vote, Barkley fetched 27 percent, Ali came in with 25 percent and Stern took 18 percent, according to unofficial results.

About 16,600 District 39 voters went to the polls last Tuesday, according to the results.

‘‘Our campaign had a lot of energy. It had that underdog feel that struck a chord with people and resonated,” Ali said on election night. ‘‘When you talk to real voters, not the insiders, they care if you pay attention to them. They remember that you listened to them. People appreciate new blood.”

If elected in November, Ali would likely be the first Muslim-American in the Maryland General Assembly.

Legislators are not required to give their religion in state records, but researchers and librarians at the Maryland State Archives do not recall a previous Muslim-American official, they said.

‘‘This is huge,” said Mohammed Babah, president of the Muslim Community Center of Maryland, a nonprofit organization. ‘‘I believe we have a voice now, a voice that is not of suspicion, a voice that will show the Muslim view.”

The primary election Sept. 12 was one day after the five-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

‘‘After 9⁄11, Muslims were under the microscope,” Babah said. ‘‘To elect this man shows the confidence that the country has in the majority of good Muslim people. This is reassuring.”

Ali did not run on the tenets of religion.

During Ali’s campaign, at least one man made Ali’s religion an issue when he protested with derogatory signs outside Ali’s North Potomac home and headquarters last month.

‘‘If we win today, we’ll prove that’s an anomaly,” Ali said on election night. ‘‘And we’ll continue to talk, not about whether I’m a Muslim or a Hindu or a Christian or a Jew, but about roads and schools and how to improve them.”

District 39 covers Montgomery Village, North Potomac, Washington Grove and parts of Germantown. Its horseshoe-shape around Gaithersburg encompasses 110,000 voters of growing diversity and economic backgrounds.

Last week, 13,000 fewer District 39 voters went to the polls than in 2002, according to the unofficial results.

King attributes the lower turnout to a growing group of new immigrants moving into the area who may not be familiar with the government or issues.

Counihan suggests that the district’s diversity also helped pull Ali into the political arena, among other significant advantages, such as the teachers’ union endorsement and Ali’s last name ranking him top on the alphabetical ballot.

Ali is one of nine new faces in Montgomery County who unseated incumbent lawmakers.

Ali, King and Barkley face Republican challengers David Nichols, Gary Scott and Bill Witham in November.