OR Conversations is a weekly Q&A featuring conversations with local newsmakers.
Asima Azam is a wife, mother, lawyer, and community leader who has spent the past decade helping people interpret the law and solve problems. A resident of Baldwin Park, she lives with her husband of 16 years, Dr. Moeed Azam, and their two children. When she entered the Orlando city council District 3 race, she said she did not decide to run to become the first Muslim and thought her religion would not be a concern in a city that values diversity. But a pollster began calling residents in her district last week to ask if they believe her faith would be an issue. She answers that question and more:
Orlando Rising: Your father emigrated from Pakistan and you were raised in the Muslim faith. How has your faith helped shape your values and principles?
Asima Azam: Much has been made of my faith and ethnicity in this campaign. Of all the issues facing our district right now though, my religion doesn’t strike me as particularly relevant or important to the race. I am committed to running an issue-based campaign aimed at bringing down the increasing crime rate, insuring we grow mindfully, and finding solutions to issues like traffic congestion, which negatively impacts our quality of life.
All of that aside, I will tell you my faith, like many faiths, requires me to act with honesty and integrity. I am committed to treating people with respect regardless of their faith. Those principles not only guide my leadership but also guide my campaign.
I’m also proud of my family’s immigrant story. My father came to the United States from Pakistan in the 1960’s on an engineering scholarship he was awarded by Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He left Pakistan in search of the American Dream, where hard work and discipline are rewarded with success regardless of things like who you know or your family’s name. He went on to be a chemical engineer with a large pharmaceutical company and holds multiple patents.
He instilled his work ethic in his kids: Success requires hard work. Take nothing for granted. If you work hard, anything is possible.
I recognize I am the challenger in this race and I understand the benefit of incumbency, but I know how to work hard, and my hard work has been rewarded with success thus far. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from University of Miami in 2 years. I entered law school when I was 20 years old, and began setting up my law practice when I was 23, which I am proud to say has grown over the last 14 years into a successful career.
OR: As a real estate attorney for the Divine & Estes law firm, you’ve provided legal assistance to more than 100 condominiums, homeowners associations and planned communities. How will that experience help as an Orlando city commissioner?
Azam: I have spent the last 14 years helping neighborhoods improve the quality of life in their communities. On a daily basis, I work with communities just like the neighborhoods in District 3 to maintain a community’s character, identity, and ultimate value. I review proposed architectural modifications to ensure they are consistent with the surrounding area. I also advocate on behalf of clients with municipal agencies such as the police department, public works and code enforcement to insure adequate resources are devoted to speed control, resolving public nuisance issues, or ensuring that roads are being timely maintained.
My legal training has taught me how to listen to two or more conflicting positions on an issue and assist in reaching a logical and mutual decision that would be in the best interest of the community at large. It’s that learned art of negotiating through opposition and reaching decisions where the parties involved feel they’ve been heard and receive some form of satisfaction.
Lastly, I understand the importance of responsive and accountable representation. I am hired to address community problems and resolve them. If I repeatedly fail to do my job I will not be re-hired.
OR: Campaigning as a proponent of smart growth strategies, how will you ensure new developments will not impact the lifestyle of existing residents?
Azam: Orlando is growing. Our city’s population is expected to double within the next 15 years. The question is not whether we grow, but how we will grow. Responsible growth is guided by leaders who understand the need to incorporate factors into new development that mitigate the impact on the existing community and also incorporate secondary uses that existing communities can benefit from.
In 20 years I envision a city with forward-focused development being built and laid out to promote increased use of expanded transit services such as Lynx and SunRail. I envision implementation of complete streets to allow bike and pedestrian travel from newly built development to mitigate traffic impact on existing neighborhoods.
In the end, I do not see myself as pro-development or anti-development. I am pro-Orlando. I am a problem solver that will listen to a developer’s vision, and see how citizen concerns can be addressed and mitigated by incorporating new ideas into the future development plan.
OR: You serve on the Citizen’s Advisory Board for MetroPlan Orlando and in the past, have served on the Orange County Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Orange County Citizens Commission for Children. Why do you believe it’s important to get involved in community service?
Azam: I have more than a decade of volunteer service on city and county advisory boards where I have worked to provide sound, well reasoned recommendations to the commissioners and mayor on issues ranging from land use to improving the efficiency of our roads. My volunteer service on boards is motivated as much by my desire to learn about how government works as it is by my desire to lend my skill set to betterment of the city.
Aside from service on boards, I have more than a decade of volunteer service for our city’s underserved youth through my Rotary Club. I have been a member of the Orlando Breakfast Rotary Club since 2003, and was the club’s president in 2008. Our club’s focus is Orange Center Elementary School, where I mentored students there before I had my own children, served as the PTA president, chaperoned field trips, provided backpacks, made snack bags, and coordinated the annual Christmas present drive. Last year, my family collected Christmas presents from friends and family for over 100 kids. I have also continued this work at my own children’s school-Audubon Park Elementary.
We also volunteer as a family with Project Downtown Orlando, which provides meals to the homeless every third Sunday of the month. I want my kids to learn compassion and understanding by doing.
“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give” is a favorite quote of mine.
OR: As an attorney, community volunteer and mother of two children, how do you find balance?
Azam: I think most moms will say that there is no such thing as balance! We all make the best choices we can and do the most to ensure that our kids are loved, our jobs complete, and our communities served.
I try to use a strategy of reorganizing priorities every few years. I was able to spend a lot of time with my kids before they started school. I also have a great relationship with my law partners and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that they helped me achieve balance by allowing me to work from home when I needed to, work fewer hours when needed, and leave early to pick up kids and attend class parties. I would not have been able to continue practicing law without their support.
Once my kids were both in school, I slowly started to re-prioritize my professional goals including running for this commission seat. Make no mistake, it has been a crazy wild ride! I also would never profess to do it all. I’ve been blessed with family and friends nearby who provide multiple safety nets. I recognize that not every working mom is so lucky, which is why I believe that service beyond one’s own family is so important.