Hailing one of their own

Ahmadou Diallo is raising money from dozens of taxi drivers in a quest to be the New York City Council’s first African member. Photo: Gianna Palmer

In a drive that could give the New York City Council its first African-born member, dozens of taxi drivers have made campaign contributors for the 2013 city elections, recently released campaign finance filings show. Every one of the donors has backed the same candidate for City Council: Ahmadou Diallo, running for an open seat in the Bronx.

Support from the taxi bloc is no accident. Diallo used to drive a cab himself, first a livery car starting in 1998, then a yellow medallion taxi. He held driving jobs on and off for more than a decade.

The link between Diallo and taxi drivers is also a cultural one, since cab driving is a common occupation among New York City’s Guinean immigrants.

“All of them know me,” Diallo says of the drivers who’ve given to his budding campaign.

Diallo’s name is likely to be recognized in his district for another reason: in 1999, another Guinean man with a nearly identical name— Amadou Diallo — was killed in nearby Soundview by New York City police offers in a hail of bullets as he tried to enter his home. Candidate Diallo is a relative, by marriage.

“His mother is married to my cousin,” Diallo explained, adding that Kadiatou Diallo has been supportive of his campaign. She has donated $20 so far.

Diallo isn’t dwelling on the legacy. “I have no choice, it is my name, and I have to deal with it,” he says, adding that he’s learned to be ready “to answer the question politely.”

Born in Guinea, and raised in Liberia by his uncle, Diallo won the national visa lottery and immigrated to the United States in 1995. He initially didn’t plan on staying.

“My dream then was to come study, and then go back to Africa,” Diallo said. His family has a history of being involved with local politics in Africa, and he thought about seeking office once he returned.

But as the years went by, Diallo found himself getting more and more involved with life in the States. He took continuing education classes in accounting and eventually opened his own business, which provides services to fellow Guinean immigrants, everything from translation to accounting to help with immigration paperwork. He’s involved with a host of local organizations, teaches four free weekly courses for immigrants on how to obtain citizenship, and recently became a member of Community Board 3, which overlaps with District 16.

Asked his age, Diallo takes out a pen and begins doing some basic arithmetic on a manila folder. He’s 45, he concludes.

Age, in his culture, he explained, is “a question that people don’t usually ask you.”

Diallo, who describes himself in his campaign literature as “a servant of Allah,” was founding president of his mosque, the Futa Islamic Center, frequented by West African immigrants. He stepped down in 2004 but returned as president four years later after the center lost its building to a tax foreclosure. In an unusual victory – won with the help of a letter-writing campaign to Congress and two marches on City Hall — the center convinced a court to reverse the foreclosure. Diallo took the lead. Besides organizing the marches and letter-writing campaign, he worked directly with the mosque’s lawyer and held regular meetings with community elders to discuss the mosque’s progress.

“I had support from the community,” he said, “but I was leading all the fight.”

Winning this legal battle, Diallo says, convinced him to get involved with politics in New York.

“The only way you can make a difference is when you really participate,” Diallo said.

Soon-to-be Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson showed him the way— for example, the letter-writing campaign was Stevenson’s idea, Diallo said. He credited Stevenson as being “the only person” in the political community who came to his aid in the struggle to regain control of the mosque. After the court ruled in the Islamic Center’s favor, Diallo went on to be Stevenson’s campaign treasurer for his Assembly race. Now, he says, he’s focused on helping Stevenson get re-elected. After that, he’ll turn to his own campaign, which he admits will likely be a tough race.

“I don’t expect to walk easily,” he said.

Diallo said increased access to affordable housing for District 16’s constituents— “that includes the elderly, new immigrants,” would be among his top priorities as a councilmember, as would improving eldercare and access to spousal visas for immigrants who’ve already obtained citizenship. He’d also like to up the number of charter schools in the district, create a youth job program and expand the continuing education offerings available.

Diallo’s fundraising numbers show he has a ways to go if he wants to tackle these issues as a councilmember. As of mid-July, he’d raised $5,200 in private funds, and spent just over $3,600. The vast majority of people who donated to Diallo’s campaign gave $50 or less; five people gave $3 each. The council member currently in the seat, Helen Foster, spent nearly $100,000 to win it in 2001; she is leaving because of term limits.

But every dollar counts under New York City’s campaign finance program, which matches every dollar in small individual contributions with $6 in public funding.

Mamadou M. Bah, 43, a Guinean immigrant who drives a yellow taxi and gave $20 to Diallo’s campaign, came to the United States in 2000. He called Diallo “a great guy” three times within the span of a few minutes, and credited him with helping to reclaim ownership of the Futa Islamic Center. Bah said he believes if Diallo wins the seat, he will “fight for the community, for the poor people” in the district.

“He knows how to build relationships,” Bah said of Diallo. “He’s a guy who when you give him a chance to work, he will.”

Diallo said that his identity as both Muslim and African could be challenges to gaining support from outside the Guinean and West African communities. Robert Jackson, of Upper Manhattan, is currently the sole Muslim City Council member, and the Council has yet to have an African-born member.

The latest census data shows a surge of West African immigrants in the Bronx, who officially numbered 32,576 in 2010, up from 18,539 in 2000. But even in the heart of Guinean New York, those numbers aren’t enough to win a political primary. Assemblyman Stevenson advised Diallo to make inroads with other ethnic groups in the Bronx.

“You can’t stay in a cocoon within your own community,” Stevenson recalls telling Diallo, “because it’s not enough to make you a winner.”

Diallo has already developed his pitch to prospective voters. “We are one. No matter where we came from, we all have chose the Bronx to be our home, and the best thing we can do is to improve the livelihood of all people that live in the 16th City Council district,” he said.

Reaching the wider world of voters starts with the outpouring of campaign cash from the taxi drivers, to whom Diallo needs no introduction.

“If you meet 10 Guineans,” said Bah, “seven or eight will know him.”

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