“Mara Chokra Ne Jitadvo Che” roughly translated to mean “I’ve got to get my son to win” was the rallying cry from Madhuben a senior in Monmouth County, New Jersey, who walks with a cane and made it to the polls. It symbolizes the apparent mobilization of the Indian-American community in the Nov. 7 elections around the country.
From the New Jersey State Senate to the City of Hoboken, from Washington State Senate District, to the Asheville City Council in North Carolina, Indian Americans made huge gains not just for the community but for the Democratic Party that had pinned hopes on them in some tough districts. All of it despite the failed attempts by yet unidentified sources, to infuse racial and ethnic tensions possibly meant to hijack the democratic process.
“What’s encouraging about this election is that Indian-Americans are not just focusing on Congress but on every level of government,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPIdata.com, told News India Times. “Another remarkable element is so many women running is races,” he added.
He and co-author Alton Wong, writing on their blog note, “The biggest theme coming out of the November 2017 elections was a clear repudiation of immigrant bashing and ethnic nationalism.” New Jersey, where the racial attacks were most blatant, also led the way in terms of Indian-American wins.
Vin Gopal, the charismatic rising star and former New Jersey Monmouth County Democratic Party chair, beat his Republican incumbent of 11 years, Jennifer Beck, in the most hotly contested and most expensive District 11 race in that state. He becomes the first Indian-American to be in the N.J. State Senate.
Madhuben was voting for the first time in her 35 years in this country was obviously moved by the fact that an Indian-American was running from her District 11. “One of my proudest moments of my life. Inspired by the commitment of our community to perform their civic duty!” said Ritesh Shah when he posted Madhuben’s photo on Facebook.
New Mayor of Hoboken, N.J. Ravinder Bhalla, the first Indian-American and first Sikh to occupy that post after the Nov. 7 elections. (Photo: Facebook)
In winning, Gopal turned a long time red seat into blue. And despite the district having few Indian-Americans, members of the community rallied till the last day to bring their own to the polling booth. Gopal won by a several thousand votes (53 percent to Beck’s 47 percent) according to unofficial results.
“My dream came true. We brought each and every Indian American to the polls,” Ritesh Shah,co-founder of the South Asian Registration Initiative, told News India Times.
New Jersey Assemblyman Raj Mukherji told News India Times, “Nobody on earth works harder for their community than Vin Gopal. His historic election to the Senate – the first South Asian in state history – will double our presence in the State Legislature, but what’s remarkable is the margin and how he knocked off a popular incumbent in a Republican district.”
Mukherji went on to praise Gopal for his zealousness and for being a tireless advocate and ‘honest to a fault. “We are going to do great things together. It’s a proud day to be brown. Big difference from a year ago when I woke up hoping it was all a bad dream,” Mukherji added. But “appropriate” representation is still wanting. With New Jersey’s 8.9 million people, four percent of whom are Indian-American, “If you round that up with the number of legislators (40 Senators and 80 Assembly members) we should have at least 5 Indian-American legislators in New Jersey,” said Assemblyman Mukherji, who won back his seat from Jersey City Nov. 7.
Nevertheless, Indian-Americans are quite ecstatic with what they achieved in New Jersey, where in the city of Hoboken, the town across the Hudson crowded with professionals who work in New York, Councilman Ravinder Bhalla, a turbaned Sikh became the new Mayor.
“This year marks the 30th anniversary of the reprehensible Dotbuster attacks that struck fear into the hearts of innocent, hard working Indian Americans in my hometown of Jersey City,” Mukherji told News India Times via text. “I am privileged that 30 years later, despite the injection of racism to political campaigns all over the country, that legislative district – which is home to Ellis Island – will again be represented by the only Indian American in the State Assembly.”
New Jersey has one of the largest concentrations of Indian-Americans in the country, and it has been a long held angst that they are not proportionately represented in public office. Hence, for Indian-Americans nationwide, New Jersey where they contested up and down the ballot, was a yardstick for measuring whether they can make a breakthrough the ethnic ceiling as a formidable force future politicians would have to contend with.
According to rough estimates by Shah, there are some 370,000 Indian-Americans living in New Jersey. This is the highest of any state, up from the nearly 300,000 (292,000) in the 2010 Census. He spoke to News India Times about how Indian Americans came to the polls all around the state especially after offensive racially tinged flyers were circulated that called for deporting an Indian American and a Chinese American from the country, as well as against Ravinder Bhalla.
