CHICAGO: Farrah Khan, the woman of color and the first Muslim to win the mayoral seat in Irvine, California, was inspired to run for public office while volunteering on a campaign by the remarks of the husband of a candidate she was helping, who told her a Pakistani Muslim could “never win.”
Provoked by the comments, Khan ran for a city council seat two years later in 2016 but was beaten back by an onslaught of racism that saw Muslims, Arabs and Pakistanis as portrayed as “terrorists.”
Refusing to allow hate to win, Khan ran again and won a council seat in 2018. Two years later, she challenged and defeated Irvine’s incumbent Mayor Christina Shea, whose campaign resorted to stereotyping to push Khan back.
“Through that (volunteer) work, I got to really be involved in the community, which kind of sparked my interest in politics but always behind-the-scenes. It wasn’t until 2014, I was volunteering on a campaign and after an event we were kind of all sitting around talking and I mentioned that I really would look forward to more diversity when it came to leadership roles and elected officials. And the candidate’s husband at the time said to me, ‘Well, I hope you are not thinking about running.’ And I said, ‘You know, I am not. But why not?’”
Khan said she was shocked by the casual comment.
“He said, ‘People like you with names like yours are unelectable.’ That was 2014. No one in the room said anything. No one said that is wrong or that is not true. It was just complete silence. And so, I am driving home, and I am talking to my husband, and I am talking to my sisters, and I am just so enraged, like how are we, even today, hearing comments like this and thinking that it is ok? And it just didn’t settle well with me.”
Khan said she could not get past the casual racist comment and decided to run for a seat on the Irvine City Council.
“So, I ran, for the first time, for the city council in 2016. I didn’t win that year. I lost. But I was fourth out of 11 candidates that were running and gained a lot of local attention. And then folks … really encouraged me to run again. And so, in 2018, I ran again and came in first out of 12 candidates for city council,” Khan said, adding she was prompted to run for mayor two years after that.
“And then of course (in the) 2020 (mayor’s race), we not only had the pandemic but the social injustice issues that we were faced with. And a mayor at the time that just didn’t get the community’s needs and was responding to people with, ‘If you don’t like the city I live in, go find another city to live in.’ And that was in the LA Times. It really bothered me that no one was stepping up to challenge her only because she was not only an incumbent but a 20-year incumbent (mayor and council member) and she had never lost any of her campaigns.”
After winning a city council seat in 2018, Khan went on to challenge the city’s new mayor, Shea, in 2020. The campaign saw Khan subjected to a barrage of racist attacks. Instead of giving up, however, Khan said she “pivoted” and championed the need to bring diversity to Irvine’s government.
“I think it was all that driving force of all the negativity. In 2016, I will tell you I didn’t want to run again after that campaign because it was just so brutal. There were signs throughout the city that basically said that I was a terrorist, that linked me with the Muslim Brotherhood, that I was supported by all of these (Muslim and Arab and Pakistani) organizations and made me out to be a scary person,” Khan recalled, saying she was stunned by the intensity of the anti-Muslim hate thrown her way by the mayor at the time, Donald P. Wagner, and his supporters.
“I was just like, my gosh, for people that know me, I am just the shyest person there. It was me fighting against that. (During) most of that campaign, I would come home and just cry my eyes out and just be like, ‘What is this?’ I heard politics was nasty and it was bad but I didn’t know how horrible it got where people that you considered your friends when it comes to politics are not your friends, and there is so much of a struggle.”
Khan defeated Shea and two other candidates in the November 2020 general election, winning with 56,304 votes or 46.7 percent of the total votes cast. She led Shea by nearly 15,000 votes.
The racism she faced in politics, Khan said, would change who she was, prompting her to offer voters an alternative environment of inclusion and acceptance.
“You do have to fight back and stand up for yourself,” she said. “If you don’t, politics eats you up alive.”
Khan said she did not win because Muslim, Pakistani or Arab voters dominated the election. They were a small minority in a city that was nearly 43 percent Caucasian and 40 percent Asian. Khan estimated that Irvine’s population was only 5 to 8 percent Muslim and 2.5 percent Black.
“I ran (in 2018) on making sure that we were going to make our community more inclusive. Because of the hate that I faced, I wanted to make sure that no one else in our city was pinpointed. Just the xenophobia, the bigotry, all that stuff needed to be dealt with. And so those were some topics that I spoke of. And I think those also resonated with our API (Asian and Pacific Islander) community as well.
“But when it came to 2020, it was totally different,” Khan said, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic and public anger over police killings of African Americans like George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“We have about an 11 percent Hispanic American population and probably a 2.5 percent Black population. When they came out, especially the Black community during the Black Lives Matter rallies, I was at the very first rally and several others after that.”
Khan said that she continued to face racism in each election, adding that the stereotypes were intended to frighten voters and undermine her growing popularity and reputation of embracing diversity for all.
“And I remember our mayor at the time really pointing me out using my pictures at the rally, saying ‘Oh, she is out there trying to incite violence,’ that I was against the police and I wanted to eliminate safety in the city … (She was) targeting me as one person, but that is how our communities get targeted, day after day,” Khan said.
“And so, I really made an effort to uplift the community’s voices and make sure that their issues were being heard. So that campaign was all about doing the right thing for the pandemic, and of course, … standing up and speaking out for social injustice issues.”
After becoming mayor, Khan created the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee to “uplift the voices” of diversity and be inclusive of everyone in the community regardless of race or religion.
“Through that committee, we have done so much as far as being able to outreach into our general population and making sure were celebrating each other. For the first time in our city’s history, we celebrated Juneteenth. We celebrated Hispanic Heritage. And we celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival,” Khan said, referring to a festival celebrated in Chinese culture. They had prepared for only 200 attendees, but more than 2,000 came out.
“And last year, I held a Ramadan event at City Hall, and it brought our Muslim community together … Those are ways we really bring our communities together to understand each other, to learn our cultures and our religions and not to be afraid, and I think that is something that has really sparked an interest in our committee members.”
“That told us that when you make even the smallest effort to bring people together, they come out because they are craving it. So we just ran with it year after year since then … I will tell you, I get so much hate on social media ... The last time we celebrated Hispanic Heritage, there were so many comments (saying) … they are such a small population, it’s only 11 percent, why are we so focused on them? That’s exactly why we are so focused on them. And I don’t care if you are .5 percent of the population in our city, we are going to celebrate you and we are going to make sure you feel you are a part of this city.”
Khan grew up in northern California and began her career in the biotech and innovation industry as a regulatory manager focusing on streamlining complex products and international research. In 2004, she and her family moved to Irvine, where her two sons have attended schools since kindergarten. She and her husband also serve as legacy partners with the Irvine Public School Foundation.
Khan said she is planning to run for Orange County California supervisor in 2024 by spreading her message of inclusion and promising to build upon her record of addressing the environment and issues involving essential services for residents including housing, jobs, education, and transportation.
In her short time as mayor, she has launched several new strategies leading to Irvine becoming the first city in Orange County to spearhead COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in local neighborhoods and senior centers. She passed HERO pay, which provides bonuses of up to $1,000 for frontline grocery workers who were employed during the pandemic, created a new committee focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, and adopted a resolution with strategies to support achieving carbon neutrality by 2030.
Khan made her comments during an appearance on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show,” broadcast Wednesday Oct. 4, 2023 on the US Arab Radio network on WNZK AM 690 radio in Detroit and WDMV AM 700 Radio in Washington D.C.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.