CHICAGO: An Egyptian-American Muslim who was jailed for nonviolent drug offenses is challenging Democrat Congressman Bobby Rush in the party’s March 17 Illinois primary.
Sarah Gad, 32, a third-year student at the University of Chicago Law School, said she is fighting to change “a system that is designed to marginalize people” and to “rectify miscarriages of justice.”
The Democrat hopeful’s road to law school was far from conventional, with a legal education that “began in a jail cell in the Cook County jail.”
Gad became addicted to prescription painkillers following a near-fatal car accident that left her unable to walk or speak.
After forging prescriptions to feed her opioid habit, she landed in jail, where she “saw and experienced countless human rights and constitutional violations.”
“My story is by no means unique,” Gad told Arab News. “I talk about it openly now because I want to help break the stigma that accompanies both addiction and criminalization of this disease, and because I want to shine a light on a broken system that is in desperate need of reform.
“While awaiting trial and in custody, I was sexually assaulted. When I reported it, I was labeled a snitch. I became a target for beatings every day. When I was released, I had to have reconstructive surgery on my face.”
Gad said the trauma of being incarcerated made her addiction even more difficult to overcome, and her life became a “revolving door in and out of jail” from 2013-2015. After being arrested in July 2015, she spent five days in jail and overdosed on the day she was released.
“It was that overdose that saved me. It wasn’t until I overdosed that I finally got the help I needed to overcome this disease,” she said.
“Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate. I found myself unable to get out of bed without using. I felt like my personality and my brain were hijacked by these prescription drugs. I was injured and then given drugs that I became addicted to, and then went into jail with an addiction and left jail with an addiction, until that overdose.”
Gad was in her third year of medical school when she was struck by a drunk driver and her life changed.
“I ended up doing more jail time than the driver who hit me. I was punished more severely than he was because nonviolent drug offenses are treated as felonies and in a DUI conviction your first offense is treated as a misdemeanor with no jail time,” she said.
For a long time, Gad struggled to get back on her feet. She was left homeless and unemployed because of her record. She got a second chance when attorney Kathleen Zellner offered her a temporary research position that became permanent.
Gad began as a researcher for medical malpractice cases, but her role expanded and she became the law firm’s full-time forensics director, investigating civil rights and wrongful conviction cases.
“When I started working for Zellner, I witnessed egregious miscarriages of justice,” she said. “I couldn’t believe these miscarriages of justice were tolerated under the law. I decided to apply for law school to push for criminal justice reform and fix the deficiencies in our criminal justice that I experienced firsthand, but also witnessed through my work.”
Gad founded and sits on the board of two Chicago-based nonprofit groups and her philanthropic work has attracted national attention. In 2019, she was awarded the University of Chicago Humanitarian Award for her contributions to the South Side and Hyde Park communities.
“I am someone who has personally experienced many of the hardships I seek to eliminate, and that is why I am pushing so hard for change. I know what it is like to be homeless in Chicago in the middle of January. I know what it is like to be stigmatized by our system and feel hopeless.” she said.
Gad’s rival, Bobby Rush, has held the congressional seat since 1993, and the challenger says she was approached to run for office by people in her community because of Rush’s absenteeism in the district legislature and in Congress.
“First, I went to Washington D.C. to familiarize myself with the process and to see if I could be an effective leader in that setting,” she said.
Rush, who founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, the militant political outfit, has the worst attendance record of any Illinois member of Congress and ranks 10th worst nationally out of 435 Congress members, according to public data.
“I joined the legislative affairs team with the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington, where I helped draft legislation pertaining to drug policy and reform,” Gad said.
“I had the opportunity to participate in dozens of congressional hearings, and over the course of three-and-a-half months, I didn’t see Congressman Rush once. He didn’t even show up to hearings that were hosted by his own congressional committees.”
Gad said she was alarmed when Rush failed to show up at a hearing about the HR 40 bill on proposals for reparations.
“Our district has the highest population of American descendants of slaves. We have severe economic imbalances that have been perpetuated since slavery and the days of the Jim Crow laws (segregation), and exacerbated by ‘tough on crime’ policies,” Gad said.
“No district in the country stands to benefit more from reparations than ours, and Rush should have been there letting the committee know that.”
Gad said that after her time in Washington, she feels “obligated” to represent the district.
“On many occasions, I found that I was the one speaking up on behalf of our district because no one else was. It was a wake-up call. We don’t have a voice right now,” she said.
If elected, Gad will be the first formerly incarcerated woman to enter the US Congress.