Ashley Selmon & Zahra Suratwala

Ashley Selmon & Zahra Suratwala

Running as a first-time candidate can be incredibly intimidating. But running with someone else can make it easier. Ashley and Zahra are running on a slate together to fill two open spots on the DuPage County Board. Learn more about how Zahra and Ashley are hoping to break the Republican’s decades-long majority on their county board. 

What was the best advice you received before you ran for office?

Zahra: I didn't really receive much advice before I decided to run for office. I had been thinking about it for a while, and when I told people about it, they told me they could definitely seeing this being a good fit for me. For many of my friends and family, nothing like this was on their radar because no one in any of my social circles and networks had done anything like this before. I didn’t know anyone else running for office, so I had to make it up as I went along with very little advice.

Ashley: The advice that I received honestly wasn't good advice. The advice that I received before the general made running seem more daunting than I think it has to be, whether in terms of how much money we were told the raise, how many people we needed to have at our beck and call to volunteer for us. That just hasn’t been what we’ve experienced with the grassroots campaign that we've been able to run. 

If you could get a beer with any politician today, who would it be?

Ashley: It would be Joe Biden, for sure.

Zahra: I like Cory Booker, but make it an ice cream instead!

What's your favorite place to hang out in your county?

Ashley: Sadly it's not in our district, but my favorite place in my county would be Morton Arboretum. It's just really just gorgeous arboretum that I've always liked it since I was a kid.

Zahra: I would say Elmhurst Public Library or Pita Pita- books and steak, my favorites!

So in your own words, what does a county board do?

Ashley: A county board is the board that determines so much in your life that you never give any attention to. If you look up your property taxes bill, the county is on there. So if your area has a flood alleviation there’s a taxing body for that. You ’ll see just your general county taxes go to programs like Meals on Wheels, or other social services in DuPage County.

Then all the sort of peripheral things that roll up from the bodies under the county. So if there’s something that towns or the townships don't cover, because there are too many of those small bodies involved, that's when it falls to the county's jurisdiction. So things like roads, snow removal, potholes, all that good stuff.

How did you to meet, and when did you decide you wanted to run together?

Zahra: We met back in September or October of last year. We met basically because we were both running for DuPage County Board in District One. So we were introduced to each other by Bob the chairman of the Democratic Party in DuPage. We met and it was pretty much a very collaborative cooperative relationship right away. We started bouncing ideas off each other and just began communicating with each other because we didn't know exactly how the primary would go, or what was expected of us. It was helpful to both of us to have someone we could touch base and figure things out with. And so once the primaries were over, it kind of seemed pretty obvious that running together would be really beneficial to both of us. It allows us to share the work of running for office while doubling the impact and the reach that we have because we can kind of divide and conquer the canvassing and outreach to voters and to help get our name out there.

Ashley: Our election is unique in that there are two seats available. So we're living in a reality where we both could win. And it was just an obvious efficiency question working together. We're both running for public positions that are part-time offices, but it’s great to have someone else to take responsibility for attending an event, dropping off materials somewhere, especially if someone else is at work or with their family. We joke all the time, we don't know how other candidates with kids do it by themselves. It’s nice to have an ally to campaign with or even just vent to when you have a bad day.

What are your potholes? What are the issues in your county that you really feel are getting neglected, but that you want to see addressed?

Zahra: We talk about the budget a lot. If the budget isn’t improved soon, the county will face a deficit. There are some very easy ways the county can save money, and we intend to bring these solutions to the table. For example, County Board members’ salaries and benefits need to be addressed - DuPage County Board members are paid twice the salary of Cook County Board members, for example, but they actually do less work. And they recently voted to give themselves a raise. A salary freeze needs to be instituted. They also outsource their lobbying, which is something they should be doing themselves. Addressing these issues alone would save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars per year- this is money that can go towards re-instituting Meals on Wheels, addressing the opioid epidemic and the mental health crisis, flood alleviation, etc.

Ashley: DuPage county has been under one-party rule for the the the county’s entire history. The county has existed for over 175 years, it's never had a Democrat as the chairperson and we've never held a majority in the board. So a lot of the board members who've been elected don't really have to campaign, they certainly don't have to fulfill constituent services or be transparent about their work which means there are contracts that are no-bid contracts that you later find out are given to friends of either the chairman or other members of the board.

