On Tuesday, Texans elected several firsts for the state, including the first openly gay Black men to serve in the Texas House and the first Muslim and South Asian state representatives.
Salman Bhojani, who will represent House District 92, which includes part of Arlington, Euless and Bedford, is among those firsts.
Bhojani, originally from Pakistan, emigrated to Texas with his parents when he was a teenager. After working his way up through various jobs, he eventually became the first Muslim-American to hold elected office in Euless. Now he makes his way to the Texas Capitol.
Bhojani spoke with the Texas Standard about the importance of his election, as well as his background and what he hopes to accomplish in his first term. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: You, yourself have drawn attention to the historic nature of your election, also being the first person of color to represent House District 92. Could you say a little bit more about that and why, in particular, this was so important to you?
Salman Bhojani: Sure. The representation matters a lot, and I feel that I’ve had historic campaigns in the past, and I want to draw attention to the fact that we have so much diversity within our great state and our cities, and so we need that representation in the statehouse and elected officials as well.
There have been instances, as I’m sure you’re aware, of unwelcoming behavior toward Muslims at the Texas Capitol as recently as 2017. There were issues with protesters on Muslim Capitol Day. Do you worry about any of that as you head to Austin?
I don’t think so. I think our state is very diverse and it’s very welcoming, and there are a lot of people who understand that there is no one religion that the state endorses and there’re so many religions that can come together and respect one another, and that’s what my rhetoric has been since I got politically engaged as to how do we get civility in our discourse regardless of our faith, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation?
How do you go about doing that? Everyone is talking about this, but a lot of people are sort of searching to find answers to that.
I think you start by exemplifying that behavior yourself, and that’s what I’ve tried to do: be really humble and listen to all perspectives. In fact, I have knocked on doors of Republican households and have heard their perspective as well, and that’s how I have a very bipartisan nature. By exemplifying that behavior, people will see that, you know, yes, he wants to reach across the aisle; he wants to get multiple perspectives. And I’ve actually created an interfaith advisory council for my office already, where we have members that live in HD-92 from various faiths and faith leaders that are here and understand my message of coming together and having interfaith dialog and respecting one another.
If you don’t mind, I’d love to ask you a question, because it takes a certain kind of person to run for political office. We saw low voter turnout, and there have been concerns over the years about a decline in civic participation, but here, you made the choice to get involved in politics. What was it that sparked that?
That’s a great question. In 2016, we elected our former president, and I felt that was not the right decision for America. America basically opened its arms to me when I came in as a 19-year-old boy in this country and worked at gas stations, mopping floors for $6 an hour, and I felt that is what the fabric of America is made of – having, accepting immigrants, accepting people from different backgrounds and different faith, and our former president was really not respectful to immigrants and people from the Muslim faith. And so that’s what made me, you know, get involved, but it was not just from that perspective. I think we really need to build a pipeline of youth that are from diverse backgrounds to really make sure that we have better representation, and that’s what I feel that I’m going to start by myself and creating that enthusiasm within minority communities.
What you described as being a 19-year-old who comes to Texas getting that first job – what were you going for at the time, and how did those early months and years shape you here in Texas?
Sure. Yeah, so as an immigrant into the country, I felt like I had to put food on the table. I had to, you know, earn money, so that way we could have all the things that we wanted to have in this country and send my kids to school. And so I felt like it was a lot of hard work through the years. I worked three jobs to make ends meet. I also then moved my way up. I became a cashier, then a manager, and then bought my first business – actually, that’s in the District 92 in Arlington in 2003 – and then I put myself through law school at SMU and became an attorney after four years and worked at Haynes and Boone, where I met Chairman Rafael Anchía, who actually put in the bug in me to make sure that I … As attorneys, it behooves us to give back to our community, and that’s how I got also involved in my city, but it’s been a really blessed journey so far where I’ve lived the American Dream, and my goal in representing District 92 residents is giving them opportunities to have and live that American Dream – their version of the American Dream.
I’ve spoken with freshman representatives in the Texas House in the past, and close to the end of their term, some have expressed frustration because, you know, you’re new. You’re learning the ways of the Legislature, and sometimes some of the folks who have been around there for years, if not decades, sort of seem to steer everything, and it’s hard to get heard. Are you concerned about that, and I wonder how you might mark your term as a success? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Yeah, I’ve thought a lot about that. I’ve persevered through a lot of Islamophobia. People told me to go back to Pakistan and, you know, you’re not an American and that you bring Sharia law, and so I’ve been through a lot, and I’ve persevered through all that because I really have the passion to serve the community and to really serve the people of HD-92. Last session, I talked to a lot of representatives and was really tough on them, but I think I have an optimistic outlook to a lot of different things, and I really feel that I have the bipartisan approach that’s needed to be successful in the state Legislature – how to work across the aisle to make sure that we work on kitchen table issues. There are issues that every single Texan family talks about while they’re having dinner, and that’s the issues that I really want to focus on: a good economy, access to healthcare and education for everyone.