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Transformed and rewired: Sen. Fady Qaddoura’s life in public service

Eleven years ago, when Fady Qaddoura first began working as an intern for the Indiana Senate legal office, a former staffer in the IT department asked him his name and where he was from. Qaddoura answered, and the staffer said, “Oh, you’re one of these effing terrorists that just came from overseas.”

The people working in the legal office reported the incident, and the employee was disciplined.

Qaddoura has continuously pushed past the turning points in his life and those that have impacted the nation to pursue public service and became the first Arab-Muslim lawmaker in state history.

Sen. Fady Qaddoura (above), D-Indianapolis, a Palestinian-American, is serving in a time when racism and discrimination are a matter of contention in the U.S.

The senator defeated incumbent Republican John Ruckelshaus in Senate District 30 by a narrow margin with 52% of the vote, in the 2020 election.

The tipping point 

Growing up on the West Bank of Israel in the city of Ramallah, Qaddoura and his family worked hard to make ends meet.

He started working construction at 14—because at the time Israel had no child-labor laws—and over the years worked in markets and bookstores and pushing carts on the streets.

He saved up $3,000 for an airline ticket to the U.S. before flying across the world with his older brother at 19 years old. The pair landed in Louisiana, where Qaddoura began studying for his bachelor’s and master’s in computer science in 2000.

“I was driven by the goal and the dream of becoming wealthy like Jeff Bezos, to be the good side of Jeff Bezos, not the bad side, and to take care of Mom and Dad so that they never have to work again because they worked extremely hard in their lives,” Qaddoura said.

In the months after 9/11, Qaddoura said he struggled with losing friendships because “within hours” people assumed “all Muslims or all Arabs who came from that region are bad people.”

After meeting and marrying his wife, Samar, in college, Qaddoura faced another difficult milestone as his brother-in-law was shot and killed during a robbery of his family-owned business.

Four years later, in 2005, his oldest daughter, Sajida, now 15, was born three weeks before Hurricane Katrina left them homeless and living with other evacuees in shelters.

Qaddoura said it was difficult for the family to accept meals from strangers. “It takes a toll on your dignity as a human being to rely on the generosity of others,” he said.

“I was extremely impressed by the generosity of strangers and I wanted to be like them—to pay it forward,” Qaddoura said.  “Hurricane Katrina was the tipping point in my life.  I was being transformed and rewired into a new person who wanted to spend the rest of his life in public service.”

Paying it forward

After experiencing homelessness following Hurricane Katrina, Qaddoura moved to Indiana to pursue his Ph.D. in public policy and philanthropy.

He used these degrees while he worked for state agencies such as the Department of Workforce Development and the Family and Social Services Administration and as city controller of Indianapolis prior to running for state senator of District 30. The district represents the north side of Indianapolis, Carmel and Fishers.

As city controller, Qaddoura worked on balancing the budget after years of deficits. He said working for the city made him see the disconnect between “well-intentioned laws that passed at the Statehouse and the implementation and execution on the local level.”

“It felt like there was a gap in translation between laws that we pass on a state level and how they get executed. So I thought it would be helpful for someone who has an understanding of the impact of state laws and localities to run for public office to address some of these challenges.”

Qaddoura said this is just one of the many reasons he decided to run for the Indiana Senate.

Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis and minority caucus chair, said he got to know and become friends with Qaddoura during his campaign. Now they both serve on the Family and Social Services and Elections committees together.

“I quickly learned and knew that he was going to be a wonderful addition to the caucus,” Ford said. “He’s energetic; he’s outgoing. He is, you know, in my opinion, a great addition to the caucus.”

Then-Superintendent of Public Instruction, Republican Jennifer McCormick, endorsed a handful of Democratic candidates in state races, including Qaddoura, because of their policies on public education. McCormick thinks the Statehouse needs more advocates for public education.

Qaddoura received endorsements by a handful of organizations and fellow Democrats, as well.

During his campaign, Qaddoura focused on making sure voters knew his priorities lay in pandemic relief for Hoosiers and small businesses, public education, healthcare, and voting rights while trying to make a statement as a young immigrant in state government.

“So I wanted to run to make a statement that an immigrant with a unique name such as Fady can still have a place in Indiana,” Qaddoura said. “To run and serve, and be at the table at the decision-making table in a time where you know diversity, equity and inclusion is the dominant topic in our country.”