One thing that is going to be central to not just getting our budget on track in the short term to avoid pending deficit for long-term planning will be to review the ethics rules of for contributions you can receive from donors. So currently the rules for members are pretty strict although I think could be improved upon, but there's really a loophole with the funds that the chairman can take. They can take donations from businesses at much higher limits and then you know the members can be voting on a bill for a business contract with this county and the chairman then can take that business person’s funds and just give it to the member after they vote it so they can still say I never received funding before that vote I voted for that vote for x y, and z. In fact, what you can see is the money trail and that's just such a simple fix that we could change at the county level within just the first short amount of time after we win.

All those issues are so important. We've had no party diversity, no real diversity on our board in general. And our county deserves a lot better.

What is your favorite part of your county?

Ashley: I grew up in DuPage County, Illinois. I went away for college but I came back here in my 20s. I grew up in Wheaton, which is one of the more affluent communities in the county, but I didn't grow up in an affluent manner. But I was surrounded by kids who had much more difficult circumstances than I did, but because there were a lot of churches in Wheaton, which administered a lot of refugees support programs.

So I went to school with kids from all over the place, who would tell these awesome stories about how they came to the United States. It gave me such a really great perspective as I grew up.

It really makes you really value living in diverse communities. And DuPage is getting more diverse. I think one of my favorite principles growing up here and why I chose to stay.

Zahra: My answer is very much the diversity as well. I feel that differences are really celebrated, diversity is celebrated, and my kids proudly share their cultural traditions with their peers at school. They bring pictures of our Islamic holidays, discuss with their friends the differences between Polish School and Greek School, etc. When diversity is embraced, the way it is in DuPage, our lives are enriched.

Moving more into your platforms, Ashley, you’ve focused particularly on noise complaints around O’Hare Airport. Why is that such a major issue in your county?

So if you know much about Chicago, you know O'Hare Airport is one of the busiest airports in the nation and in the world. The very tip top right corner of our district is touching O'Hare Airport. So as the airport got busier, it generally starts diverting traffic over the lake or over some more industrial park area. So there are homes disturbed by the traffic flow here as the airport continues to get busy and continues to expand, which is great economically for the residents who live in our district are affected by these flight plan diversions. There are a lot of complaints about the noise. And unfortunately, the leadership of DuPage county board, really haven’t advocated for them sufficiently.

So if you live on the east side of the O'Hare Airport in Cook County, there are funds available to you as a homeowner to get your windows replaced and add insulation to your house. So if you're a light sleeper, or you just don't enjoy a bunch of air noise, you can get those upgrades to your house because you lived there before the plane started flying over it. It's just some basic fairness.

But that's not the case just to the west of the airport in our district. There are far more limited funds. Many residents complained but there weren't funds enough available for them. And the flight plans are only getting worse.  Our board could be such a better leader on this if they were lobbyists for issues of their own constituents.

Zahra, you wanted to include foreign language instruction in elementary school, is that language immersion programs? Or is that for students to learn second languages?

It would be for second languages. At a nearby school, they are actually going to implement a dual language program in English and Spanish for a kindergarten class. They’re going to follow these kids from kindergarten through fifth grade. Once they leave elementary school, they’ll study the benefits and how students were impacted and how much they retained the language.

It's definitely something that is being prioritized in the area that I live in. I think that having a second language is very enriching. It has a positive impact on how well you do in other subject areas. Some studies show the correlation between math and foreign language. It definitely enriches your academic life.

But then at the same time, I also think that it expands your horizons. When you have a foreign language, you already have a sense that the language that you speak at home is not the only language. It’s a gateway into understanding that the world is for people who do things differently than you do. I speak a few languages and I think that it has helped me be worldly and has encouraged me to travel and changed my perspective.

When did you hear the call? When did you realize you need to run for office, and when did you realize county board was the position to run for?

Ashley: Rather shortly after the November 2016 election, which was a deeply personal election for many people. I was mentally crushed. I felt like I had to start doing something to make our democracy a little better. So I thought, very early after the election, that meant volunteering on some campaigns. So I was looking for some local campaigns to get involved in and I wasn't coming across any names of who would be running for county board, but I saw I was represented by three Republicans. And that doesn't represent the DuPage County I know, it's not a homogenous county.

