Rana Abdelhamid was running for Congress for more than a year.

The community organizer, activist and first-time candidate was mounting a progressive challenge against an incumbent, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, whose district for more than 30 years included the East Side of Manhattan, a portion of western Queens and northern Brooklyn.

Abdelhamid, 29, built momentum on the left as she sought the Democratic nomination in the 12th Congressional District. She was backed early by the Justice Democrats, the same organization that successfully supported Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman when they ousted longtime incumbents. She raised nearly $1 million in campaign funds, amassed a growing list of supporters and was running a serious campaign aimed at engaging more immigrants and working-class voters with the electoral process.

Then came the state’s turbulent redistricting process.

Listen to WNYC's Brigid Bergin report on the effect redistricting had on one Queens congressional candidate.

In the final version of the maps drawn by a court-appointed special master this month, the 12th Congressional District is now based solely in Manhattan. Abdelhamid’s home in western Queens, which includes an Egyptian, Arab and Muslim community, was entirely removed from the district. It is now divided between two progressive powerhouses: Ocasio-Cortez in 14th Congressional District to the north, and Rep. Nydia Velázquez in 7th Congressional District to the south.

Last Wednesday, joined by her parents and campaign’s inner circle at the Omonia Cafe in Astoria, over frothy cups of cappuccino and black coffee, Abdelhamid reached a stinging realization: she needed to suspend her campaign. The lines changed in the 12th Congressional District so radically that she saw no path to represent her own community, despite months of work leading up to this point.

She planned to formally announce her decision on Tuesday.

While much media attention has focused on how the new lines for the 12th Congressional District have set up a fierce primary between Maloney and Rep. Jerrold Nadler — both senior members of the New York delegation — the fallout in the highly criticized redistricting process has created an unwinnable course for an upstart candidate such as Abdelhamid, who is suddenly drawn out of a district she sought to represent.

“I think a lot of the people who have been brought into this, who have not been involved with the electoral process, are kind of like, ‘Is this real? Like, how is this happening?’” Abdelhamid told Gothamist during an interview at the same cafe, a day after she made her decision. “It just feels so undemocratic.”

From organizer to candidate

“We always knew that redistricting was going to be a wild card in this race,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for the Justice Democrats. “But we still took a chance on Rana because she is a New York community organizer and leader that deserved to be invested in.”

As the daughter of Egyptian immigrants whose family lost their Halaal grocery store and deli in Astoria due to rising rents in late 2002 and into 2003, Shahid said the Justice Democrats saw Abdelhamid’s experience as the “quintessential New York story.” It stood in stark contrast to Maloney, who was often more associated with the wealthier Upper East Side portions of the district.

Abdelhamid’s campaign promoted deep investments in public housing and NYCHA; a model of community care that aimed to address poverty and economic insecurity through intervention programs that would also promote public safety and mental health; and the history-making potential of her campaign: she would be the first Muslim woman from New York City, and the first Egyptian in the country, to serve in Congress.

While the Egyptian community had a clear presence in the 12th Congressional District before the new maps, it’s difficult to quantify the size of the voting base, particularly along Steinway Street in Astoria where Egyptian restaurants, Halaal butchers and Hookah bars line the street in a neighborhood known as Little Eygpt. Census data does not capture religion. While Abdelhamid is Muslim, not all Egyptians identify as Muslim.

But Abdelhamid’s campaign was as much about reaching out to immigrants from within her community as it was about making residents at the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the country that was once in 12th Congressional District, feel like they had a voice.

“Rana has a personal story of overcoming adversity that is just really inspiring,” said Shahid.

At the age of 16, a man yanked off Abdelhamid’s headscarf and assaulted her in a bias attack. As a black belt in karate, that experience prompted her to start a nonprofit, Malikah, that’s been training young women in self-defense since 2010.

While she graduated from Middlebury College and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with a master’s degree in public policy, she met many elected officials turned staunch supporters through her side work teaching self-defense and fighting for gender justice.

One of her biggest supporters is Councilmember Tiffany Cabán of Queens, who nominated her to the Justice Democrats. (The organization makes its endorsement decisions after candidates are nominated by someone in their district.)

Cabán said she first met Abdelhamid after taking a self-defense class from her in Astoria Park in 2020. They developed a friendship, describing Abdelhamid with words like “fighter” and “warrior.” Cabán said her ongoing work on the ground made Abdelhamid the right fit to represent the district, whether it was when she coordinated a free mutual aid refrigerator in front of a local mosque to when she helped deliver hundreds of meals during the holy month of Ramadan this year.

