He greets everyone he passes, with a friendly “How are you doing?”, as he walks on the cobblestone streets of the Maryland state capitol, Annapolis. Sworn in by Governor Hogan on February 3, 2017, Delegate Bilal Ali is the first Muslim to represent Baltimore City.
Triggered by the election of the new Mayor of Baltimore, Catherine Pugh, and the retirement of State Sen. Lisa Gladde, he was selected to become Baltimore's newest state delegate, filling a seat vacated by former Delegate Jill Carter. Carter represented Baltimore's 41st District in the House since 2003, but left for a new position as the director of the city’s Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement.
Bilal Ali sits on the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee (DCC), elected in 2014, which is responsible for replacing delegates. “I [received] unanimous support from DCC members,” he shares. Also in the running was Sean Stinnett, of the Maryland Muslim Council.
Ali’s district is in the city's northwest corner, reaching east to Charles Street and south as far as Frederick Road.
On his second week of responsibility, as Member of the House of Delegates he sits on the Ways and Means Committee, he says he has put in six bills and co sponsored 19 more, including one on raising the minimum wage. His signature bill is one that limits hours of sale for liquor stores in a specified area of Baltimore City. On a typical day, he may attending hearings on legislation relating to children, youth, education financing; primary and secondary education; and taxation (he is on the education and revenues subcommittees).
“A legislature introduces laws that impact state of Maryland,” he explains. “The House of Delegates is the Congress for the State of Maryland.”
Ali says his involvement in politics evolved — he is a community advocate at heart. “Part of that stems from the fact that the area I grew up in really deteriorated and my community didn’t have a voice, so I knew that in order to get things done, I have to establish political relationships,” he states.
He carries a heavy load - Baltimore has the nation’s fifth-highest murder rate. Ali served as the community liaison in the Baltimore State Attorney's office.
With a 25-year career in mental health counseling, he has spent time in trenches with clients who have experienced addiction, substance abuse, and poverty and knows their needs. It was in graduate school, where a classmate introduced him to serving the homeless population in the city. Since then he has taken part in many Thanksgiving dinners and conducts and annual backpack giveaway for the students in the community.
In an era where John Hopkins is the largest employer in Baltimore city, Ali recalls a time when the Bethlehem Steel yard in Sparrows Point was pumping out 10,000 tons of steel per day.
Ali grew up in West Baltimore, in a working class family of six children. “Initially in the areas I grew up in, most people had a mother and father and decent paying, middle-class manufacturing jobs- Bethlehem Steel, Westinghouse.” He lists off names of several companies that have since left the area. By 1995 Baltimore had lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs. Twenty-four percent of Baltimore’s population lives below the poverty level, compared with 10 percent for Maryland.
West Baltimore, now plagued with lead laden homes and blight, was once a hub of civil rights. It is one of the most historic black neighborhoods in the United States, according to Lou Fields, president of the African American Tourism Council of Maryland, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
As jobs dried up, that led to domestic issues. “I grew up in a single parent house.” Ali knows what it is like to grow up poor.
In Sandtown-Winchester, more than half of the people between the ages of 16 and 64 are out of work and the unemployment rate is double that for the city at one in five. “I [will] give a voice to a constituent that normally would not have a voice,” he stated. There are many health issues that he wants addressed. Obesity, HIV, teen pregnancy: all those are chronic conditions.
Ali is an ‘education, education, education’ advocate. “I think for many of the people in my community education is a passport that gives them an opportunity for economic growth.” Ideally he would like to ‘level the playing feed’, so a child in Winchester can have the same opportunity as the one in Roland Park. Schools in some of his district have outdated textbooks and no books to take home, let alone laptops and other technology. ”Most of the wealth is concentrated in 10 percent of the people, [education] is an opening weapon that gives access to opportunity,” he adds. Historical North West High School, the first fully racially integrated school is in his area, is scheduled to close down.
“We lost a library that was my favorite spot, and the playground, and the multi purpose center. It was so different,” he says, describing the downward spiral. A community that is not well connected politically will suffer and he aims to stand by the people of his district. “It is a traumatic existence in a toxic environment where people don’t develop critical thinking skills to project beyond one’s circumstances,” he comments. “You grow up angry. You witness the deterioration of your community and vacant houses. It is not a pretty sight to see- grown man congregating on corners during working hours.”
African American kids are disciplined at a higher rate than non-African American kids. Ali also sees the economic correlation. “Anytime a kid gets suspended that has a impact on economic wellbeing. What are we doing in terms of intervention before suspension?” he asks, with a smile. HB1145, Maryland School Discipline Reform Act, a bill that Delegate Ali has co sponsored, addresses those disparities in discipline.
Married with two adult sons: one who lives in California and the other who is in management at Old Navy in the city, Ali now resides in West Hills, known for its manicured lawns and welcoming front porches.
He faces tremendous systematic challenges. With 35,000 vacant homes, that do not generate tax revenue. “Our major employers, the healthcare industry, John Hopkins and University of Maryland are non profit organizations that don’t pay taxes,” he ruminates. “We started giving our subsidies to developers who would have been paying taxes but they get tax credits. As a result the communities that are not well connected, politically, suffered.”
His mother, Sister Mary Alice Owens, was a constant, an inspiration and supporting figure in his life. “My greatest mentor was my mother,” he says in a soft voice. “She was a smart, intelligent woman and the most compassionate person that I knew. She worked for the Baltimore Uniform Company until she retired due to health conditions. “
Her favorite saying was that they can take everything away from you, they can’t take away your education.” Ali dropped out of high school to go to work to support his family, yet her influence made sure that he got his GED and associates degree. Later on, Ali pursued a bachelors degree from the University of Baltimore and a Masters from Coppin State University, where he is completing his honorary doctorate degree in Psychology.
He also credits his mother’s brother as a great positive influence in his life, as well as his older brother.
He accepted Islam in his 20s moved by the discipline and transformative power of the faith through the actions of the people in his community. “I have seen guys who were alcoholic and out of prison who become great role models in the community,” says Ali. “I came from a Christian family— some of my greatest influence Muhammad Ali and al Malik Malcolm X,” he shares.
“I’m the only known Muslim in the General Assembly. My name is Bilal Ali, I haven’t changed it to fit in,” he announced at an event arranged by the Baltimore County Muslim Council at the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
“The deen keeps me spiritually motivated – learning from the cradle to the grave and this is a such a holistic way of looking at life. This is my spiritual home,” he says, as he speaks about how he was guided to the Siraat al Mustaqeem. There are too many ‘looking like Muslims and acting like disbelievers’, he notes.
He knows he will face challenges in the State House, as an African American deeply rooted in faith who chose Islam as a way of life. “I’m the only Muslim delegate from Baltimore City. 141 delegates, I’m just one,” he says.
Given the national political climate, where there appears to be an intentional targeting of Muslims and Islam in particular they need someone that offers a unique perspective about Islam, he says. “They have chosen me to do that job,” he adds.
In order to retain his seat for the next session, he will have to run for office and says the Muslim community needs to financially support him. “If I am not able to sustain myself from a political standpoint then I can’t be effective.”
“We need to put our money for where our mouth is, “he says. Without financial and spiritual support from the community, Ali believes that he will not be able to succeed.
His advice to the Muslim community is to resolve internal issues and come together now more than ever before and support Muslim civil and human rights organizations, support Muslim media decimating information to the community and general public at large. “We need to raise our political IQ and need an agenda— unified agenda,” he added.
“[If] you don’t have a voice at the table then you are the menu,” he leans on his chair in his new office, the window looking out at the Governor’s House.