So I started doing a little bit of looking, started talking at work to see whether the sort of schedule adjustment for the campaign and the election will be feasible. I kind of just stoped thinking about it, and started telling people I was going to do it, or else I knew I never would.

Zahra: I would also say the 2016 presidential election was the catalyst. But after the election, I attended a lot of marches. The marches would feel really good one when I was participating in them, feeling a connection with the people who are also attending. It's a positive and important thing to march. But I was left feeling like I needed to do more.

I was watching a speech Obama gave and he said, “If you don't like what you're elected official are doing, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.” That was the moment that the seed was truly planted.

I do think that you do need to be a little nonchalant, a little flippant about running for office. I don't think that it should be a serious thing that it currently is. We feel people are groomed for office. They’re the ones with the money, and they're the ones with the connections. And so they're the ones who win. I would really love to see that attitude change, for it not to be a closed system. If I want to be part of it, I have every right to give it a shot. And so the way that Obama said, just do it- that resonated with me. And that has been something that I've taken hold of and run with.

What doubts do you think people have about you as candidates, and what do you say to people who think you're too young to run?

Ashley: I haven't gotten the “too young” comment that much, which maybe I should be a little offended about.

But luckily, that hasn't been as much of an issue. I do think the bigger doubt we get is people saying, “Republicans have always been in power in DuPage County. So why would I want to change that?”

We just remind people that your taxes, your property taxes might have stayed the same, but your other taxes have gone up. We talk about how the Republicans, frankly, have just been kind of moving tax money around and not using it for the things that it's supposed to be allocated for. So we let them know how its a house of cards that's about to fall. People realize that DuPage County is a great place to live, it really is, but it could be a lot better. So we get past the young thing pretty quick.

Zahra: And we're also kind of surrounded by a lot of people who are really engaged. They’re activists, and they've met Ashley and myself and they’re really supportive. Most people are just saying, “Thank you for running.”

Who have been your biggest supporters and mentors?

Ashley: So we're really fortunate to be endorsed by Run For Something during the primary. And they have just been incredible in not only making me feel really good about the democratic process, but they're just this group of our peers that are trying to help candidates in these small races get a little bit of help.

They’ve also just introduced us to this network of volunteers. We had a volunteer who works in nonprofits meet us at our meet-and-greet early before it was supposed to start to give us some tips and tricks on an event that we're hosting. To me, that's just amazing like that people take time out of their evenings to come and help some strangers do a little good in their community.

Zahra: On a local level, there are so many people approaching us and saying, I want to help you. People want to help and to get involved.

It's like this wave of support that I feel behind our back. They’re always there to say “You’ve got this, keep going.” That’s been amazing. Our families and our friends, our significant others, are incredibly helpful as well. We’re obviously leaning on them for a lot of things from childcare to canvassing. We have a group of activists who I didn’t even know six months ago and now we’re like a big family. I'm very grateful to know that there are so many people who just want to be on the right side of history. It feels like so doable because there are just so many of us who are thinking, “No, negativity is not going to win. Positivity and kindness and empathy are going to win.”

You both mentioned that you didn’t get that much advice before you started. Now after going through the primary, what is the best advice you could give someone else who is considering running?

Ashley: Just do it. I remember very early on being at a meeting with Democratic leaders in our county who said that you had to raise $10,000 before you announced and had to have 100 names you could write down of people that would help you. I was a tiny bit discouraged but then I started thinking how ridiculous that is, people don't live that way anymore. If that was the case no one my age could run for office. I don't know if there's a lot of 28-year-olds with $10,000 lying around and 100 people they know with a bunch of free time. Most of my friends are working one if not two jobs. Don’t listen to everyone's riffraff about why it's not your time. Just do it. It's gonna be great.

Zahra: When I began this journey, I didn't have a list of 100 people. It was only after I got knee-deep into this that people started coming out because we used social media and we got to know people. We meet people at events and the people helping us are like-minded people that we are picking up along the way. For me to have created the list of people on day one obviously would’ve been impossible, I didn’t know 90 of the 100 people we have helping us now. Running for office needs to be much less of a serious thing. If you are interested in running for office, RUN! We need you.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.

 

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