“It is no small feat that she can walk into any mosque in our community and sit down and have a conversation with the Imam, one that’s rooted in respect and recognizes her leadership,” said Cabán. “That’s a huge deal for a Muslim woman.”

It’s not fair for someone born in Astoria, raised in Astoria, to not be able to to represent her people.

Sheikh Atef Mohammed, imam at Masjid El-ber of Astoria

“It’s not fair for someone born in Astoria, raised in Astoria, to not be able to to represent her people,” said Sheikh Atef Mohammed, the imam at Masjid El-ber of Astoria, where the community refrigerator is located.

Even after new district lines left Abdelhamid feeling she had no clear electoral path, Cabán remained just as effusive over her decision to bow out.

“As frustrating and heartbreaking as it is that she has found herself in this place, I could not be more proud that this is where she landed, especially when you look at the larger landscape where you can see in real time people trying to figure out, ‘How do I run for a seat, any seat?’” said Cabán.

Weaknesses in democracy

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, another supporter of Abdelhamid, said what happened to the 12th Congressional District is symptomatic of structural problems with the redistricting process across states.

He pointed to red states like Texas where the Republican-controlled state legislature has been accused of using gerrymandering to institutionalize their partisan advantage. Lander said members of his own party in New York attempted to use similar tactics to fight back, hoping to preserve control of the House.

“That’s a devil’s bargain,” said Lander.

Still, he said the fallout from the weaknesses in the country’s democracy, like gerrymandering, at the macro level resulted in wrenching consequences at the personal level.

Lander, who first met Abdelhamid in 2018 after voters in his former Brooklyn City Council district elected to invest funds through participatory budgeting in self-defense classes for young Muslim women, said she was the kind of candidate poised to bring more voters into the process.

“A young, diverse, compelling candidate who is inspiring voters and volunteers – that’s just good for our democracy,” said Lander. He said seeing the rug ripped out from underneath Abdelhamid this late in the electoral cycle was not just bad for her, but also stood to alienate voters.

“It’s definitely a lot of whiplash,” said Ben Wetzler, a Democratic district leader from the 76th Assembly District on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island, which overlaps with the old and new lines of the 12th Congressional District. Wetzler was an early supporter of Abdelhamid’s campaign and gravitated towards her call for a New Deal-style investment in larger public housing complexes.

“Rana hasn’t changed, but the district has,” he added.

Was it worth it?

Alaa Elmehdawy, 65, a retired nonprofit worker, said he believed it was time for someone from Egyptian descent to run to represent Astoria. He has known Abdelhamid’s family in Queens since he moved from Egypt in 1984. He said he used to hang out at her father’s deli, which became a gathering place. He donated to Abdelhamid’s campaign because he said she was qualified and was disappointed with how the new lines left her with few options.

I think the Democrats brought it upon themselves, and then it came back to haunt them."

Alaa Elmehdawy, 65, a retired nonprofit worker

“I think the Democrats brought it upon themselves, and then it came back to haunt them,” he said, describing Abdelhamid as a victim of the establishment politicians who sought to protect their own power.

Moustafa Abdel Rahman, chef and owner at Mombar, an Egyptian restaurant on Steinway Street in Little Egypt, voiced his own frustration about feeling ignored by politicians, especially long-serving incumbents who he said only visited the neighborhood when they needed the votes.

In Abdelhamid, he saw a chance to be seen and heard. “She was here, all over, before she was running,” he said.

Cabán, who narrowly lost a primary for Queens district attorney in 2019 before running successfully for her New York City Council seat two years later, said Abdelhamid’s candidacy was still important since it brought new people into civic life.

“She can go out and hold her head up high and say like, ‘I organized the Uncles on Steinway’,’’ said Cabán, using a common term for elders in that community.

Next steps

As she prepared to wind down her campaign, in the wake of two devastating mass shootings and a crisis of gun violence across the country, Abdelhamid said the turmoil signaled the need for new leadership in the nation’s halls of power.

While she planned to continue with her day job, working for Google and leading self-defense work through her volunteer nonprofit, she said she remained committed to organizing within her community. She already met with Velázquez last week to discuss the needs of constituents including small business owners from the part of the former 12th Congressional District that the Congressmember inherited. Abdelhamid said she also looked forward to working with Ocasio-Cortez on issues, like improving public safety, that affect her neighbors.

“We have people who love the city, who understand that there needs to be change, and who are fighting for that change every single day,” said Abdelhamid. “And I feel really lucky that I get to be part of that with them.”