Metro

In N.H. election stunner, a onetime refugee knocks off entrenched incumbent

Safiya Wazir, a 27-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, reacted Tuesday in Concord, N.H., after learning she defeated four-term incumbent State Representative Dick Patten in the Democratic primary for New Hampshire's District 17 state representative seat.
Caitlin Andrews/The Concord Monitor via Associated Press
Safiya Wazir, a 27-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, reacted Tuesday in Concord, N.H., after learning she defeated four-term incumbent State Representative Dick Patten in the Democratic primary for New Hampshire's District 17 state representative seat.

He’s a veteran state representative who has railed against immigrants “getting everything” at the expense of people born and raised in the state. She’s a 27-year-old former Afghan refugee making her first run for political office.

So when the tally from Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Concord, N.H., was announced, even Safiya Wazir said she was astounded. She hadn’t just beaten state Representative Dick Patten, a 66-year-old former city councilor. She crushed him, winning 329 votes to his 143.

“When I heard the results, I was shocked, and I had this look, like, ‘Did I hear that right?’ ” she said Wednesday. “And I looked down and, oh my gosh, it’s true. It was absolutely outstanding. I couldn’t believe I won the primary.”

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The upset seemed to reflect the insurgent energy that is propelling women and people of color in primaries across the country, from Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old political newcomer who won a New York congressional primary in June, to Ayanna Pressley, the Boston city councilor who defeated a 10-term incumbent earlier this month.

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Only this match-up unfolded on a much smaller stage: Ward 8 in Concord, a district that encompasses the blue-collar neighborhood known as the Heights, home to a mall and numerous fast-food outlets. Like many races featuring women and nonwhite candidates, this one, too, dredged up darker sentiments and resentments. New Hampshire, in particular, is a predominantly white state, where relatively few candidates of color run for office, and even people from outside the state can be looked on skeptically, let alone women born in Afghanistan.

“It used to be the Heights would support a Heights person,” said Patten, her opponent, a former police dispatcher first elected to the New Hampshire House in 2010. “But the Heights has changed, basically, from what it used to be. We have many immigrants in there now, and she’s from Afghanistan so she was treated like the princess.”

Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said Wazir represented an important generational, gender, and ethnic shift in the district, and her voice would be particularly significant for the state’s growing refugee community, who can now turn to someone with “experiences and challenges like them.”

He called her win “very exciting news” and said she ran a “real campaign” while Patten “misunderstood the mood of the electorate this year and believed he could win without making a significant effort.”

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Patten accused immigrants of taking welfare benefits from longtime residents and questioned how Wazir can be a legislator and a mother.

“She’s got two kids with a third on the way,” Patten said. “How are you going to be in the State House with two kids and one on the way?”

Patten said he is now planning to support Wazir’s Republican opponent, Dennis Soucy, in the November election because Soucy and his wife “have been on the Heights for over 50 years.”

Wazir dismissed Patten’s comments, saying she ran to be a voice for all New Hampshire residents, regardless of how long they have lived in the state.

“We have a diversity that is rising up, and we want to be able to have everybody heard in the State House,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re native born or refugee.”

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Wazir’s unlikely path to New Hampshire politics began when she was 6, and her family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan and moved to Uzbekistan, where she was taunted by classmates who called her “terrorist” and “Taliban kid.”

She lived in Uzbekistan until 2007, when she was 16 and moved with her parents to Concord. She graduated from Concord High School and became an American citizen in 2013. Three years later, after juggling jobs at Walmart and the campus library, she received a degree in business from NHTI, the local community college.

Married with two daughters, ages 5 and 2, and pregnant with a third child due in January, she said she never considered running for office until earlier this year, when a friend who works for the New Hampshire Children’s Trust suggested she consider challenging Patten.

Geoff Forester/The Concord Monitor via Associated Press
Safiya Wazir and her daughters Aaliyah, 2, and Mahwash outside their home in Concord, N.H.

The Children’s Trust had given Wazir an “Unsung Hero Award” in February, in recognition of her involvement with Head Start, where she has served on the policy council, parent committee, and State Parent Advisory Committee. But Wazir said she didn’t immediately see herself as a candidate.

“When she said that, I was blown away,” Wazir said. “I was like, can I really do that?”

A fixture in local politics, Patten is known for organizing the State House’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony and the city’s holiday parade.

Wazir launched her candidacy in June, after a crucial endorsement from her mother, who promised to watch her children while she campaigned, and told her: “You’ve got this. Go for it.”

Despite nausea during the first trimester of her pregnancy, and 90-degree heat, she knocked on doors across the Heights, returning home so heat-stricken she said she “looked like a tomato.”

“I had no negative things said about me,” Wazir said. “People would open their doors and welcome me, and talk to me for 10, 15 minutes. That was warming for me.”

She campaigned on a promise to fight for expanded Medicaid coverage, increased funding for early childhood education, and paid parental leave, issues that resonate with her own life story as a young mother raising a growing family.

Lucas Meyer, president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats, said his group also paid for mailers and automated calls and text messages to help her. Wazir said she hopes her victory on Tuesday encourages other women, immigrants, and political newcomers to defy expectations and run for office.

“I want to be an example to everybody that, actually, you can do it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re not from here, and you’re not born here. I want to show them that, yes, you can do this.”

Correction: This story has been updated to make clear that Safiya Wazir came to the United States with both her parents in 2007.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.