COVER STORY | Meet Iman Jodeh, Colorado’s first Muslim and Palestinian-American lawmaker

Rep. Iman Jodeh, D-Aurora, finds being a member of the Colorado House almost surreal.

The first Muslim and Palestinian-American elected to the Colorado General Assembly said she never considered running for elected office before it all just fell together.

“I’m not used to it yet,” she said in an interview at HiRa Cafe & Patisserie in Aurora, a block away from where she grew up.

“I was never advocating or doing social justice work to build a track record,” Jodeh (pronounced E-man JU-dah) said. “The end game was never to be an elected (official).”

It was to give a voice and to help others in need, she said, whether through the Interfaith Alliance or Meet the Middle East, the nonprofit she started 10 years ago to build relationships between citizens in the United States and the Middle East.

“I did it because it needed to happen,” Jodeh said.

Her appetite for elected office lit up when she sought a vacancy appointment to Senate District 26 in late 2018, after then-Sen. Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village announced his resignation. While she didn’t win the vacancy nod — that went to then-Rep. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village — others in the party took notice.

Opportunity knocked

Her time had come when the House District 41 came open in 2020, because incumbent Jovan Melton reached his term limit.

During 2019, she started meeting with allies, including other elected officials.

“It became more and more evident that I should give it serious consideration,” she said.

But she didn’t know at the time she would become the first Muslim or Arab woman in the General Assembly.

She put the idea on hold for part of 2019 and got married. But by the end of that summer, the idea began again, with encouragement from her new husband, Maytham Alshadood (district director for U.S. Rep. Jason Crow of Aurora), who was the first to ask her why she wasn’t running for office. That’s when the race for House District 41 took off.

Along the way, she garnered endorsements from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, now-President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

“This is what it means to realize the American Dream,” Jodeh said.

Now that she’s been elected, she said she wants to be able to harness her experiences to advocate for everyone in Colorado, especially in House District 41, where she’s been a lifelong resident.

Experience-driven agenda

Her “lived experiences,” defined as the firsthand impressions of a minority or oppressed group, are rooted in her family.

Jodeh’s parents, Mohamad and Siham, came to Colorado from Palestine as immigrants and refugees in 1974. She grew up an all-American girl, watching Broncos football games, visiting the mountains.

But her family’s history was never far behind, and their summers were spent in Palestine.

While those summers spent with her grandmother were happy, she also got to see what was happening to the people there. That exposed her to war, violence and oppression. That helped her form her perspectives, as well as the legislative agenda for the session that began this week.

Her parents laid the foundation on what it meant to be a social-justice advocate. She told 5280 last year that her parents weren’t just small business owners. Her mother was a translator at Denver Public Schools for immigrants and refugees from Arabic-speaking countries; her father spoke to college and high school students about the Middle East; and both tried to educate non-Muslim communities about their religion and heritage.

Jodeh said she chose her legislative priorities “because I have a lived experience in every single one.”

While she experienced those problems a world away, Jodeh thinks it’s unacceptable that similar issues happen in HD41, in Colorado and in the United States.

“I’ve lived in a place where my civil rights were taken away, where I was a second-class citizen, under occupation, oppression and apartheid,” she said. “When you see those things happening in your own backyard, to Black, brown and tribal communities, that’s where you can base your advocacy.”

Community good

Jodeh reflected on the “awesome responsibility” she feels as she looks around her community. “These are the voices I need to uplift in the legislature.”

She reflects a lot on her community, where she’s had good teachers and mentors, such as the Buckners. They’ve been in her life since she was 4 years old. The family friends also are community icons.

The late John Buckner was the principal at Overland High School, where the gym is named is his honor. His wife, Janet, succeeded him in the state House after he died in 2015. This year she joins the state Senate.

Jodeh speaks fondly of John, who was a principal at one of her schools and later a state representative; Janet and the Buckners’ twin daughters, have been her sister’s best friends since elementary school.

Progressive agenda

She knows she will be somewhat under a microscope as the first Muslim and first Arab-American, but said she’s accustomed to that role because of her previous work.

“The leg up I have on that is that it’s my normal, it’s my life,” she said.

She grew up as the only Muslim-Arab-Palestinian-girl-of-color all throughout her childhood, beginning in elementary school, where she explained her religion and where she’s from. That has continued all the way to her days testifying at the state Capitol.

Jodeh said those experiences normalized her ability to build relationships and led people to understand that she’s not “the other.”

She’s conspicuously passionate about progressive change, including sustainable climate solutions and quality health care that is accessible to everyone. She believes jobs, education and affordable housing are basic human rights, and also hopes to work on criminal justice reform.

But she’s also realistic about just how much can be accomplished, given the state’s fiscal situation. “It’s not lost upon me that we’re going into a legislative session with an incredibly hamstrung budget,” she said, so the first priority — for herself and for other lawmakers — will be COVID-19 relief.

The reaction to her election has been international. She’s gotten notes and interview requests from Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Canada and Brazil. “It’s been overwhelming!” she said.

She also got a shout-out from “The Squad” after her election: Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

Jodeh looks forward to working with colleagues across the aisle and finding common ground on more than just policy. That means seeing pictures of Alamosa Republican Sen. Cleave Simpson’s newest grandchild, or sharing fly-fishing pointers with Rep. Mike Lynch, a Republican from Wellington on the Eastern Plains.

“We want the best for Colorado,” the history-marking lawmaker said. “We may disagree, and that’s OK. That’s what makes democracy work.”