Egyptian-American who beat opioid abuse in US Congress bid

Sarah Gad’s road to law school was far from conventional, with a legal education that began in a jail cell in Cook County jail. (AN Photo)
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Updated 12 February 2020

Egyptian-American who beat opioid abuse in US Congress bid

  • Sarah Gad says she is fighting to change a system that is designed to marginalize people and to rectify miscarriages of justice
  • Gad became addicted to prescription painkillers following a near-fatal car accident that left her unable to walk or speak

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.

Biden selects California Sen. Kamala Harris as running mate

Updated 12 August 2020

Biden selects California Sen. Kamala Harris as running mate

  • Joe Biden: I have the great honor to announce that I’ve picked @KamalaHarris — a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants — as my running mate
  • Trump’s uneven handling of crises has given Biden an opening, and he enters the fall campaign in strong position against the president

WILMINGTON, Delaware: Joe Biden named California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate on Tuesday, making history by selecting the first Black woman to compete on a major party’s presidential ticket and acknowledging the vital role Black voters will play in his bid to defeat President Donald Trump.
“I have the great honor to announce that I’ve picked @KamalaHarris — a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants — as my running mate,” Biden tweeted. In a text message to supporters, Biden said, “Together, with you, we’re going to beat Trump”
In choosing Harris, Biden is embracing a former rival from the Democratic primary who is familiar with the unique rigor of a national campaign. Harris, a 55-year-old first-term senator, is also one of the party’s most prominent figures and quickly became a top contender for the No. 2 spot after her own White House campaign ended.
Harris joins Biden in the 2020 race at a moment of unprecedented national crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 150,000 people in the US, far more than the toll experienced in other countries. Business closures and disruptions resulting from the pandemic have caused an economic collapse. Unrest, meanwhile, has emerged across the country as Americans protest racism and police brutality.
Trump’s uneven handling of the crises has given Biden an opening, and he enters the fall campaign in strong position against the president. In adding Harris to the ticket, he can point to her relatively centrist record on issues such as health care and her background in law enforcement in the nation’s largest state.
Harris’ record as California attorney general and district attorney in San Francisco was heavily scrutinized during the Democratic primary and turned off some liberals and younger Black voters who saw her as out of step on issues of systemic racism in the legal system and police brutality. She tried to strike a balance on these issues, declaring herself a “progressive prosecutor” who backs law enforcement reforms.
Biden, who spent eight years as President Barack Obama’s vice president, has spent months weighing who would fill that same role in his White House. He pledged in March to select a woman as his vice president, easing frustration among Democrats that the presidential race would center on two white men in their 70s.
Biden’s search was expansive, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading progressive, Florida Rep. Val Demings, whose impeachment prosecution of Trump won plaudits, California Rep. Karen Bass, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose passionate response to unrest in her city garnered national attention.
A woman has never served as president or vice president in the United States. Two women have been nominated as running mates on major party tickets: Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican Sarah Palin in 2008. Their party lost in the general election.
The vice presidential pick carries increased significance this year. If elected, Biden would be 78 when he’s inaugurated in January, the oldest man to ever assume the presidency. He’s spoken of himself as a transitional figure and hasn’t fully committed to seeking a second term in 2024. If he declines to do so, his running mate would likely become a front-runner for the nomination that year.
Born in Oakland to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, Harris won her first election in 2003 when she became San Francisco’s district attorney. In the role, she created a reentry program for low-level drug offenders and cracked down on student truancy.
She was elected California’s attorney general in 2010, the first woman and Black person to hold the job, and focused on issues including the foreclosure crisis. She declined to defend the state’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage and was later overturned by the US Supreme Court.
As her national profile grew, Harris built a reputation around her work as a prosecutor. After being elected to the Senate in 2016, she quickly gained attention for her assertive questioning of Trump administration officials during congressional hearings. In one memorable moment last year, Harris tripped up Attorney General William Barr when she repeatedly pressed him on whether Trump or other White House officials pressured him to investigate certain people.
Harris launched her presidential campaign in early 2019 with the slogan “Kamala Harris For the People,” a reference to her courtroom work. She was one of the highest-profile contenders in a crowded Democratic primary and attracted 20,000 people to her first campaign rally in Oakland.
But the early promise of her campaign eventually faded. Her law enforcement background prompted skepticism from some progressives, and she struggled to land on a consistent message that resonated with voters. Facing fundraising problems, Harris abruptly withdrew from the race in December 2019, two months before the first votes of the primary were cast.
One of Harris’ standout moments of her presidential campaign came at the expense of Biden. During a debate, Harris said Biden made “very hurtful” comments about his past work with segregationist senators and slammed his opposition to busing as schools began to integrate in the 1970s.
“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” she said. “And that little girl was me.”
Shaken by the attack, Biden called her comments “a mischaracterization of my position.”
The exchange resurfaced recently one of Biden’s closest friends and a co-chair of his vice presidential vetting committee, former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, still harbors concerns about the debate and that Harris hadn’t expressed regret. The comments attributed to Dodd and first reported by Politico drew condemnation, especially from influential Democratic women who said Harris was being held to a standard that wouldn’t apply to a man running for president.
Some Biden confidants said Harris’ campaign attack did irritate the former vice president, who had a friendly relationship with her. Harris was also close with Biden’s late son, Beau, who served as Delaware attorney general while she held the same post in California.
But Biden and Harris have since returned to a warm relationship.
“Joe has empathy, he has a proven track record of leadership and more than ever before we need a president of the United States who understands who the people are, sees them where they are, and has a genuine desire to help and knows how to fight to get us where we need to be,” Harris said at an event for Biden earlier this summer.
At the same event, she bluntly attacked Trump, labeling him a “drug pusher” for his promotion of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus, which has not been proved to be an effective treatment and may even be more harmful. After Trump tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to protests about the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in police custody, Harris said his remarks “yet again show what racism looks like.”
Harris has taken a tougher stand on policing since Floyd’s killing. She co-sponsored legislation in June that would ban police from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants, set a national use-of-force standard and create a national police misconduct registry, among other things. It would also reform the qualified immunity system that shields officers from liability.
The list included practices Harris did not vocally fight to reform while leading California’s Department of Justice. Although she required DOJ officers to wear body cameras, she did not support legislation mandating it statewide. And while she now wants independent investigations of police shootings, she didn’t support a 2015 California bill that would have required her office to take on such cases.
“We made progress, but clearly we are not at the place yet as a country where we need to be and California is no exception,” she told The Associated Press recently. But the national focus on racial injustice now shows “there’s no reason that we have to continue to wait.”