Lauren Suriel, Qaddoura’s political director, met him through an Emerging Leaders Project and kept in touch over the years. She said the pandemic gave her extra time to devote to his campaign, since she could not travel for her job with the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“I really felt like and still believe he is a sincere person who just wants to improve the lives of people in our community, and that I think is very rare in politicians today,” Suriel said. “I really respect that and that’s why I was so willing to actually get involved in his campaign. I think as our state senator, he is already bringing that same approach to the Senate.”

Jessica Griffith worked closely with Suriel as Qaddoura’s campaign manager. She said she was excited to get back to working on campaigns after acting as a legislative assistant for Krieg DeVault, consulting with lobbyists at the Statehouse and helping with their clients.

She met Qaddoura through a mutual friend in August 2019 to give him advice about talking with constituents where she’s from, in Hamilton County. Griffith said when they met she knew right away she wanted to work on his campaign in some capacity.

“I think we sat at Starbucks for about an hour and a half,” Griffith said. “It was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting but he just started telling me his story and his background. He told me his ideas for why he wanted to run, the things that he could bring to the table as a state senator, his background, his policy ideas, things that he was very passionate about that he knows that the community is passionate about, and I was like OK I’m sold.”

Justin Deem-Loureiro, chairman of the Indiana High School Democrats and former Sen. John Ruckelshaus’ neighbor, said he joined the campaign because he saw the district as one that could flip.

“I absolutely loved working on his campaign, I mean, it was so much fun— I worked on several campaigns but his was probably the best experience overall,” he said. “I was pretty much doing what any other staff volunteer would do for the campaign.”

Griffith said because Qaddoura was a first-time candidate and because of the curveball the pandemic threw their way, she was impressed with how quickly he was able to shift gears from knocking on doors to dropping off literature and making phone calls.

“It was incredible,” Griffith said. “His work ethic—I don’t know if I’ve worked with anybody who’s ever worked harder than he worked.”

Griffith said running a campaign for the first time with Qaddoura was a pleasure because he was so dedicated and focused. Qaddoura decided to stand outside the polls for 8-12 hours a day at St. Luke’s Church, from the day early voting started to Election Day to speak with constituents as they waited in long lines.

Griffith said she remembers having to pop into his conversations with constituents to remind him of the timeline because he was enthusiastic about talking and connecting with everyone.

“It was very refreshing to see that,” she said. “As a candidate he didn’t just want another title, he didn’t just want to become senator to say like, I’m Senator Qaddoura, he actually genuinely cares and wants to help the constituents of the District 30 but also Hoosiers in general in Indiana.”

Deem-Loureiro said it was amazing seeing Qaddoura talking with voters before the polls opened for the day and after the polls closed.

“He puts people over politics, he uses his heart. I mean I’ve known him for a while now and he always, always uses his heart,” Deem-Loureiro said. “He really does care about the people. He would spend hours talking to just one voter if it meant understanding who they are and what they wanted from him.”

Qaddoura emphasized making sure every Hoosier feels loved and welcomed here.

“I think in our democracy every citizen should have equal rights, and not all of the laws that we have in Indiana treat people as such,” Qaddoura said. “So I want to be sure that we create a more welcoming loving state by which every human is loved and respected and has equal rights under our law.”

A driving force

Qaddoura said that post 9/11, whether it was at an internship, working for state government or campaigning, discrimination persists.

On the campaign trail, Qaddoura said he received hate messages through social media, phone calls and emails from people outside his district saying he “doesn’t belong in America,” his “values should not represent their values,” and he “shouldn’t even have the constitutional ability to run for public office.”

A few people showed up at events, yelling in parking lots, “We don’t need no Muslims in Indiana.”

Griffith said the first instance she remembers the campaign having to address discrimination was after staffers posted a Fourth of July graphic to social media.

The post received half a dozen comments saying things like, “This is creepy,” and, “This is what terrorism looks like,” but before the campaign could address the comments people starting replying to the hate with, “What’s disgusting about this?” and, “It’s a beautiful thing, an American family celebrating Fourth of July.”

“I think most of our confrontations happened online because it’s a lot easier for people to say hateful things when they’re hiding behind the computer screen,” Griffith said.

Even an advertisement by his opponent seemed to make digs at Qaddoura’s experiences. Former Sen. Ruckelshaus’ campaign sent out mailers that were deemed distasteful by other candidates across the state because they appeared to depict Qaddoura in a rugged, “homeless” appearance, depicted by a photoshopped Qaddoura wearing a large backpack and cardboard sign.

