Photos courtesy of Samba Baldeh

Samba Baldeh and his wife Fatou Jawo after voting in the Spring elections.

Will Samba Baldeh do it again? 

The first Muslim in the Wisconsin Assembly and, before that, first Muslim on the Madison Common Council is running for the Wisconsin Senate. If elected, he’ll be the first Muslim to become a Wisconsin state senator.

Wisconsin State Rep. Baldeh, D-Madison, is running for the newly-created Senate District 16, which includes Cottage Grove, Sun Prairie, Fitchburg, Stoughton, Cambridge and communities in Dodge and Jefferson Counties, including Waterloo, Lake Mills and Fort Atkinson. Gov. Tony Evers signed Wisconsin’s new legislative maps for Wisconsin into law in February.

Baldeh was elected to the State Assembly in November 2020. He was re-elected in 2022.

He ran for his first elected position, a seat on the Madison Common Council, in 2015. He served as an alder for six years, including one term as Common Council president.

 State Rep. Samba Baldeh (D-Madison) served on Madison’s Common Council for six years, including one term as Common Council president.

An immigrant from The Gambia in western Africa, he moved to Madison in 2000 to further his education. Baldeh became a U.S. citizen in 2005. 

He worked as a software engineer and IT project manager at American Family Insurance, based in Madison, but left that position after his election to the Wisconsin Assembly in 2020. 

He is also a business-owner and entrepreneur. Baldeh co-owns an international grocery story, Gooh Grocery, 3554 E. Washington Ave., Madison. He and his business partner opened the store in January to provide affordable food options in the area, he said. Baldeh also recently opened an apartment complex for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Wisconsin Rep. Samba Baldeh (D-Madison) has been serving in the Wisconsin Assembly since 2020.

In an interview Sunday with Wisconsin Muslim Journal, the trailblazer talked about his decision to run for the Senate and what he brings to the table. He also discussed the role his Muslim faith plays in his public service.

Here are the highlights, paraphrased below.

Why are you running for a seat in the Senate?

When I first ran for elected office in 2015, I was driven by things I saw in my community, state and country I wasn’t happy about. I thought I can do something about them beyond advocacy in the street.

This time around is not different. I’m running to continue to work on issues I have been advocating for the past decade—to increase funding for childcare, to make sure our schools are safe, to establish a fair understanding between the law enforcement and our communities. 

And housing. Housing is a challenge in Wisconsin, particularly for communities of color. Wisconsin is the worst state in the country for Black Americans (due in part to housing discrimination, segregation, and economic and social inequalities).

I reached out to the people who live in the district, my supporters and my family members. When I received a lot of positive feedback, I thought this was something I should give a shot. 

What do you bring to the table?

Representation is very important. When I joined the Madison Common Council, I saw its impact. People came forward who would not usually even be conscious of the fact that government can work for them or that they would have access to an elected official.

Over 50% of businesses in this country are started by immigrants. Often, they fund them with their own family resources. They do not know there are other avenues for funding, like government and other entities.

I’m an immigrant. None of the other candidates had that experience. The immigrant population in Wisconsin is growing. But I’m not only going to represent immigrants.

Wisconsin State Rep. Samba Baldeh, D-Madison

I am also the first black man to ever be elected from Dane County to serve in the State Capitol, despite Wisconsin being a state since 1848. 

I am the deputy chair for the Black Legislators. I have experience of working with African Americans, immigrant Black people and others. 

I live in the Muslim community. I live in the white community. The diversity I bring to the table in terms of my experience and willingness to do what is right for everyone are, I believe, unique. For anybody to be left out is not a good thing for democracy or for making our communities better. The wider I am out there to serve and represent people, the better for our community. The opportunity to serve all these people is important to me.

I’m the only business owner and entrepreneur running. I’m the only candidate who worked in corporate America for over two decades. I know what it means to be in corporate America and what its challenges and opportunities are.

I am the only one who served at the city council level and became its president. I know what it means to bring people together and address some of these very challenging issues. I now have over a decade of political leadership experience. 

How does your family feel about your career in public service?

As a politician, you are out from dawn to dusk, and that can take a toll on one’s family. But this work is important for us, particularly as members of communities of color, as immigrants and also just as people who want to be part of the process responsible for how we live. It’s a sacrifice we are willing to make.

How do you feel about your life in public service?

I don’t look at the cost or reward; I look at the service I am able to do. I chose this life. I was not struggling in life. I was making a six-digit salary with potential to make a lot of money for me and my family, and enjoy life. But my faith and my just consciousness tells me there’s more to life than just taking care of yourself and your immediate family. 

If you see all these injustices, what are you doing about them? If you see all these people struggling, what are you doing to help them? Every day when I get up, my intention is to change somebody’s life. My intention is to serve somebody. My intention is to make sure the world is better today than what it was yesterday. That is where I derive satisfaction.

State Rep. Samba Baldeh and his son Samba, 9, enjoyed the African Festival in Madison.

What role does faith play in your public service?

Faith teaches us to treat others as you would like to be treated, to give to the needy, to make yourself available to others, to be faithful and truthful. Having integrity is important, that core sense of being responsible.

Islam, and other faiths, emphasize being honest and treating other humans with respect, with equality. There’s no Black or white or brown. We are all children of God and therefore we should do what is right by others and serve others. These principles are ingrained in Islam and other faiths.

I believe this is everybody’s Wisconsin. We’ve got to fix our problems together. It is important to find a way to address our problems collectively. 

What drives me is seeing how people are treated, how things are so unjust. I want to do something about it.

Wisconsin Muslims and progressives are calling for an immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the U.S. funding of the Israeli military while it bombs Gaza. Would you support this position as a Wisconsin senator?

The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, with nearly 2.4 million people living in a territory that measures only 141 square miles. For reference, that is roughly nine times the population of Madison in an area just under twice as large as our city. Fully 50% of the population of the Gaza Strip is under 18 years old.

If bombs continue to fall, and if the Israeli military moves forward with their plans to further expand the ground offensive in Gaza, thousands more innocent civilians – including thousands of children – will inevitably be killed. As decades of experience have shown, violence has not solved this problem, and continued violence will do nothing more than lead to continued unnecessary bloodshed.

For the sake of humanity, both sides must lay down arms. Hamas must release all hostages and cease attacks on Israel. Israel must end the bombing campaign, withdraw the military from Gaza, and allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. And most crucially, both sides and international partners must find a way to broker real, substantive peace talks. For the sake of the future, this war must end.

What are your chances of being elected Wisconsin’s first Muslim state senator?

I think they look very good. I think I’m the only Black person who has been elected in Wisconsin who represents a predominantly white district. I was elected to the Madison Common Council in an overwhelming majority white district. The same thing with the Assembly. 

If we win this, it’s going to be historic. I would be the first time a Black person is elected to the Senate not representing a predominantly colored district. This district is over 80% white.

It is an important race and I am very confident that putting in time and working extremely extra hard can lead us to victory.