Three candidates, including Colorado representative Jeff Bridges and teacher and author Angela Engel, have announced that they want to replace Kagan.
Also up for consideration is Iman Jodeh. She operates the educational nonprofit Meet the Middle East and serves as the first female spokesperson for the Colorado Muslim Society and as the deputy policy adviser for the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. If she wins, she'd be the first Muslim to ever serve in the Colorado legislature.
We spoke with Jodeh about her background, her top issues, and why she believes she is the most qualified candidate for this position.
Westword: Tell us about yourself
Iman Jodeh: I am a first-generation American. I was born to Palestinian immigrants and refugees, who were definitely in search of the American dream. We were fortunate enough to find that dream. I am definitely a Colorado girl through and through, as I was born and raised here. I’m a big Broncos fan and bleed orange and blue. I have two brothers and a sister. I have family in the U.S. military as well, which I’m very proud of.
My father has been very engaged in our community as not only a faith leader, but a teacher, an educator, a scholar and a businessman.
That conditioned me in a non-traditional way to follow in his footsteps, and I think that’s what sets me apart from other politicians. Other politicians can say, "I’ve wanted to be politician since I was a child," whereas I have had all of these other experiences to realize that there’s a need for me to become a senator.
My mother was a Sunday school teacher for over thirty years herself. Education has really been infused into my family. I’m a product of public education from preschool onward, including at Overland High School and the University of Colorado Denver, where I got my undergraduate degree and a master's of public administration.
I now teach at the Enrichment Program at the University of Denver. I also teach four months out of the year for a high school program.
In addition to my work at the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and the Colorado Muslim Society, I'm also a co-founder of the Colorado Muslim Leadership Coalition. We submit press releases and public statements every time something bad happens. The last two releases were for the Jewish cemetery defacing and the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. We made sure that there were countless Muslim organizations as signatories on the statement. ... This is what it means to be a Muslim.
"I worked really closely with Joe Salazar to pass resolutions that would ensure that Colorado would not participate in a Muslim internment camp if that came down through Congress."
What’s your favorite part about public service?
One of my favorite things is knowing that I can empower the people that I’m advocating for. It could be easy for me and many people who advocate to take credit or to put all eyes on them. But for me, I know that making a difference comes with empowering the people that I’m trying to hold up.
For example, I think one of the greatest things that I was blessed to be a part of this last session was fighting for the Colorado Civil Rights Division. It was up for review. I testified under the auspice of, not only am I, as a minority, protected by CCRD, but I need this, knowing that if I need to step away and break my fast during Ramadan, I’m protected at work. If I need to step away and pray at work, I’m protected. My gender, my religion, my sexuality, will not be considered when I’m looking for a job. I took it one step further. I have my own nonprofit. I’m a small-business owner. I have a responsibility for the people who work with me to protect their rights just as I would expect to be protected at any job. It's an honor to be a Coloradan, since we are the first in the nation to have a civil-rights division. Those are the values that I want to fight for and represent for my constituents in SD 26.
What are your top issues?
One of my top issues is protecting the rights of marginalized communities, including refugees. My district has a high concentration of refugees and immigrants in there, and it’s not a secret. It continues to rise. So it's important to make sure that whoever occupies that seat not only can represent them, but also has an intimate knowledge of where they come from. And I think that person is me. I have been able to walk a fine line of being a first-generation American while also maintaining a heritage that comes from a region that is probably one of the most misunderstood in the world. I feel like a lot of immigrants and refugees do not feel very well-represented in the Capitol right now.
I've also definitely noticed that the lack of economic opportunities and rising housing costs affect everyone in the district and across Colorado. These issues are not just facing refugees and immigrants, but all of us. ... That’s why I spent so much time in places like Highlands Ranch, Littleton and Englewood, in addition to my own home town of Aurora.
Education to me is a really big deal. I’m very passionate about education, and I have always been passionate about education. People ask me, is Meet the Middle East a peace organization? I say no, it’s an educational organization. I back that up by not only teaching at one of the most well-respected universities in the country, at DU, but I also do so by teaching a topic that’s very difficult and [maintaining] composure and academic credibility when teaching about the geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
Since I'm a product of public education, my first experience with government was through student government in college, where I got involved in the legislative committee. Through this committee, we maintained a presence at CU Regents meetings and at the Capitol.
When I became president of the student government at CU Denver, I ran on a platform of representing classmates and advocating for them. At the time, due to TABOR's domino effect, funds for higher education were being slashed, so we launched a campaign, "Where is S.H.E." "S.H.E." stood for Support for Higher Education. We met with Governor Ritter’s office and at the Capitol to advocate for legislation that would favor public education and students depending on state dollars. My other opponents in this race may be a little polarized on the education topic, and I choose to be a unifying candidate when it comes to education.
I also want to focus on defending civil liberties and civil rights for all Coloradans because we are our best selves when we can amplify our shared values. I want to really make sure that I safeguard civil rights and liberties for all Coloradans, not just people of color and minorities, and that we all enjoy the same rights set forth by the Constitution.
What’s one thing about Colorado politics that you want to see change?
I think there’s a lot of things that we as citizens are completely unaware of when it comes to Colorado politics. If elected, I envision myself entrenched and infused in my community probably more so than just sitting in the Senate every day. Of course there is a job I have to do at the Capitol, and I will draft that legislation and represent my district. But I can’t do that if I’m not with my community, listening to them, breaking bread with them, worshiping with them, laughing and crying with them. If I’m able to do that, I feel like I’ll be better able to connect them to the Capitol. I want to better expose and allow my constituents to have better and easier access, not only to me as their senator but to the process in which they are represented and know that they will have a voice.
I worked really closely with Joe Salazar to pass resolutions that would ensure that Colorado would not participate in a Muslim internment camp if that came down through Congress. Every single time I said this, people would say, "What are you talking about? How is this even a thing? We’ve never heard of it." And that phrase, "We’ve never heard of it," that scares me. I think that rings true for a lot of legislative pieces during each session that people should be aware of.
What would be the significance of you becoming the first Muslim to serve in the Colorado Assembly?
It’s time. There are 75,000 Muslims in Colorado, and that number is growing. Islam is slated to be the second largest religion in the United States by 2040. We have an obligation as Americans and Coloradans to get to know our neighbors. In this instance, we have an obligation to ensure equal representation. And I’m a person who can represent a large portion of this growing community. Again, I want to be clear: Senate District 26 is not just Muslim, not just refugees and immigrants. It is a multifaceted, beautiful tapestry of people of various backgrounds and socioeconomic makeups that makes this one of the most sought-after seats. And I get that. But like I said, it’s time. And many representatives at the Capitol have told me that it’s actually overdue. My community in advocacy and my nonprofit community have supported me and come out in droves and said how excited they are about this happening and that it’s finally happening.
If elected, being the first Muslim woman of color would allow Colorado to curve out that amazing blue wave that the rest of the nation rode in November by electing such amazing women to Congress. By electing me, we would be one step closer to putting Colorado on the map and saying, "Yes, we are a state that supports our minorities, our women, and we do not discriminate, but rather rise and lift up the people we know can do the job."
The vacancy committee vote will take place on January 5 at 10 a.m. at the Englewood Civic Center. At least 50 percent plus one vote from the vacancy committee is required to win. For every round that candidates do not receive a majority of votes, the lowest-scoring candidate will be removed from the ballot, and a run-off round will be held until one candidate reaches at least 50 percent plus one vote.