I knew that I knew him from somewhere, I just didn't know how far back we went.
Covering news in this city — especially on the social justice beat — I was vaguely familiar with Mujtaba Mohammed. He had sometimes moved in the same circles I have covered here over the past six years, so when he announced his candidacy for North Carolina Senate in District 38, I called him up to chat, figuring I'd at least be able to nail down exactly why he seemed so familiar to me.
When I met him at a Bojangles' near his home in the University area on a recent morning, he quickly recalled our connection before I could even ask.
"You went to North Meck, right?" he asked, and it suddenly hit me. Mohammed was in my senior English class at North Mecklenburg High School in 2004, and as we soon found out while catching up, he was also part of a rezoning that sent us both from Vance High School to North Mecklenburg in 2002, less than a year after he moved to Charlotte from Greenville, South Carolina, where he grew up.
From there, Mohammed attended UNC Charlotte, and then the North Carolina Central University School of Law. He returned to Charlotte with his law degree in 2012 and began working for the Council for Children's Rights before recently becoming a public defender in Mecklenburg County.
After reminiscing with a few old high school stories, I spoke with 32-year-old Mohammed about what made him decide to throw his hat in the political ring, something he never envisioned doing until this year.
Creative Loafing: Your first try at politics will be at a state level. Why not run for city council last year, as opposed to state senate?
- Mujtaba connects with the people.
Mujtaba Mohammed: Serving at the Council for Children's Rights, serving young children, low-income families, people who have a lot of problems, I realized again and again, the North Carolina General Assembly under Republican leadership had been oftentimes the biggest impediment to success at the city level — constantly telling the city what you can do and what you cannot do. I want to help our fantastic city council. I want to help those wonderful people that were just recently elected. I want to help Mayor Vi Lyles by going up to Raleigh and literally taking our voices from the courtroom — the voices of people that are hurting and struggling — and taking those directly to Raleigh and the North Carolina General Assembly.
The NCGA under Republican leadership does not have its priorities straight. I feel like I can be an asset, understanding the intimate nature of our families, especially the working poor, people that don't wake up every single day knowing, "How am I going to get to work today? How am I going to get to court today to see Mr. Mohammed? I haven't been able to make my office meetings because I'm trying to figure out how to pay my bills. How do I put food on the table. How do I take care of my kids." They have very little help. I feel like the general assembly could step in instead of telling the counties, "Listen, we're not going to do this but we want you to do this." How many times are the city and county going to have to step in and do their job for them?
You speak of Republican leadership, but if you win, you will be unseating a Democrat, Joel Ford. What do you think you can bring to the table that he does not?
In my conversations with folks in the district, I hear that my opponent is out of touch. He's been absent, and he's been supporting a reckless agenda. To be a Democrat and to be supporting Republican values, supporting a Republican budget, we need a state senator that's going to fight for a budget that reflects our values in Charlotte — that reflects Democratic values, that represents the values of people in District 38, and that hasn't been happening.
I have clients that are facing eviction. This recent budget took money away from Legal Aid [of North Carolina] to serve people who are facing eviction. Clients tell me, "Mr. Mohammed, I can't get help at Legal Aid, because they've had to layoff attorneys." So how can you come in here and say you're running for mayor of Charlotte and you care about affordable housing, and you vote for things like that? We're balancing budgets on the backs of poor people, expanding our sales tax, while the rich continue to be able to support their jets and their yachts and things like that. We've got to invest in our families. That's what's going to help public safety. That's what's going to help create a global economy. And this budget doesn't reflect those values, and I'm deeply disappointed.
What type of work did you do with CCR, and what did that experience teach you?
When I was with the Council for Children's Rights, I was representing young children coming through the school-to-prison pipeline, helping get them connected to services, supporting them, protecting their constitutional rights and supporting their families, because a lot of these families need help.
The wonderful thing is that, in Charlotte and all across North Carolina, we have one family court room, one judge, usually the same defense attorney and the same prosecutors, so we get to really know the families. That's when good preventative stuff happens. That's why raising the age [at which juveniles can be tried as adults] was so important; keeping young people in the juvenile justice system instead of sending them to the adult criminal justice system. We can give them the support that they don't have there.
Is that work with youth what made you so passionate about educational issues?
