Democratic primary holds promise to bring Indian-American to Illinois State Senate

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Ram Villivalam (Courtesy: Facebook)

Activists from various organizations are mobilizing voters for the March 20 Democratic primary that could bring an Indian-American to the Illinois State Senate, a historic first if the goal is realized.

A string of progressive organizations are getting behind Ram Villivalam’s campaign to wrest the District 8 State Senate seat from beleaguered fellow Democrat, incumbent Ira Silverstein,

The Equality IL PAC (@EQILPAC) was the latest to join the chorus of voices raised in support of the progressive Democrat. It tweeted on March 12, “Sign up to volunteer and help Ram on #GOTV weekend March 17-19 and/or Election Day March 20.”

Other groups are engaging the community to get out the vote, not for any particular candidate, but rather as their civic act. The Indo-American Center, a non-partisan group, has scheduled a Young Professionals Phone Bank March 15 described on the website as a “Get Out The Vote 2018” event. Anar Parikh, the civic engagement coordinator at IAC, told Desi Talk, that event is part of a year-long campaign to get the community more engaged, especially young professionals who are typically less engaged,

The year-long initiative is aimed at “encouraging people to exercise their right and privilege as American citizens,” Parikh said. The IAC has also taken its members to candidate debates for the State Senate District 8 race, as well as the Illinois State House race from District 17.

Born and raised on the Northwest side of Chicago, Villivalam’s window of opportunity to overthrow a fellow Democrat comes on the heels of ethics and other alleged misconduct publicity that dog Silverstein, even though a final report by an investigative committee cleared him.

Villivalam was till recently, the legislative coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, and has been endorsed by the two important media outlets, Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune.

Ram Villivalam, candidate for Illinois State Senate from District 8, talks to a constituent. (Courtesy: .ramforsenate.com)

Indian-American organizations like the Illinois-based Indo-American Democratic Organization, and the national Indian-American Impact Fund, have all got behind Villivalam in his bid.

“He has extensive experience in the community and broad support from Members of Congress, local community organizations, and others,” Gautam Raghavan, president of Indian-American Impact Fund, told Desi Talk via email, “In addition to endorsing Ram and help raise the visibility of his campaign to a national audience, we have helped him raise funds for his campaign — including funds that will specifically allow him to engage the large number of Indian American voters in his district,” Raghavan said.

This is a battle within the Democratic Party, which wants to put a more diverse and younger leadership to the fore. No Republican has filed to run in the primary, and March 20 will basically be the biggest hurdle for Villivalam to cross. If he wins this primary, he is a shoe-in for the seat and will replace Silverstein when the next class of legislators is sworn in.

In an interview with Desi Talk, Villivalam said a new generation in government and more diversity was the need of the hour. “People who will challenge … and not just check the box,” he said.

He spoke of his parents as his role models. “They came in the 1970s. My Dad worked as a dishwasher for a couple of dollars, Mom worked at Amvets also for $2.30,” he recounted. “Then they went back to school and then came back to public service. I will never forget their service. And I hear these stories in the 8th Senate District,” over and over again, Villivalam said.

According to his estimate, District 8 has the “largest concentration” of Asian-Americans making up some 25 percent of the population. And as it encompasses areas like Devon and Lincoln, he said, 65 percent of Asian- Americans are people of South Asian origin.

The Chicago Tribune said Villivalam “is policy proficient, engaged and prepared to push back against the Democrat establishment,” when it endorsed him Feb. 22. His Democratic rivals for the March 20 primary — Caroline McAteer-Fournier, a community activist; and David Zulkey, an attorney — the paper said, “are both strong contenders, but Villivalam’s policy chops give him the edge.” The Tribune does not mention another Indian- American Democrat, Zehra Quadri, running for the same seat.

Ram Villivalam, candidate for Illinois State Senate from District 8, with his wife Elizabeth. (Courtesy: .ramforsenate.com)

Apart from attacking Silverstein’s record, who Villivalam told Desi Talk, has “violated the ethics act,” and therefore “cannot advocate for issues,” Villivalam highlights his own accomplishments.

“As I go out across the district, people want minimum wage raised so that they can support themselves,” Villivalam told Desi Talk, adding, “(They want to) reduce gun violence; and making (sic) sure our schools are equitably funded regardless of zipcode; lowering taxes for the middle class, and raising it on millionaires and billionaires,”

As part of the SIEU, his website says,Villivalam championed home care for seniors and those with disabilities; childcare for working families; Medicaid for those in need; a $15 minimum wage, and was involved with signing people up for the Affordable Care Act, and organizing job fairs. “Ram is a proud board member of the Gun Violence Prevention PAC and the Indo American Democratic Organization,” his website says.

His election website stresses women’s rights. “Ram fully supports a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment. Women need to be believed, and men need to be held accountable,” it says. He also supports comprehensive immigration reform, the protection of children who fall under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), making Illinois a sanctuary state, “calling out hate crimes for what they are,” and fighting to end discrimination based on race and/or religion, his platform says.

In his interview, Villivalam said he has built a coalition of supporters that gives him an edge over Silverstein. He has been endorsed by federal and state lawmakers like U.S. Representatives Jan Schakowsky, Brad Schneider, Mike Quigley, Danny K. Davis, and Raja Krishnamoorthi; Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle; State Senators Laura Murphy and Omar Aquino; and State Rep. Theresa Mah as well as labor groups, including teachers unions, environmental, and LGBTQ community, retirees and social workers groups.

Going into March 20, Villivalam said his goal is to raise $200,000 “to make sure we get our message out,” and admitted, “It’s always challenging to raise money, plus the short time range,” to the primary. “I’ve been knocking on doors and raising the issues,” he said.

Villivalam lives in Chicago with his wife Elizabeth.

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