An all-American story starring an immigrant
Breakthroughs are rare at the state Capitol.
One occurred in 1922, the midst of Prohibition. Democrats won their first majority in the New Mexico House of Representatives that year. Republicans were in charge throughout the first decade of statehood.
Rep. DeLoma Scott cracked another ceiling in 1966. Scott, D-Alamogordo, won election to the House and became the only woman in the chamber for the next two years. Sixty-nine men and Scott decided on legislation.
Women picked up four seats in the House in this year’s election. It will have 31 women and 39 men in January, a landmark that’s more representative of the overall population.
One man who will take his seat in the House next year also accounts for a breakthrough in this era of President Donald Trump.
Rep.-elect Abbas Akhil is a Muslim and a naturalized citizen.
Akhil, D-Albuquerque, upset Republican Rep. Jim Dines in last month’s election. Their race is headed to an automatic recount, but Akhil’s lead of 115 votes appears safe. Typically, no more than a handful of votes changes in recounts for state legislative seats.
Dines was a one-of-a-kind New Mexico legislator because he refused to take dinners, drinks or gifts from lobbyists and advocacy groups. He paid his own way for everything.
Akhil will stand out from the crowd, too.
“I’m unique because of my engineering skills. And I’m an immigrant. We have as much of a contribution to make as anybody else,” he said in an interview.
Raised in central India, Akhil arrived in America in 1972. He enrolled at New Mexico State University and graduated with a master’s degree in industrial engineering in 1975. Job opportunities were available to him on the West Coast and in Texas, but he decided to make New Mexico his home.
Now, at age 70, retired from Sandia National Laboratories, he is a rookie politician off to an auspicious start. Few expected him to defeat Dines, a cool-headed lawyer who had worked diligently in his two terms in the House, notably to create a state ethics commission.
Akhil is moved that someone who immigrated to America, and is part of a group that has been attacked by the president himself, could win elective office.
“It is a testament to the greatness of our system,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in too many countries.”
He also credited his victory to the blue wave that swept the state and to a campaign team that he described as relentless.
Democrats won every statewide office in the general election. And they took away nine seats in the state House of Representatives that Republicans had held.
Akhil didn’t think about his chances of unseating Dines. His campaign team told him to ignore polls and past voting patterns in their race in House District 20, which he calls the east gateway of Albuquerque.
“They devised the campaign strategy. My only job every day was to get out and knock on doors. It was the most enjoyable part of my campaign,” Akhil said.
A natural politician, he had no trouble connecting with voters. Akhil said this was especially true in lower-income neighborhoods, where the story of a naturalized citizen who built a successful career inspired people.
“My district has the entire spectrum of people. The foothills have million-dollar mansions. But I really got a lot of my support from the poorer areas.”
Akhil said too many in New Mexico focus on what’s wrong rather than on the state’s resources and potential.
“I don’t think we are a poor state,” he said. “We have some challenges. But if you say we are poor, again and again, it breeds a negative mindset.”
He just went through freshman orientation at the Capitol. He hopes to serve on the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, a natural fit for his background.
He also is weighing what legislation he should sponsor. All those conversations on porches have led him to some early ideas.
He might propose bills aimed at expanding renewable energy and reducing crime.
“Crime is a big problem in Albuquerque and in my district,” he said.
The legislative session starts Jan. 15 and runs for 60 days. Anyone who has been through it has warned Akhil of grinding hours. Days that start with breakfast meetings might not end until past midnight.
He is undaunted. His daughter, Amina, a clinical pharmacist, lives in Santa Fe. Akhil will stay at her home on the longest days, avoiding a commute home and staying fresh for the next round of legislating.
He and his wife, Habiba, have another son in Texas. Their third child, a son, died in a motorcycle wreck.
Akhil said he has not spoken to Dines, given that their race is still in the process of a recount. He hopes they can talk once the final vote totals are posted.
Otherwise, Akhil, an immigrant with an all-American story, is ready to go to work.
Some 46 years after arriving in New Mexico as a stranger, he is about to become a representative of the people.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.