Working with CCR, advocating for children, being in the criminal justice system as a public defender, I see stuff when things are too late. I see kids when they're already in the criminal justice system, when they already have criminal records, and it becomes a public safety issue. If we invest in our young people from the beginning, if we support our families, it's going to save us money in the long run, and it's going to make us a more progressive society. It's going to prepare young people for a global economy and build a strong work force.
Did that inspire your passion for expanding access to early childhood education?
My wife and I have a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, and we have to make these difficult decisions every day: Are we going to work or have childcare? My wife is a dental hygienist. I'm a public defender. So she's staying at home right now raising our younger ones, because we can't afford to send two boys to an early childhood education program, and that's my thing. Our families shouldn't have to make those choices.
When are we going to start early and start strong, and stop putting a price tag on kids, on children, and telling our children they're not worth it? "We're not investing in you, but we're going to build prisons." When parents see test scores and tings, they see room for improvement. Unfortunately, this legislature sees room to fill jail cells.
- Mujtaba Mohammed.
As a lawyer looking to get into politics, and with a passion for early childhood education, it's not hard to see the similarities between you and [N.C. Sen.] Jeff Jackson. Is that someone you already have a relationship with?
Yes. A lot of folks say they see a lot of similarities between Jeff Jackson and I. He's a good friend. He's been doing fantastic work in our community. He's a former prosecutor himself, so he's been in the criminal justice system. He understands. I just had a more direct approach, and that's why I'm so passionate about this. Prosecutors, they're working with law enforcement, they're working with other district attorneys. Public defenders, they're working with the people every single day; people that have lots of problems. You see their problems every single day.
I see a lot eye to eye with Senator Jackson. He's been that consistent, progressive, bold voice. I want to help people like Senator Jackson. I want to help folks like [N.C. Rep.] Chaz Beasley in the general assembly, Rep. [John] Autry, Senator Joyce Waddell, these people, they've been supporting Democratic values and principles. Unfortunately, again, look at our opponent's voting record. Voting 70 to 80 percent of the time with Republicans. It's all public information, you just have to look it up.
Any other issues you have your sights set on should you win the state senate seat?
Bringing back the earned income tax credit. This Republican budget doubled the standard reduction, but they brought it up to $20,000 for families. I know families in Charlotte that don't even make that, it's a zero benefit for them. So if we brought back the earned income tax credit, that would be money in the pockets of our families. If we brought back tax free weekend, imagine how much that would help our teachers who are spending their own money for classroom supplies because this legislature has decided we're not going to prioritize that. Bringing back the childcare tax credit so parents can get that support to put their kids in early childhood education programs.
Those are things that this Republican legislature has gotten rid of; they've gotten rid of the childcare tax credit, they've gotten rid of the earned income tax credit. These are issues that could support middle class families along with the working poor that we got rid of. Instead, we decided we're going to bring down our tax rates for corporations. We're going to cut tax rates for the wealthy. These are all things that our opponent voted for.
Also, bringing back film credits to Charlotte. Charlotte used to make movies and TV shows. We used to make almost $20 million and 20,000 jobs in this state. These are simple ways to support our economy. It makes no sense to me why we got rid of that.
A new role for you is in the Leading On Opportunity Council in Charlotte. What do you hope to accomplish there?
My biggest priority right now is early childhood education there as well. The Leading On Opportunity Council is really just about amplifying the message of the Opportunity Task Force. We have great resources in Charlotte, great community service programs, great nonprofit programs, but the problem is people don't know about them. So what I see as my job is amplifying that message, supporting early childhood education, college and career readiness, bringing together factors like social capital and recognizing that segregation is an issue. Just amplifying the message, making sure that all families are moving up in economic mobility, getting an opportunity.
A common frustration here in Charlotte is that, since the infamous report placing Charlotte last in economic mobility, followed by the Charlotte Uprising, there has been so much discussion about what needs to be done, without any real action. What can this council due to take a more active approach, beyond just amplifying voices?
We've done active things already. The council has made this huge push for early childhood education, which the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners is about to take up in the next budget. They're looking at, is it going to be a sliding scale project, or is it going to be universal pre-K? We have almost 12,000 4-year-olds in Charlotte who would be fantastically served if we did stuff like that. We've also helped expand affordable housing. Leading on Opportunity is doing a good job of shepherding the work, reaching out to folks, connecting people to resources, and the work's going to continue.