Growing up in North Raleigh, Zainab Baloch began volunteering at her local mosque in fifth grade, from there branching out to nonprofits and activism at N.C. State. She has a master’s degree in public administration from UNC-Chapel Hill but fashions herself more as a boots-on-the-ground organizer. She rides the bus from her Southeast Raleigh home to her job downtown at Even Responsible Finance, and she portrays herself as focused more on engaging with the community than climbing the political ladder.
She did, however, run for Raleigh City Council in 2017, placing fifth in the free-for-all at-large race. This year, Baloch is mounting a long-shot bid for mayor, challenging the better known—and better financed—former city council member Mary-Ann Baldwin, former Wake County commissioner Caroline Sullivan, and Raleigh lawyer Charles Francis.
The biggest difference between her and them: Baloch is twenty-seven years old, six years younger than Raleigh’s youngest mayor, Thomas Bradshaw Jr., who was elected to one term in 1971. (Baloch would also be the only Muslim and woman of color to serve as Raleigh mayor.)
The INDY spoke with Baloch about her campaign last week. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the entire conversation on INDYcast, the INDY’s podcast, which is available through Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.
INDY: Why do you want to be mayor?
ZAINAB BALOCH: I want to be Raleigh’s next mayor because I think our city can provide a platform for our future. We have a number of communities that are not represented right now in our city government. The lack of representation not only is preventing us from addressing those community needs, but it also keeps us from having innovative ideas to really bring about innovative solutions to old problems.
What got you into local politics?
I never thought I’d be a politician. I’ve always been a community organizer. I went to a protest one day, and someone had suggested it, and I’d never thought about it. And I realized that the people who know the people on the ground are the ones who are able to make policies that represent them. It comes with the experience of talking to different community groups, different people of different races, religions, ethnicities, but also of different income levels, and understanding and being empathetic toward those issues and making policies that represent them.
What policies would you make a priority?
My platform focuses on mobility, security, and happiness. Raleigh has one of the worst upward mobility rates in the country. And what I truly believe in is the right to have that upward mobility. And that means you have the right to find a good job nearby. You have the right to have infrastructure that gets you where you need to be, the right to thrive in your career choice. And then security, we see that right now, not all communities feel safe. And so under security, we are really talking about the right to find basic needs in your neighborhood. Southeast Raleigh is considered a food desert.
What do you think of the affordable housing crisis in Raleigh?
It seems like we’re building housing, but we’re not building any communities. Like we’re evaluating our impact just based on the number of units that we create versus [whether] we actually [impacted] a family’s life. When we talk about affordable housing, I think one thing is the terminology. We should really be talking about workforce housing, and what that looks like is a holistic approach versus just talking about income. We’re not creating enough housing for what we need. And with more people moving in, everyone who is moving in is not wealthy. People are going to need places to live. You’re going to need a workforce. We’re seeing a shortage of workers downtown because they can’t afford to live near downtown, and people might not have transportation to get here because we don’t have the infrastructure.
What about the city council’s new voluntary inclusionary zoning initiative to encourage developers to build affordable housing?
It’s interesting because we’ve always pointed to the fact that [mandatory inclusionary zoning] is not allowed by the legislature. I feel like this is one of the issues, that we’re not looking at any other approaches. We’re just looking at what we know and what’s there. We’re not willing to take risks. But I personally just feel it’s not strong enough. It’s not strong enough, we’re not doing enough.
What would a different approach look like?
First off, providing some type of incentives. But I also support creating mixed-use units and finding innovative ways to solve this problem. The first step is reaching out to people and figuring out what’s out there. Minneapolis just ended single-family zoning. That’s helping a lot right now. They’re the only council in the entire country to do that. [Single-family housing zoning] was put into place during segregation. So we as a city need to look at these policies that were put into place at a time that definitely wasn’t representative of everyone. And for us to continue using them is very clearly saying we don’t represent everyone.
Most other candidates have held public office. What makes you qualified?
I think that’s exactly what makes me qualified. Because right now, we have people in office who have the political experience. And I have experience in people. I have experience working with almost every type of community right now in Raleigh. And that brings unique experience.
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at email@example.com, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @leightauss.