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Amish Shah: A doctor’s mind, a public servant’s heart

Rep. Amish Shah (D-Phoenix) PHOTO BY KATIE CAMPBELL/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES

Rep. Amish Shah (D-Phoenix)
PHOTO BY KATIE CAMPBELL/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES

Rep. Amish Shah’s office is as blue as the district he represents.

From the navy tones painted on the walls to the plush royal blue couch across from his desk, the Legislative District 24 Democrat’s new digs at the Capitol is a physical manifestation of his politics.

Well, that and his love of animals.

Throughout his sit-down with the Arizona Capitol Times, he cannot help but look up from time to time at a big screen playing adorable cat videos. He credits his secretary for the setup. But the passion is all him.

Your parents are from India. What brought them here?

They were students who came to study engineering. My dad is from the south of India. He and his family are Jain – that’s a small religion from the western side of India. And my mom is from Bombay. They both ended here from very different kinds of families and places, met as students and got married.

You’ve talked about being bullied as a child.

When I entered first grade, I was the only kid of any color in the school. … There were kids who told me that my skin was brown because it was dirty, that I was showering wrong and wasn’t using the right soap. … This was a Catholic school, and every Wednesday we’d have Mass. And at some point during Mass, you’d have to give the sign of peace by shaking people’s hands, and they would refuse to shake my hand. … And then suddenly in sixth grade, things changed. It was the teachers who really set the tone that said this isn’t a value we share. … The kids came around. And I just remember that by the end of eighth grade, I felt so much more comfortable with everybody. That set the tone for me as far as how life would go. It left me with a lot of optimism about people. People grow. People can change. Hearts can soften. … If they can change, I can forgive them.

What brought you to Arizona?

I was 23 when I graduated medical school, and I knew that, right then, residency wouldn’t be the right thing for me. Something in my heart told me I needed a little more time to explore and see what else the world had to offer. When I told my parents this, they were not happy. … So, I worked for a strategy consulting firm called LEK Consulting. … Of course, it just never got my heart pumping the way emergency medicine did.

I got a master of public health at Berkeley the following year. And I got a faculty position at Mount Sinai, which was my dream job at the time. But while I was there, I became the on-field physician for the New York Jets.

Did that, loved it. … So, I did a sports medicine fellowship at the University of Arizona in Tucson. And after a year, I looked around at the people and the weather, and I was just wowed. It was a wonderful place to live, and I was just so happy. It fit me really well. I remembered my time in New York fondly, but I did not want to return to the subway and the $3,300 [rent] for 700 square feet.

So how do you go from all of that to being a freshman lawmaker?

You can control what happens within the four walls when you’re the doc. You give the orders. You take care of patients. You try to save lives. I love my job. But you can’t control what comes through the door, and you know that what’s going on in the system outside are affecting what’s coming in through your door. To make a difference meant a lot to me. … I found a group of Democrats called the Blue Tuesday Group who met at the Starfire Golf Club in Scottsdale. Really on a whim, I went to a meeting, and they looked at me and said, “What’re you running for?” And I said, “No, no, no! I’m not running for anything.” And they said, “Yes, you are, young man!” Two weeks later, I’m having coffee with Eric Meyer. … and next thing I know I got elected.

You just skipped a lot in between!

I just kept getting encouraged by lots of people telling me to run because I was coming at it from the right idea – one of public service.

I started out the campaign by knocking on doors. That was pretty much my entire strategy. I knocked on 8,034 doors, and I did that all myself. I did not have volunteers knock for me. … I wanted to run this as close to the people as possible so that I could hear everyone and their concerns. People wanted to see someone who was going to work hard for them, and if it meant that we went door to door to door throughout the entire district, then that’s what it was going to take.

You missed my house somehow. But everyone on my block had one of your signs.

And every one of those signs represents a conversation.

Now, here you are. What do you think of the House?

Several constituents called it a snake pit – not to impugn the body. But they’re concerned about the state of politics, and they can see it reflected in what’s going on down here. … During the campaign, I had a sign that reminded me of why I was doing this and why it’s important, and that sign is still in my house. I look at the sign whenever I start to get frustrated. It says, “It’s about them.” And that has really kept me going and grounded. … We have a saying in medicine: I care that you know only after I know that you care. And that goes a long way around here, too.

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