Born in Chicago Saqib Ali credits his parents, who are of Pakistani descent, as the reason he became involved in politics. "[I am] from a family where they were always having political debates around the house, but then I found out that among all these family members who had all these grand ideas, none of them ever voted. There was a sense that, 'I don't like the way things are, but there's nothing I can do about it.' I thought: I'm going to show these people."
Ali moved to Montgomery County, Maryland in 1991 to attend the University of Maryland, College Park. He went on to receive Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Computer Science.
Ali was not originally a member of the Democratic Party but changed parties after listening to Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Ali was "so enamored of Van Hollen's foreign policy positions that he changed his party affiliation from Green to Democratic." Ali soon became "the first elected President of the District 39 Democratic Club". Ali's political activity first gained media attention when he "was the Legislative District 39 Coordinator for the Howard Dean presidential campaign in 2003 and early 2004." After Dean failed to win the primary, Ali supported the John Kerry and John Edwards presidential ticket. During that election season, Ali became a full-time campaign volunteer for Rep. Chris Van Hollen, because of Van Hollen's foreign policy positions and his stance on the Iraq War. During Hollen's 2004 re-election campaign, Ali said "I'm really motivated against this war and have never felt so animated before. I thought, 'What is the most head-turning thing I could possibly do?'" and he "bought 500 bumper stickers at a buck apiece and applied more than 400 to the car". Later that year he was Co-Chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Spring Ball.
In 2005, Ali's political activities expanded when he helped form the "Longdraft Road Coalition", an organization opposing the expansion of this "quiet, residential two-lane road to a bustling four-lane byway." Ali became "co-chairman of the 180-person plus group" whose efforts were largely viewed as successful.
On October 1, 2005, Ali announced his candidacy for inclusion on the three-person Democratic slate for "Legislative District 39 which includes Montgomery Village, Washington Grove and parts of Gaithersburg, Derwood, Germantown and North Potomac." Members of the Maryland General Assembly have four-year terms.
On January 30, 2006, candidate Ali "accompanied a Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) contingent to Annapolis to lobby legislators to improve the state's... teacher pension system." By June 2006, MCEA had given Ali its "much sought-after endorsement" which "has always carried considerable weight in the minds of county voters. The Apple Ballot lists the recommended candidates that support public education and 11,000 educators. This ballot is an indication of politicians that support public schools and their employees."
On August 12, 2006 Timothy James Truett of Montgomery Village allegedly made a "call to Ali's office in which he asked if Ali was a Muslim and made derogatory remarks about Islam to Ali's campaign manager." Afterward, Truett drove to "the cul-de-sac outside Ali's Gaithersburg home, which doubles as his campaign office." There, he sat down in a lawn chair near the home "with a hand-lettered sign bearing a crude denunciation of Islam". Truett "wore a T-shirt reading 'This mind is an Allah-free zone'." Ali went out to look at the man and take pictures but did not speak to him, explaining "I knew he was there to bait me." Ali later recalled "I felt like he was intimidating and trying to menace me and my family, similar to when people burned crosses in someone's front yard. I think it was the exact same message." Ali's wife stepped outside and took pictures of Truett. An older man approached Truett and offered him some water. Ali then spoke to the older man and the older man went back inside. Ali placed one of his campaign yard signs next to Truett and took a picture. Truett then got up and left. Ali followed him and got pictures of his license plate. Truett then phoned Ali's office again but was hung up on. Ali later posted pictures of Truett, Truett's birth date and address on his campaign web site.
Both Ali and the police agreed that nothing illegal had happened, as he "was in a common area and not on Ali's property. Police apparently notified Truett later that he could be arrested if he did go onto the candidate's property in the next year." Ali told reporters that he is "100 percent Muslim and 100 percent American.... My faith is my faith... but that's incidental." He said "his candidacy is about such matters as 'roads, the schools' and not his religion." Quoting directly, "the demonstration 'reminds me of the need to build bridges amongst people and among communities.”
On September 10, 2006, Ali was endorsed by the The Washington Post. The Post said “Political newcomer Saqib Ali has shown good command of issues and would bring new vigour to this district's delegation.” On September Sept. 20, 2006, it was announced Ali had won the Democratic primary in Maryland's 39th Legislative District, defeating incumbent Delegate Joan F. Stern for a position on the slate with Del's Nancy J. King and Charles E. Barkley for the November general election. Stern had lost the outright endorsement of King and Barkley as she was not seen as a team-player. King noted that "Ali was a 'breath of fresh air' to voters", while political veteran Gene Counihan said "As far as I could see, he followed the book on how to win an election. I saw him on the campaign trail more than anybody. He was out door-to-door; he had impressive literature. He wanted it." Ali ascribed his electoral victory to connecting with voters. "Our campaign had a lot of energy. It had that underdog feel that struck a chord with people and resonated. When you talk to real voters, not the insiders, they care if you pay attention to them. They remember that you listened to them. People appreciate new blood."
On November 2, 2006, The Washington Post endorsed the Democratic slate calling Ali "a bright newcomer".
After his election, Ali told reporters that his “district is about 40 percent minority... and part of his campaign involved introducing those new immigrants to the political process, registering new voters and showing them how to cast a ballot. 'Bringing new Americans into the process is good for everybody. It's empowering.'" Ali raised nearly $120,000 for his campaign, mostly from family and his personal funds.
In its electing Ali (from the 17th District), “Maryland became the first state to send South Asian to the state legislature”. This occurrence was seen as an indication that Pakistani Americans have "political clout beyond traditional strongholds in California and Hawaii." Ali’s election is also seen as evidence of another American minority moving towards civic empowerment by participating in the political process, as “he is the first Muslim in the Maryland State legislature.” His election and that of Keith Ellison (D-MN) to the United States Congress are viewed by Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post as “part of a concerted march of Muslims into civic and political life” in reaction to “worries about civil liberties and immigration policy” that began after Sept. 11, 2001.
Ali officially took office on January 10, 2006, among 33 other first-time delegates (and 11 freshmen state senators). Ali's Democratic Party held 104 of 141 delegate seats and 33 of 47 senate seats, giving it veto-proof margins in the State Legislature. Ali was assigned to the House Environmental Matters Committee.
After taking office, Ali was interviewed by the Associated Press while "holding his snoozing 8-month-old daughter outside the House chamber". When asked about the anti-Muslim protester during the campaign, Ali said the protester “was an exception to his experience on the campaign. 'It was disappointing that that kind of bigotry would still rear its head, but I understand it was an isolated incident. Occasionally people would ask if I was Muslim, but most of the time it was a curiosity, not an obstacle.'" Ali did not want to be seen as just a novelty because of his religion, he said he'd “like to work on transportation matters and to pass a bill making it tougher for companies to track information and buying habits of private citizens." He wanted his constituents to know he's one of them and said, "I will represent the Muslims, but more importantly, I will represent all the people. I’m a Muslim, but I’m also a resident." In other interviews that asked the same question, Ali replied “I'm Muslim, and that'll always be the case, but I'm here to push good issues and good policy for all Marylanders.... We're looking for good ideas", and "I'm here to push good ideas, not so much to push my faith."
Recalling the Quran Oath Controversy of the 110th United States Congress, the AP noted, "There was no religious controversy as Ali took the oath of office with his colleagues. Maryland lawmakers do not hold their hands on a religious text while taking office." Ali will be working in "the oldest state-house in the country still in use by lawmakers and [a place] that George Washington once walked the hallways."