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This California Teacher Wants Environmental Justice

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, who seeks to represent South Central Los Angeles in the State Assembly, wants ‘clean air, clean water, and clean food’ for her constituents.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair.

Before Fatima Iqbal-Zubair announced that she was running for the California State Assembly’s 64th District last year, she was a schoolteacher at Jordan High School. The school is in Watts, a historically low-income South Central Los Angeles neighborhood that has a significant number of Black and Latinx residents. Iqbal-Zubair remembers that cops randomly searched her students. Dirty water was in drinking fountains. The football team couldn’t practice because the playing field was contaminated with lead and arsenic. 

Iqbal-Zubair later found that the oil refineries and steel mills that California lawmakers had crammed into the city’s poorest neighborhoods—the 64th Assembly District contains 25 percent of the state’s oil refineries—were poisoning her students. She also believed that local State Assembly member Mike Gipson didn’t seem particularly interested in fixing the problem.

“A child in my district is going to breathe bad air, going to be more likely to go to school that’s under-resourced, more likely to have barriers to getting a job, more likely to be evicted, more likely to be shot—the story of a child in my district is the intersectionality of all these issues,” Iqbal-Zubair told The Appeal. 

Inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, Iqbal-Zubair decided to run for the state legislature on a progressive platform that includes pushing for universal healthcare, divesting from police and prisons and investing in alternative forms of justice, free and universal pre-kindergarten, and “clean air, clean water, and clean food for our communities.” If elected, Iqbal-Zubair would be both the first person of Sri Lankan descent to represent her district and first Muslim to ever serve in the California State Assembly.

The 64th District stretches from the Los Angeles harbor area all the way north through South Los Angeles, Compton, and up to Watts. Gipson, a former officer with the (since-disbanded) Maywood Police Department, served on the Carson City Council before taking a seat in the State Assembly in 2014. Since then, Iqbal-Zubair says Gipson has done little but serve as a recipient of corporate cash from Anheuser Busch, CVS-Caremark, Pepsico, Boeing, Geico, Coca-Cola, and AT&T. In 2019, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gipson received among the highest number of gifts—including trips to Chile and the Netherlands funded by a group with ties to the oil and gas industryof any member in the state legislature. Gipson has also received police union money: According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, he has accepted more than $30,000 from the Los Angeles Police Protective League over his last four elections. He’s accepted donations from the Long Beach Police Officers’ Association and Los Angeles School Police Management Association, too.

Gipson did not respond to a message from The Appeal, but in a July article from Current Affairs, a progressive political magazine, he denied accusations that money from donors influenced his votes.

Iqbal-Zubair, who is running on a platform that includes divesting from police and creating a “community force” that could respond to less serious calls or mental health crises, told The Appeal that she saw the damage caused by random police searches of her students at Jordan High.

“It was normal to see police there for situations like truancy or for searching for, like, illegal substances,” she said. “In my mind, that should never be the case—there’s no reason to have police inside schools unless maybe a gun pulled out, but that’s not why they were there.” She said that she ran a robotics club to keep kids occupied after school, and that funding for police should instead be diverted into giving kids more learning opportunities. 

Last year, Iqbal-Zubair worked as Gipson’s education commissioner—but she says she soon realized he was deeply connected to oil and gas companies. Gipson has taken tens of thousands of dollars from companies that either operate oil refineries near his district (such as Chevron, which operates the El Segundo Refinery a few miles from his district’s border, as well as Valero), and within his district, including Phllips 66 and Marathon Petroleum. Gipson’s voting record, too, seems to reflect his donors’ interests: In 2018, Gipson voted down a proposal to set a 100 percent “clean energy” goal in California by 2045. Then last year Gipson skipped voting on a bill to force oil companies to better prepare for spills—he also voted no on a proposal to strengthen emission-reporting requirements and transparency about abandoned oil wells.

Iqbal-Zubair says the district deserves a representative who will fight harder to ensure South Central Los Angeles residents can get the same basic life necessities as people in wealthier, whiter districts—including clean water, stores that sell healthy food, free public transit, and more trees and green space breaking up the endless miles of concrete in areas like Compton.

“Basic things we need to get include clean water, which is ridiculous to have to say, but we need clean water everywhere in my district, and in other areas of the state, like the San Joaquin Valley or San Bernardino,” she said. “We have clean water laws that are simply not implemented. And in many cases, there is clean water but the pipes are years or decades old,  so we may need an infrastructure overhaul.” She added that when you “walk around the district, there are all these junk food places and liquor stores, which are not what the community is asking for. There are corporate interests putting them there and it’s making my community sick.” She also said she would push the state to create buffer zones between oil- and gas-production sites and residential areas, which she noted that Republican-dominated Texas has passed, but “progressive” California legislators have resisted.

Iqbal-Zubair performed well in the March 3 primary despite it being her first time running for office. Using small-dollar individual donations and door-knocking, she was able to pull in more than 32 percent of the primary vote. (Iqbal-Zubair identifies as a democratic socialist, as does Sanders, who won Los Angeles County in the state’s 2020 presidential primary.)

In California State Assembly races, the top two candidates regardless of party advance to the November general election and, because only Gipson and Iqbal-Zubair ran, they are facing off again in the general election. This time, she has more major endorsements that she hopes will help push her over the finish line, including from the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club and Sanders. Iqbal-Zubair could also be one of multiple progressive—and openly democratic socialist—candidates to sweep into office in Los Angeles this year. Nithya Raman, endorsed by Sanders as well as Democratic Socialists of America, has run a grassroots, housing justice focused campaign for Los Angeles City Council that shocked local politicians and pushed incumbent Democrat David Ryu into a tight race. In response to Raman’s surge, major centrist Democrats including Hillary Clinton and U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi have endorsed Ryu. This sort of attention from national politicians is not typical of local city council races.

Iqbal-Zubair told The Appeal that she’s excited to tap into the same support that’s also boosting Raman in Los Angeles. 

“I think people are angry,” she said. “For one, I think when Bernie ran his first campaign, it opened up a consciousness in America and in LA that hasn’t been opened before. We considered it a movement and it pushed something in us.” But, she said, “it’s also a combination of what’s happening around us—we see the rates of homelessness rising, rates of environmental racism getting worse, see our schools getting worse.”

She added: “Northern California has legislators that are a lot more progressive than we are, New York has people becoming more progressive, and so I think Southern California is finally noticing and catching up to what the people want.”