Besa Sharrah Campaigns for City Council With a ‘Triangle’ of Issues
Besa Sharrah is one of four endorsed Republicans in this year’s City Council campaign, and one of three women who will appear on the Council ballot on the May 5 primary election. Sharrah’s interest in politics is not new – she and her husband Robert, a candidate for the Columbus Board of Education, have been involved in local politics since moving to Columbus in 2011. But the desire to run as a candidate herself is a new development.
“For a few years I did not want to be involved in a way that I was a candidate, because I always thought that the people who were running were good,” said Sharrah. “And to be completely frank with you, I did think, until I saw some of the fact sheets and things that our City Council today was doing a decent job. I think a lot of people, a lot of citizens, are of that idea.”
What changed her mind, said Sharrah, was her experience serving on the boards for two different local charter schools. While on those boards, Sharrah said she continuously heard people tell her they felt like outsiders in their own city.
“It gave me a perspective of how the people in the neighborhoods of Columbus truly live,” said Sharrah. “It’s not quite the Arena District. Getting to know those parents that are barely making their ends meet and trying to create a family and a future for themselves, I think that was when I knew that I need to get involved, I need to make a difference and give everybody a voice.”
Sharrah’s approach to her campaign is heavily influenced by her experiences in the business community, her work with Zonta International, an organization dedicated to the advancement of women worldwide, and by her experience coming to America from her native country, Albania.
“For me, coming to the United States was everything,” said Sharrah. “My life changed completely. I left everything I knew to come here and build a life from zero with whatever I could bring in the luggage.”
Sharrah refers to her campaign platform as her “triangle,” composed of three top issues; business development, community relations and creating an all-inclusive city. The idea of creating a more inclusive Columbus comes from Sharrah’s concern that the American Dream has started to “disappear here in the city, just because we’ve created this economic separation.”
“Columbus is a very diverse city,” said Sharrah. “We need to be aware and use that to our advantage. We need to make sure that when people come to Columbus, whether they are migrating here or immigrating here, that they have a sort of central hub of information of what’s available to them as new citizens.”
Sharrah said the learning curve for new Americans can be an economic disadvantage in a city, arresting productivity and development and keeping immigrants from immediately contributing to the city’s culture and society. She recommended studying what other cities do to welcome new citizens and creating a physical government entity where people can go to find out how to do things like rent a home, find a lawyer, get a driver’s license or start a business. Sharrah compared the issue to similar problems faced in the business community.
“Training is everything, right?” questioned Sharrah. “The sooner you get up to speed and you get through that learning curve, the more productive you will be as an employee.”
The second point in Sharrah’s triangle is business development. Sharrah said that certain city programs exist to incentivize people to establish and expand small businesses, but people don’t know where to find the resources being offered.
“There is a communication gap between our citizens, our council and our mayor,” said Sharrah, adding, “I’m a big believer in… making sure that communication flow is there.”
Incentivizing business not only helps entrepreneurs get started, said Sharrah, it shows small business owners that their city supports them. Sharrah said that too often, the city’s approach to small business is unfriendly and too regulatory. She also advised that given the budget cuts at the state level, the city has to “start learning how to live within our means.”
Sharrah’s third point involves reducing the level of violence and discrimination in Columbus, as well as improving the relationship between the police department and the community.
“I’m someone that has experienced discrimination, not only as an immigrant here, but also as a woman in engineering,” said Sharrah. “A lot of times people don’t even know they’re discriminating, it’s just the way they were raised and their beliefs.”
Sharrah said she is very concerned by the idea that citizens may not feel safe walking down the street, and also by the police-involved shootings across the country and the tension they have exacerbated in major cities. She suggested taking a closer look at the talent pool of prospective police officers as well as rethinking police training on when to use deadly force.
However, Sharrah also called law enforcement, “the most selfless entity that protects us at all times. We need to respect that authority, period. We need to be very clear of the fact that if a police officer tells you, you need to stop, get out of the vehicle, it’s unquestionable. You can hash things out later, but we need to be respectful because every day they’re risking their lives for us.”
In addition to her triangle platform, Sharrah hopes to bring attention to issues of personal importance. One is the problem of human trafficking, which is emerging as a top social, political and criminal issue in Ohio.
“When I was the president of the Zonta Club of Dayton, one of the big things that I’m ashamed to say I discovered… was that I didn’t know Toledo was fifth in our country for human trafficking,” said Sharrah. “I was embarrassed of myself, I had no idea.”
It’s that lack of awareness that Sharrah believes City Council could have a part in repairing, even if Council can’t address the problem at a higher level.
“City Council has a very limited scope in being able to affect a lot of these things, but limited doesn’t mean none,” said Sharrah. “We have this big initiative in Ohio, especially in Ohio, for human trafficking, making sure that the awareness is there, and I think… that can extend to City Council. If that is one thing we can do, it’s to be able to bring that to people, bringing facts to people.”
Though it doesn’t rank as high as the issues in her triangle, with her background in engineering, Sharrah said she sees the need to expand STEM education for young people and particularly young women.
“To me, working with the local universities is very important,” said Sharrah. “I know Ohio State is super good at those scholarships and making sure that we create this really good understanding of what you can do as an engineer. As soon as girls hear that, they get excited.”
Sharrah said she could imagine the city putting together STEM-related events, introducing communities and community children to science and engineering jobs and careers. She said that getting more women into STEM fields must begin at home.
“We need to make sure that parents are aware that your daughter does not get the ironed clothes or play with dolls because she’s a girl. It doesn’t work that way,” said Sharrah. “That has to start from a very young time in a girl’s life.”
Sharrah said her primary focus will remain on improving the city’s economic situation and making citizens feel safe, adding that most of the challenges Columbus faces can be traced back to leaders being out of touch with community needs.
“I think today, our current Council is riding a wave of ‘I’m unbeatable,’” said Sharrah. “And that’s rather sad because that’s when you stop working, that’s when you stop creating.”
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