The Bigot of Blaine, and the Muslim family man who should replace him

Nolan West's opponent in House District 37B, Amir Malik, is trying to meet everyone in Blaine.

Nolan West's opponent in House District 37B, Amir Malik, is trying to meet everyone in Blaine.

It’s a bold move to ask for a promotion and raise two months after you resign in shame. Yet boldness was never Nolan West’s problem. Bigotry was.

In fall 2016, after 21 months as a legislative aide, West, then 25, was running for an open seat representing Blaine in the Minnesota House.

That September, City Pages ran a story about West’s years-long history of racist and homophobic social media diatribes. There were posts about the Confederacy (loved it), Abe Lincoln (“worst president”), and “fagballs.”

On the eve of Barack Obama’s 2008 election, he wrote, “IT’S LYNCHING TIME.”

The next day, West was out of a job... but still on the ballot and suddenly regretful for “insensitive material” that didn’t “reflect who I am or what I believe.”

Enough of Blaine’s voters either bought this mea culpa or didn’t know about it. That November, West beat retired school teacher Susan Witt by less than 1 percent.

Blaine has an eccentric recent history, voting for Tom Emmer but against Michele Bachmann; against Al Franken but for Donald Trump (by 4 percent) and Amy Klobuchar (by 30).

This year, in a topsy-turvy district with a vulnerable incumbent, the DFL’s standing up one hell of a candidate. He’s an articulate, soft-spoken family man who traded Brooklyn for Blaine to raise his children and be closer to his parents. Know him, and you’ll know the least interesting fact is his name.

“Some people see the lawn signs and are wondering, ‘Who is this guy?’” Amir Malik says. “It’s my job to introduce myself.”

Malik, 40, has been doing that since last summer, when he started door-knocking in House District 37B. He’s there to hear their stories, and to tell his own. His Pakistani parents emigrated in the 1970s when his father, a University of Illinois grad, took a job as a food scientist for Pillsbury in Hoopeston, Illinois (population 5,000). Later, mom and dad moved to Golden Valley, closer to the parent company.

Malik followed dad’s footsteps for undergrad, then went to New York University Law School. While in college, friends set him up with a pretty woman native to Morocco, and the couple soon fell in love on chaperoned dates. They married, and Malik started a job at a hot-shot law firm, defending banks and pharmaceutical companies.

“I doubt we worked for a company valued at less than $10 billion,” he says. He filled his savings account but opened a void. This was not the life he wanted.

What he wanted was for his kids to have a childhood like his. He found it in Blaine. “A block away from our home is a park, where we can drag a kayak into the lake and paddle around,” he says. “A couple blocks the other way, we play baseball.”

His clients are different now, too. As civil rights director for the Council of American-Islamic Relations-Minnesota (CAIR), Malik meets with people who don’t know where else to turn—discrimination victims, those mistreated at work or on the streets.

One was a white woman who tried speaking Somali to strangers on a light-rail platform one winter night. A passerby mistook the woman’s scarf for a hijab and stabbed her.

Others have been unjustly fired, barred from prayer breaks at work, or have kids who’ve been bullied in school. They’re usually poor and overworked. Malik’s job is often to be the first person who’ll listen.

Brandon Taitt, his DFL opponent in this year’s endorsement fight, says Malik’s candidacy has reached another group not often heard—or heard from. “There are probably about 700 Muslim families in Blaine,” Taitt says, “and a lot of them have not generally been heavy voters in the past.”

When Malik won, those constituents approached Taitt, graciously asking him to stay involved. Invitation accepted: Not long ago, Taitt was out hammering in the “Malik for Minnesota” lawn signs that now dot the district.

Malik hopes to win an issues-based campaign, and says Republicans, Nolan West among them, spoiled the 2018 legislative session by wrapping every possible issue into “a 990-page mega-bill,” an obvious violation of the Minnesota Constitution.

“They like to compare themselves to the private sector,” Malik says. “I worked in the private sector. If you do something like that, security comes and watches you while you put all your stuff in a box.”

Malik’s corporate experience left him with rare insight about healthcare profiteers and big business, whose secret codes he can read from the inside out. “Let’s just say I learned a lot about the pharmaceutical industry, and transparency, and fairness in business and taxes,” he says, chuckling.

Don’t expect those corporate interests to care about fairness toward him. In 2016, a late flood of corporate money from the Minnesota Jobs Coalition—a front for the Chamber of Commerce, among others—targeted Susan Witt as literally an anvil over the heads for senior citizens. “And of course, I was a senior,” Witt recalls, tartly.

Imagine what they’ll be suggesting about a guy called Amir Malik.

Republicans, meanwhile, have decided that even if Nolan West is a Confederate homophobe, at least he’s their Confederate homophobe. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, who in 2016 said Nolan’s thoughts about gays, feminists, and the Union Army were “inappropriate and wrong,” had come around by 2017, enough to appear at a fundraiser for West. (West declined to comment for this column. So did Daudt.)

The fear-mongering fliers will rain down, no doubt, but to discount Malik would be to discount Blaine itself.

In 2015, as the City Council considered approving a tiny Muslim school (student count: about 20), a few dozen people expressed “concern.” Seven times that many came out in support. Longtime mayor Tom Ryan hushed the haters, saying Blaine’s Muslims are “our neighbors, our attorneys, engineers, our dentists.”

And maybe their next state rep, if enough meet Amir Malik on their doorsteps.