Ronnie Saunders, a Senate candidate from District 20, wrote a letter to the editor of the Hamilton County Reporter and posted to social media about the ad.

“Disparaging someone who is homeless or has experienced homelessness is shameful,” Saunders wrote. “The public deserves better than this in their representatives. People are tired of dirty politics and mud-slinging. It does not play to the sensible voter.”

Ford also took to social media to share his thoughts on the mailer, to encourage people to donate to Qaddoura’s campaign.

“Let me just say this… this attack on Fady is despicable. You can attack him on many things but to attack Fady for being homeless is reprehensible,” he wrote.

Griffith said they were stunned when the attack ad came out because they were not expecting it to deal with Qaddoura’s temporary homelessness after Hurricane Katrina.

She said the mailer ended up having a reverse effect because the campaign began receiving calls from people wanting to volunteer or donate.

“So after that mailer came out our volunteer numbers doubled or tripled, and our fundraising went through the roof,” Griffith said.

She said this marked a point in the campaign where they gained confidence they were going to win the election because they knew constituents didn’t care about the color of his skin or religion.

“I also do feel pretty confident that this did not actually come from the former state senator, I think it was a poor choice by his team,” Griffith said. “Sen. Ruckelshaus is not mean spirited or anything like that so we didn’t really think that he had anything to do with that, but you know it, he put it out there whether he knew about it or not.”

Qaddoura said these experiences were another driving force in his decision to run. He said it is important to him that he stands up for marginalized groups because people stigmatize them and assume things about them.

“So I did go through these difficult experiences, but I channeled my energy in a positive way to help others to create a safe space for all of our kids to live without discrimination,” Qaddoura said.

His legacy

On election night, Qaddoura and his family joined Griffith and other members of the team for a watch party at Deem-Loureiro’s house. But votes did not come in until the next evening. Griffith said she and field director Alex Cortwright kept refreshing Twitter awaiting results when they saw he had won.

Griffith said she texted Qaddoura to say “congratulations, Senator, you won” and he called her and said “Why do you think that, how do you know that, are you sure?”

“It was really cool,” she said. “I technically told Senator Qaddoura that he won, probably minutes before he saw it himself.”

Qaddoura became just the sixth state lawmaker nationally to make history by becoming Indiana’s first-ever Arab-Muslim lawmaker.

Five states: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin all elected their state legislatures’ first-ever Muslim lawmakers in the 2020 election. All of the legislators ran as Democrats, according to Religion News Service.

In 2018, the first two female Muslim members of Congress were elected: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. They were reelected in the 2020 election.

Qaddoura said he wants to advocate on the behalf of his constituents from Indianapolis’ north side, Carmel and Fishers, and other Hoosiers. He stressed the importance of Republicans and Democrats working together to find common ground so they can advance good policy solutions.

Suriel said she thinks Qaddoura is the type to put their head down and really get to work, working with anyone as long as it was for the common good of Hoosiers.

“He really is sincere about wanting to work on the tough issues and work across the aisle whenever he can. Because I think he really just wants to try to get things done and I think that’s an attitude that is missing again with a lot of our politicians today.”

Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, is a long time friend of Ruckelshaus. He said while it’s unfortunate when friends lose in elections, it’s important to him to create relationships with the freshman senators.

“I like talking to the new folks and just kind of welcoming them on board,” Charbonneau said. “We’re in the business of people—in relationships. It’s just important that we reach out and have good relationships with as many people as possible. And I perceive that he is the same way.”

Charbonneau said since meeting Qaddoura when the session began in January, he’s noticed how thoughtful his fellow Senator is.

Qaddoura said he wants his lasting legacy to be how he worked as a public servant to put the people first.

“I want to personally be remembered that the legacy of my life was, ‘he was an excellent public servant who spent every ounce of energy, truly serving the people and placing the people’s interest at the heart of every legislation’, no special interest and not that or personal interest and political ambition,” Qaddoura said.

He said he wants to ensure the legislation is truly serving the people and placing Hoosier’s best interest at heart because elections and candidates come and go but the people will still be here.

“If you want to ever offend me, call me a politician,” Qaddoura said. “I didn’t run to play politics, I didn’t run to earn a title. I ran because I personally went through difficult life experiences. And I can relate to those who are struggling now. I want to be sure that I become that person who is willing to extend the helping hand through legislation to everyone who struggles in our state. I want to be that voice.”

Sydney Byerly is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.