Santa Clarita has never seen anyone like Rhoda Nazanin. And that’s the point.
Nazanin is an Iranian immigrant whose family fled persecution from the Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime in 1993. The daughter of a pastor, she became the first queer Iranian female pastor in the world to be credentialed by the Assemblies of God.
And she’s running for Congress.
“Over the past 28 years I have noticed a lack of representation of immigrants and Middle Easterners in the media, pop culture and even in our government,” Nazanin said. “As a child growing up here I never saw [myself] represented accordingly, and I never want anyone to experience that.”
Nazanin is a project manager at the Skirball Cultural Center and does not have prior experience in politics, nor did she previously have any aspiration to hold public office. That changed shortly after the start of the new year.
“My fiance and I were sitting on the couch watching the certification of votes take place and the next thing you know the whole insurrection of the U.S. Capitol slowly begins to happen,” she said. “Then I found out that Mike Garcia, our representative, sided with the insurrectionists, that left me baffled. I get the whole Republicans and Democrats and Trump thing, but this is our democracy we’re talking about and these are our fellow voters across the country he chose to vote against.”
The shock of the Jan. 6 insurrection sat with Nazanin for weeks until, during a trip to Washington, D.C. for President Joe Biden’s inauguration, she said she felt inspired to make a positive change in government. On Feb. 25, Nazanin officially filed with the Federal Election Commission to launch her campaign to represent California’s 25th Congressional District.
“I’m still traumatized by everything that my family has experienced in Iran and it [the insurrection at the Capitol Building] just took me back,” Nazanin said. “I know what this sort of civil unrest is like and what it can do to a country. To have someone like Mike Garcia with a seat at the Capitol is unacceptable.”
Though Nazanin’s political fire was sparked by outrage at Garcia’s complicity and encouragement of the insurrection, ousting the congressman is not the sole focus of her campaign. Another prime motivator is to be an example of positive representation.
“Bringing proper representation to the government is truly important and it matters,” she said. “I know in this district we have many immigrants, many people of color, many LGBTQ families and individuals, many young women aspiring to make it in this country.”
Among other key issues for Nazanin are healthcare and education, both issues with which she has personal experience. Her father did not have health insurance and avoided seeing a doctor for years until he succumbed to stomach cancer and her family was left with a $200,000 hospital bill on top of funeral costs and their grief.
“Average, hard-working families do not have the means to cover that kind of hospital debt and can’t afford high monthly insurance plans,” Nazanin said. “Not one individual should have to be put in a position where they have to wonder if they can go see a doctor. We’ve seen this country provide free COVID tests and vaccines to everyone. Our government has the means and ability to provide healthcare for everyone and we cannot allow people to skip out on treatments or surgery or simple doctors visits simply because they cannot afford it.”
The loss of the family’s sole breadwinner forced her to drop out of college in order to take care of her family. Luckily she was able to finish her degree ten years later, but she recognizes not everyone is so fortunate. When Nazanin first began attending California State University, Northridge in 2003 she said that her tuition cost $2,000 but when she returned to finish her degree the price had jumped to over $9,000 in 2016.
“We need to do something about college so that high school graduates don’t have to think twice about going to college,” Nazanin said. “We need to make college free for high school graduates because they are what keep the economy going and it helps boost communities. As a country we say that we value higher education but we don’t make it accessible.”
Nazanin is part of a crowded field of candidates, which includes Simi Valley City councilmember Ruth Luevanos, former Assemblywoman Christy Smith and former combat medic Chris Bellingham. While she lacks the political experience and name recognition of her competitors like Luevanos and Smith, Nazanin said she is proud she is not a politician. She feels career politicians are out of touch and often lose sight of what is important to their constituents. Nazanin recognizes the importance of relationships and negotiations when holding political office and believes this is where her ten years of experience as a minister will come into play.
Nazanin also said that in order to prevent herself from becoming one of those out-of-touch politicians should she win office, she wants to keep sight of that passion for serving others.
“I’ve spent years serving the community through my ministry and built this passion to serve others,” she said. “As a representative it’s great to have that political background and experience to jumpstart you and get you into the right positions, but ultimately I feel that the most important thing is having that passion to see things get done for the people. It’s about staying connected to my district and to my constituents.”
Nazanin, however, currently is not a resident of the district. Until a recent move closer to Los Angeles, Nazanin previously lived in Northridge in the 30th Congressional District represented by Brad Sherman. During previous elections, candidates who lived outside the district such as Cenk Uyger in 2020 and Bryan Caforio in 2018 and earlier faced criticism from CA-25 constituents for not residing in the Santa Clarita nor Antelope Valleys. Support came from those who believed a “progressive champion” needed to represent the district, while the standard critique was labeling the candidates as “carpetbaggers.”
Nazanin cites her familiarity with the district, having family members living in Stevenson Ranch, Canyon Country and Palmdale. She said she is open to moving into the district should she win and said she has begun looking at houses.
“This district is my home,” Nazanin said. “It’s not about the zip code, it’s about the representation. I’m not trying to capitalize on any situation, but this is the best way I know to help save the democracy that has given so much to me and my family.”
Since the end of March she’s come third in fundraising just behind Smith, raising $34,965.46, and held her campaign kick-off virtually on April 8 – with more virtual events to come, followed by in-person events as more people are vaccinated. Nazanin may feel prepared to represent the district but given the vocal support for Garcia, former President Donald Trump, and the anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Republican Party, are the constituents ready to be represented by her? Based on the district’s recent voting history, she believes so.
“Hillary [Clinton] won this district, [former Rep.] Katie Hill won this district and even Biden won this district by 10 points,” Nazanin said. “We need an exciting candidate that can connect across the district to all voters and say that it’s not about me, it’s about you. I am that candidate.”