Syed Abbas Elected Madison Common Council President: Cherishing Democracy
Syed Abbas grew up in Lahore, Pakistan during the era of military dictatorships and the rise of democracy.
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By Jonathan Gramling
For almost 250 years, the United States has been the beacon and shining example of democracy. But in recent years, democracy has come under attack in the U.S. has symbolized by the January 6th insurrection and invasion of the U.S. Capitol by people loyal to former President Donald Trump with the intent of overturning the results of the 2020 election. It was if the American people had grown complacent about its democracy, allowing Trump’s followers to undermine it.
Syed Abbas, the newly elected Madison Common Council president, is not one to take democracy for granted and cherishes his ability in helping to shape the direction and policies in which he lives. He knows what it is like not to have that voice.
“Growing up in Pakistan, especially during the era of the military dictatorship and then democracy and then freedom of expression in the media, that really shaped my interest in public service for the community and
also being involved on all the levels just to understand how the system works and how we can raise a new voice in the system,” Abbas said. “Also back in those days, freedom of expression in the media, Pakistan used to have only national media to control the message. But then the media got opened. There were a lot of new news channels and open media. I had a deep interest in journalism, so I got a degree in journalism. I also wrote a chapter on journalistic freedom of expression in Pakistan for a human rights international, Geneva-based organization and also I had a job with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan back in Lahore, the city I am from.”
Abbas’ interest in government and policy led him to work for the United Nations in New York City where he worked for a couple of years. He then got married and moved to Madison with his wife Holly, a lifelong Badger. Abbas continued to be engaged in democracy.
“When I got here in Madison, I was very involved in the neighborhood association,” Abbas said. “I was the co-chair of the Eken Park Neighborhood Association for 2-3 years. I was a citizen member of the Public Safety Review Committee and then I became vice-chair of the committee. I sat with our current mayor, Satya Rhodes-Conway when she wasn’t the mayor. Mayor Soglin also put me on the Oscar Mayer Strategy Assessment Committee. I was very involved in the north side and the near east side. The near east district has much more prevailing voices and people are much louder and they get heard. When you go to the north side, we have more affordable housing and lack of public transportation and a lot of the racial equity issues. We do have those issues all over the city, but much more in that area. It really drives me to be a part of a political system and really make sure I do a good job to really connect with those resources and bring those much needed resources to the north side. I learned the local system through the neighborhood association. I met many interesting people with very different backgrounds. All politics is very local.”
Abbas decided to run for District 12 Alder in 2019, it became a family affair.
“Especially having a family and running in the political system and running for office, you aren’t running yourself,” Abbas emphasized. “The whole family runs with you. Without family support, you can’t run. I am very lucky and very fortunate to have a wonderful wife who helped me a lot in this journey. Her help is her way of expressing her commitment for the community and community service through me. We both work together.”
In 2019, Abbas’ wife was pregnant with their second child and so he would bring his oldest daughter on the campaign trail with him.
“But whenever we had neighborhood meetings, she would usually come with me,” Abbas said. “It is very important for our youth to be a part of the system because whatever we are doing, we are basically the guardians to protect the environment and leave it better for them instead of worse. That’s what my idea is when I leave city government. Regardless of whether or not I am an elected official, I always want to be a part of the system to make things better for our youth and our kids. It really makes my heart feel troubled when I see environmental justice issues like PFAS and the F-35. People in surrounding neighborhoods, especially kids and schools and the Black community and people of color are disproportionately impacted by those environmental justice situations. That’s also my top priority for almost three years.”