Welcome to our ongoing interview series highlighting young elected officials and young candidates. This month we spoke with Yousef Rahbi, who has been serving as County Comissioner for Washtenaw County for the past four years. He is currently running for the State House of Representatives for Michigan’s 55th district. The district covers the majority of the city of Ann Arbor, where Yousef was raised.
Growing up in a progressive family that was very involved in politics, Yousef says he learned the importance of fighting for change at a young age. These lessons followed him through his undergraduate years at the University of Michigan where he started a group against the war in Iraq and rallied for other international causes.
“But I started to see the changes I was advocating globally just weren’t a reality locally,” Yousef says, referring to the homelessness, socio-economic segregation, and the lack of affordable he witnessed in his community. “I decided to roll up my sleeves and say to myself it’s time to make change here at home.”
Shortly thereafter, Yousef launched a successful bid for County Commissioner. He prides himself on the work he has done so far for the community, particularly in improving labor equality and the municipal budget. He told us about his leadership against the “right-to-work” law passed just a few years ago in Michigan.
“The ‘right-to-work’ law was going to put our employee unions at a disadvantage, so I pushed for us to enter into 10 year labor agreements with our labor partners in order to avoid ‘right-to-work’ actually taking effect for our unions.” Yousef explained the benefits of the deal were twofold: “It helped to lock in our labor costs and ensure that we had labor market stability for our budgeting purposes. As a result, we established a balanced budget for the next 4 years in the post-recession time period, something that no other municipality can say.”
We turned our attention to the upcoming state house race, and Yousef emphasized, in addition to increasing affordable housing, the need to make sure that Ann Arbor grows at a rate that is sustainable and does not leave anybody behind. “We need to make sure there is equitable access to good jobs and we need to help increase the minimum wage in Michigan,” says Yousef, “because the people in my community are still struggling to get by on those jobs.”
Also on the legislative agenda for Yousef is making sure that LGBTQ rights are strengthened in Michigan. “Obviously there was a big victory for LGBTQ rights with the Supreme Court decision recently, but in the state of Michigan our Eliot Larson Civil Rights Act still has not been amended to include gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation as part of the factors that would prevent employers from discriminating and landlords from discriminating in housing.” Yousef, who is passionate about the environment, also told us that both he and his constituents find the lack of progress in Michigan on the environment to be especially troubling. “We live in a state that is one of the gems of environmental protection in our country. We need to be fighting for the Great Lakes, fighting for our natural resources in Michigan. Our state is just not the leader it should be in that regard.”
We then asked Yousef how important he believes millennial leadership is to the future of our country. Yousef said “Millennial leadership is the future. As young people coming on to the political scene, we’re experiencing the brunt of old, short-sighted thinking with the Recession, with all of the problems in Lansing and in Washington, and millennial leadership is absolutely essential for us to turn the corner on our most pressing issues.”
Lastly, we asked Yousef if he could leave any words of wisdom for those young people under 35 who would like to run for office one day. “Just do it. You don’t need a big political machine and a political war chest to win,” Yousef said. “You only need three things: your shoes, to go from door to door and knock on as many as you can; your ears, because you have to listen to everybody and what they have to say and understand where everyone is coming from; and your heart, you never speak from your mouth, you speak from your heart because that’s how you connect with people to let people know that you’re genuine and you believe in what you’re saying.”
“That’s what you need to run, and that’s what you need to win.”