Sadaf Jaffer is quitting NJ politics. And the reasons should alarm all of us: Kelly

Sadaf Jaffer was once a rising star in New Jersey politics. But now she’s quitting. And her reasons are alarming.

The political world that Jaffer entered just seven years ago — first as a member of the Township Committee in the sedate central New Jersey town of Montgomery and then as its mayor — has become too toxic.

When Jaffer took over the mayor’s job in Montgomery, she broke barriers — the first Muslim woman ever to hold a mayoral post in any American community. Soon, she broke another barrier as one of the first two Muslims elected to the New Jersey Legislature. But she found that her religion made her a lightning rod for hate. She worries now for the safety of her 9-year-old daughter and her husband — and herself.

“There is this unpredictability of where the hate will be directed,” she told me in a recent interview. 

That’s a delicate way of saying Jaffer fears that the verbal barbs directed at her can become far more lethal — and targeted at her family. So she is throwing in the towel. She’s had enough.

We all know what our nation’s politics have become in these last few years. From culture wars over abortion, guns and library books to the rhetorical bombs that regularly explode on social media and cable TV, America’s political dialogue has taken on a coarseness that was once confined to private conversations.

Bigotry, hate and all manner of threats are now part of the public conversation. We can blame former President Donald Trump for some of this. But the truth is that the anger was always there. He just stirred the pot.

Sadaf Jaffer, the first Muslim woman mayor in the United States, served two terms in Montgomery, N.J. Jaffer is currently serving in the Assembly in District 16, but has decided not to run for reelection.

Jaffer, 40, whose decision to leave the New Jersey Assembly when her term expires in January was recently documented by my colleague, Hannan Adely, essentially said she wants no part of the nonsense.

 What’s alarming is that New Jersey is hardly considered a crucible of toxic politics. Yes, we have our policy arguments and skirmishes — mostly over taxes and schools and potholes. But this is not Texas or Alabama or Florida.

One of our U.S. senators is Hispanic; the other is African American. Our most recent lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver, who died unexpectedly on Aug. 1 after a brief hospitalization, was also Black. A recent attorney general was a Sikh.

New Jersey, the most diverse state in America, seemed to take pride in being home to a mixed bag of cultures, religions and ethnic groups.

Or so we assumed.

Jaffer has been called a “savage.” And a “terrorist.” And a “jihadi.” One message directed at her on Twitter suggested that “Muslims need to be removed from the planet by any means necessary.” Another Twitter message to her proclaimed: “You’re not even supposed to be in the country.”

The truth is that Sadaf Jaffer was born in the good ol’ USA, the daughter of immigrants from Pakistan and Yemen. She spent her high school years at Chicago’s prestigious Latin School, whose alumni include Nancy Reagan, former Supreme Court Justice John Harlan II and ’60s rocker Roger McGuinn.

She earned her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, then a doctorate from Harvard. She’s now working in a post-doctorate program at Princeton.

Her husband, a Princeton professor, is not Muslim. The couple make their home in Montgomery, a 30-square-mile patch of middle Jersey suburban flatland that is overwhelmingly white and well-off. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke once served on the Montgomery school board.

That’s hardly the resume of an extremist. Jaffer anchored her life in the traditional basics of the American dream.

No matter. One opponent called her “radical” and urged voters to “reject extremism.” When she confronted him, she said, he told her that campaign strategists advised him to embrace such terms.

When Jaffer was sworn in as Montgomery’s mayor, one critic falsely accused her of placing her hand on a Koran as she recited her oath of office. In fact, Jaffer placed her hand on a copy of the U.S. Constitution.

And that’s just a drop of the venom in the river of hate and falsehoods that washed over Jaffer.

What’s striking here is that she was judged by the worst of American standards. Her critics did not see a well-educated, articulate and personable woman who wanted to serve her community. They merely viewed her through the narrow lenses of religion and ethnicity. John F. Kennedy once had to fight that same battle.

Politics is a game of labels. From liberal to conservative, Democratic to Republican, our nation understandably tries to categorize its leaders. Is a candidate too old or too young? Is someone’s business or military background important?  

And so on.

But American history is replete with moments when our nation stepped over the line and turned the game of labels into bigotry.

In her own case, Sadaf Jaffer feared that the bigotry against her could turn violent.

This columnist reported last year that more than 75 members of Congress — including at least one from New Jersey — regularly wore bulletproof vests to public events. We also now know that the angry man who broke into the San Francisco home of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and struck Pelosi’s husband with a hammer allegedly wanted to attack Pelosi. And, of course, in 2011, another articulate, personable female politician — Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat — was shot in the head and partially paralyzed during a meet-and-greet session with constituents.

As if that were not bad enough, there was the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. Some members of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on that sad day carried “zip ties” to capture Pelosi and others. Some insurrectionists chanted “hang Mike Pence” — a warning that prompted the former vice president’s Secret Service guards to rush him from the scene.

In Georgia, a female Democratic state legislator who merely questioned claims by former President Donald Trump that the 2020 election was fraudulent had to ask for police protection. The same was true of Georgia’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who also needed police guards while leading the investigation that led to this week’s indictment of Trump and 18 others.

This sad litany of fear was definitely on Sadaf Jaffer’s mind when I spoke to her this week. In her heart, she said, she did not want to leave politics. She still saw herself as wanting to serve her community.

Simply put, she did not bargain on having to live in fear. She mentioned being labeled a “jihadi” — the theological Islamist term often used to describe the operatives who carried out the 9/11 attacks or other terrorists who committed murders in the name of religion.

“To be at the receiving end of all of those various types of prejudices and distrust and just negative feelings can feel very difficult,” Jaffer said, adding ominously, “especially as a parent and the parent of a young child. It’s not just about you. It’s about how it impacts your child.”

Sadaf Jaffer plans to serve out her term in the New Jersey Assembly, then leave and recalibrate. She doesn’t rule out reentering politics someday. But such a decision is not part of her planning right now.

She wants to raise her daughter in peace and quiet and separate her family from the fear of politics that came to handcuff her.

“There are seasons for everything,” she told me. “I want to be a part of the solution, but you kind of have to find what space in which you can do that.”

Right now, there is no space for Sadaf Jaffer in American politics.

Sadly, this is what we have become.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for, part of the USA TODAY Network, as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in the Northeast, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


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