“When Kevin came into my office, I saw immediately that he had a certain manner and way of presenting himself, which would be very attractive to the public.”
Those are the words of the incoming New York State Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Jacobs, speaking to Desi Talk about the newly elected, first-ever Indian American to win a seat in Albany’s upper house, Sen. Kevin Thomas.
Within days of his swearing-in Jan. 5, Sen. Thomas 34, who represents the 6th District (midNassau) was already appointed chair of the very important Consumer Protection Committee, and a member of theVeterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee, as well as the Judiciary Committee, and the Banks, Finance and Aging Committee, he told Desi Talk. “Even in two days we made history,” Thomas told Desi Talk. “Voting reform, ban on conversion therapy …We’ve just started.”
A lot more is to come in the first 100 days, he says. On Jan. 22, the Reproductive Health Act in NY was passed; next day the Dream Act was passed, “To all the Dreamers go out and show my Republican colleagues who called you “illegal” the good you will do for New York,” Thomas tweeted.
Born in Dubai to Thomas Kanamoottil and Rachel Thomas, the Senator came to the U.S. when he was 10, graduated from Thomas Cooley Law School in Western Michigan University, going on to work in the New York Legal Service from 2010 to 2018, work that connected him to the grassroots and prepared him for political office, and especially to take on the responsibility of consumer protection.
Meanwhile, Long Island was undergoing the cultural and demographic change that helped put him where he is. “South Asians and Indian-Americans make up 7 to 10 percent of East Meadow and the surrounding areas. But they don’t usually come out for mid-term elections. This time, I heard a lot of them telling me ‘we brought our whole families (to the polls) because of you’,” Thomas said. He beat his Republican opponent by more than 2,000 votes even after a recount, he recalls.
“One of our objectives was to promote Indian-Americans in office and I thought this was a great opportunity,” Jacobs told Desi Talk in an exclusive interview, referring to his advice to Thomas to switch from running for Congress to running for the New York Senate.
When Thomas met Jacobs, he was challenging long-time Republican Congressman Pete King, in a race the Indian-American was almost certain to lose. “Even if Kevin won the primary, it would be a very long shot to defeat King,” said Jacobs.
“I thought he would be effective in the New York Senate even though that was a difficult race as well,” said Jacobs. Thomas had to defeat veteran Republican State Sen. Kemp Hannon.
Jacobs gambled well, because Thomas was a very effective campaigner who maximized the resources the party provided, and wore out a lot of shoe-leather in his door-to-door campaign. “His level of hard work and personality really enabled him to maximize the other inputs from the party,” Jacobs said.
Thomas was helped not least by an antiTrump political environment in the Long Island suburbs. “But it was Kevin’s personality, his work ethic…. Just meeting him, you will like him. And not all candidates come with that quality,” Jacobs said.
The upset victory got local newspapers abuzz.
“Long Island’s never seen anything like this,” Newsday proclaimed about “The Long Island Six” – senators who flipped the upper house into the hands of the Democrats.
Long Island Business News predicted, “After November’s election, the “Long Island Six” – the newly elected Democratic senators from Long Island – are looked to now as wielding influence in Albany.”
The longtime Republican majority in the Senate was gone, at least for now, and Thomas and his colleagues are storming ahead with all those laws they had only dreamed of getting passed not so long ago.
The ‘Long Island Six’ reflect the changing face of Nassau and Suffolk counties. Three of the winning candidates are immigrants – Sen. Kevin Thomas of Indian heritage, and two women, one of Iranian ancestry and another from El Salvador. Thomas, according to analysts, won with the high turnout in Hempstead and Uniondale counties. He lives in Levittown, NY with his wife Rincy Thomas, a pharmacist, and their newborn daughter Layla.
One of his constituents, Eileen Napolitano, is an ardent supporter. “First of all, his opponent, a 29-year incumbent, was basically a no-show for the community,” Napolitano told Desi Talk. She first met Thomas at a candidates forum even before he had decided to run for office. As a school board trustee (East Meadow) , Napolitano noted that Thomas seemed to understand education issues. “He had such a fresh outlook, and was very engaging. I really felt I was being heard. I wanted someone who could not only talk the talk but walk the walk,” Napolitano said. “We now have someone willing to work on behalf of taxpayers, and on issues that are moving the community.” But not only that, Napolitano said, “I am a white woman from the suburbs but I am extremely happy we have diversification in our representation.”
Sen. Thomas did not originally plan to be in politics, and his parents did not raise him to be one. he laughs. “Doctor or engineer are the options they gave me.” Like a good son, he went to a technical high school, was good at science and math, “but my passion was helping people,” he said. They realized it as well, and Thomas went on to do law and describes the court as the “battle ground” where the little guy can be defended. He saw the power of law, dabbled with corporate law but stepped away from it. He served as an appointee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to the New York State Advisory Committee, a federal agency tasked with civil rights oversight.
He’s got his agenda all planned for the months ahead. Among his goals is to bring in the laws like the Green Act, a permanent property tax, protection for student loans, going after companies that buy personal data and sell it.
“The federal government is failing us and states have to step up,” Thomas says. “My committee has broad powers and I’m going to be doing a lot,” the Senator says firmly.