Another significant win for Indian-Americans is that of Democrat Phil Murphy for Governor of the state, ousting Republican contender Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Amit Jani, director of Asian outreach for Murphy, told News India Times, “historic” numbers of Indian-Americans held formal positions in Murphy’s campaign. Murphy courted this community throughout his campaign attending numerous events and fundraisers of Indian-Americans. “There are a lot of folks in their 20s and 30s who are drawn to politics this campaign season, So are older Indian-Americans, ” Jani said, not least because of candidates fielded up and down the ballot. “We had a good night (last night),” he said.
Candidate for Congress from New Jersey, Peter Jacob, who ran and lost against Republican Leonard Lance last year but secured more than 40 percent of the vote, told News India Times “The victories around the nation are inspiring,” adding, “We need people who think about not just the next election but also the next generation.” He hopes someone from the East Coast will also get to Capitol Hill by next year, as the Indian-Americans currently in Congress are from the West Coast and Midwest. “These Nov. 7 elections pave the way for 2018,” Jacob said.
On the West Coast, the highlight for Indian-Americans was Manka Dhingra, an attorney and specialist in mental health and domestic violence issues, who defeated her Republican opponent handily to make it into the state Senate. She is the first Indian-American to win a seat on that body, and her race turned the upper house into Democratic hands. Another young Indian-American, Satwinder Kaur, won her race for the Kent City Council in Washington state.
Before election day, some Indian-Americans were concerned about turning out the vote of what is considered the most educated and highest income-earning group in the country, often touted as the ‘model minority’. But they delivered, according to Shah, who crunched the numbers for his District 11, claiming 80 to 90 percent of Indian American voters went to the polls, a historic high, and one that will not go unnoticed by party bigwigs whose victorious gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, also belonged to Monmouth County, Gopal’s constituency.
“Yesterday was a very good day, not just for Democrats, but also for Indian Americans. We had candidates win elections in every part of the country, and in some significant races,” said Sekhar Narasimhan, a Virginia businessman, and founder of AAPI Victory Fund, an organization with a mission to raise voter participation of Asian Americans. He reeled off names like Dhingra, Gopal, Bhalla, and also Dimple Ajmera, elected to the Charlotte City Council in North Carolina. “Numerous other Indian Americans ran in 2017 in primaries and in other states, including Virginia, New York, Georgia and Florida,” Narasimhan said, adding, “This outburst of energy from the next generation of Indian Americans is a reaction to the xenophobic attacks on all people of color. The positive side is that there is a political infrastructure for them to tap into, and then the numbers that are successful will therefore increase. We expect this to continue into the halls of Congress and ultimately the Oval Office.”
For Indian-Americans nationwide, an overwhelming 70 percent of whom claim to be Democrats, the victory of Ralph Northam as Governor of Virginia, defeating Republican Ed Gillespie, was another feather in the cap. The community has mobilized over the last few years as its population grows in Virginia and areas surrounding Washington, D.C. In Virginia, the Asian American electorate has grown 176% since 2000, while in New Jersey, it rose 172% in the same time, Ramakrishnan et al note, adding that every state in the U.S. has doubled the size of the Asian American (and Pacific Islander) population since 2000 (except Hawaii which has been AAPI majority all along). “If the 2017 election is any indication, the AAPI electorate will continue to have an increasing impact on elections to come—including the 2018 midterms next year,” Ramakrishnan and Wong predict.
Gopal’s win in a largely white district is not without precedent. Historically, Indian-American candidates have done well in districts around the country where the population is majority white – the earliest of them all, Kumar Barve in Maryland who continues to represent Montgomery County in the House of Delegates since 1990; Satveer Chaudhary who first won his seat to the Minnesota House of Representatives (2001-2003) and then to the state Senate (2003-2011); Swati Dandekar in the Iowa House of Representatives from 2003-2009 and the state Senate from 2009-2011; The same goes for state races like former Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, and former Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal. Not least of all, the significant victories at the national level in 2016, that catapulted one Indian-American, Kamala Harris, to the U.S. Senate, and four to the U.S. House – Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois; Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington; Ro Khanna, D-California; and Ami Bera, D-California.