The KUNM Voices Behind the Vote series features intimate conversations with New Mexicans about the issues they care about most this election season. On a recent Friday morning, KUNM's Elaine Baumgartel met up with Abdu Wakil Cyeef Din and headed to a Motor Vehicle Division office in Albuquerque.
Wakil originally introduced himself as Charles Santos-Payton but on this day, he's providing proof of his official name change to get his new driver's license. This tall veteran is in his early 40s, head shaven, short beard dyed a deep red. Wakil converted to Islam when he was in the army in the early 1990s serving a peacekeeping mission in Iraq after the first Gulf War. The name change is part of his commitment to Islam, he told me.
After his technology business failed in the dot com crash of the late 1990s, Wakil came home to New Mexico from California. He was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and says he started dealing drugs because he couldn't make a living at his low wage job. Then he got busted and spent a few years in prison in Los Lunas. A parole officer told Wakil that he could vote again once he'd finished his sentence.
"I'm going to vote for the president," Wakil says, "because he talks about diplomatic relations." President Obama's focus on diplomacy is the number one issue motivating Wakil to vote this year. "That's the wave of the future. War destroys and degrades societies, diplomacy strengthens them. And so for, me, I'm for that."
As we're heading to the Islamic Center of New Mexico for Friday prayer, Wakil steers his white Subaru Impreza with his knee and gestures with both hands. He explains that he doesn't trust Mitt Romney. "I don't want to hear the talk," Wakil says, "'I'm a rich guy, I can sympathize with the poor, but I think we ought to go fight the Iranians because I think they have a nuclear weapon.'"
Republicans can't have it both ways, Wakil says, fighting wars with a volunteer army and cutting entitlement programs- many of them that serve veteran- at the same time. "This is an entitlement country," he says, "that's the way these guys think. They want us to share in death but not in any of the benefit."
After the service at the Islamic Center, we head off to lunch at the Olympia Cafe on Central near the University of New Mexico. We bring with us one of Wakil's friends who is also an ex-con, Ermond 'Mustafa' Overton. Both men order the lamb kabob dinner, a dish here that conforms to Islamic dietary restrictions know as halal.
Mustafa's beard is white and falls nearly to his chest and he's wearing a white crocheted kufi, or hat. He served 17 years in federal prison for bank robbery and in the three months since he was released, he says it's been impossible to find a job. "When you put in a job application," he explains with resignation, they say "'Oh this man committed bank robbery, this guy got a DWI but he's a felon, we'll hire him instead of the bank robber.'"
Mustafa is still on parole, so he can't vote, yet, but he says if he could, he'd vote for President Obama. "He helps ex-felons by giving companies a $2400 tax break for hiring ex-felons," Mustafa points out. "That's a good thing, but he also helped people get into college, that's another thing I like about him."
Across the table, Wakil says he got help from several state programs. They helped him get his first job out of prison, start school at UNM, and then, later, to get his CDL license to drive trucks. He says programs like this make a healthier society. "As time went on," Wakil recollects, "I recognized that I am the govrernment, the people around me are the government. The only way it gets better, whether you are an ex-con, rich or poor, the only way it gets better is by participation."
Now Wakil, veteran and ex-con, serves as a precinct judge at a voting center in Albuquerque, where he'll be on Election Day.
Correction: Abdu Wakil Cyeef Din has served as a precinct judge at voting centers in Albuquerque, but he will not be doing so this year.