Indian-Americans testing political heft in Chicagoland municipal elections

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As the April 2 Chicago municipal elections loom, Indian-Americans and South Asians are stepping up their activism in the hope of influencing electoral outcomes at the local level.

 

Founders of a group called Voice of Indian Voters (VIA Voters) established in Chicago in January, pose for a photograph. (Photo courtesy VIA Voters)

According to data compiled by the Chicago-based South Asian American Policy & Research Institute, shows numerous municipalities in Illinois, a number of them in Chicagoland, where at least 5 percent of the population is of South Asian origin. Some areas have a much higher percentage than that, eg. South Barrington (25 percent); Oak Brook (22 percent); Lincolnwood (19 percent); Hoffman Estates18 percent); followed by areas like Glendale Heights, Schaumburg, Monton Grove, Burr Ridge, Inverness, Naperville, Carol Stream, Bartlett, to name a few others. (saapri.org).

“The new year brings in a new era of South Asian political leadership in Illinois,” SAAPRI said in releasing its Jan. 17, 2019 report. In Chicagoland, the April 2 elections involve runoffs as well as races for mayor, city council members, city treasurer, and city clerk. Indian-American candidate for Chicago Treasurer, Alderman Ameya Pawar, won less than 50 percent of the vote on Feb. 26, and is now in the runoff April 2.

There are 52,000 South Asians living in Chicago, according to SAAPRI which used U.S. Census data to reach that conclusion.

This community is forming groups to encourage voter turnout for their favorite candidates.

While there are older political activist groups like the Indo-American Democratic Organization (IADO), there is one more recent one, Voice of Indian American Voters (VIA Voters), which says it is non-partisan. Yet another group based on particular candidates, is ‘100 AAPIs for Toni’ referring to Chicago Mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle who is running against Lori Lightfoot, both African-Americans. There is also a South Asian Civic Engagement Coalition which is participating in hosting candidate forums in Chicago.

Banner advertizing the 100 high profile supporters of Chicago mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle. (Photo courtesy 100 AAPI’s for Toni via Ann Kalayil)

Ann Kalayil, a community activist who worked with Preckwinkle earlier, is part of this initiative. She told Desi talk she supports Preckwinkle “Because she is a strong proponent of equity. Out of the six members she has in her cabinet, two are South Asian.”

One of several graphs compiled by the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute based in Chicago. (Photo: SAAPRI.org)

VIA Voters has held at least three candidate forums since it was established this January – the Naperville Mayoral Candidates Forum, a Chicago Mayoral candidates forum, and the Schaumburg Mayoral & Trustee Candidates Forum.The founding members of the group some 20 business persons and community leaders including Dr Bharat Barai, Sanjjeev Singh and Dr. Anuja Gupta, a press release from the group said.

“We felt there was a need for a Non-Partisan group that promoted the civic engagement of the Indian-Americans in the area,” the founders are quoted saying in a press release, adding, “The top goals of the group include seeking a better level of engagement with elected officials, creating a more informed voter base and increasing the participation of Indian-Americans in the election process.”

At their mayoral candidates forum of on March 17, only candidate Steve Chirico showed up. Candidate “Rocky Caylor dropping out at the last minute speaks volumes of his regard for the community and his commitment to keep his word” concluded VIA Founder Sanjjeev Singh.

In his speech at the event, Chirico spoke at length about the initiatives that he implemented in his first 4 years term as mayor, including reduction of crime and creating a wider tax base from small businesses, among them.

South Asian supporters of Mayoral Candidate for Chicago Toni Preckwinkle working the phones on March 24, in the run up to the April 2 municipal election runoff in Chicagoland. Seen in center is Ranjit Ganguly, founder-president of Indo American Democratic Organization, and Ann Kalayil, right. (Photo courtesy Ann Kalayil)

The Indian-American and South Asian community has become a lot more politically and civically engaged, politicos say. Even though they may support someone based on the candidate’s ethnicity, Kalayil contends, it is becoming more about who serves their own interests. “Identity is important but you want a candidate who has a wider reach,” she said, taking Sen. Villivalam who has a wider appeal through his labor and other activism in the past.

In Chicagoland, she notices  that during these municipal elections, “there’s an enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm from South Asians. It is exciting.”

Feb. 16, 2019 photo of SAAPRI members from left Dhara Puvar, Illinois State Sen. Ram Villivalam who is also th president of Indo-American Democratic Organization), Josina Morita, and Selma D’Souza. (Photo: SAAPRI Facebook site)

While South Asians are not a monolith group she concedes, they could come together to form a “common platform” from which different groups could draw. “The common platform would be made up of issues not candidates – for instance – issues of aging with dignity, or immigration.”

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, also believes Indian-Americans in Illinois have become more active. “It’s a good thing that more people are running for office. The more that America looks like the people here, the better.” He says he gets asked to support different people running for office and is glad more are taking to public office.

“But it will ultimately depend on their platform and voter turnout,” Krishnamoorthi believes. “Some will succeed right away, and oters like me, will win a silver medal and later on, run to win the gold,” Krishnamoorthi said about his attempts to win the seat in Congress.

List of Runoff Races:

Mayor

Lori Lightfoot
Toni Preckwinkle

City Treasurer

Melissa Conyers-Ervin
Ameya Pawar

Aldermanic Wards 

5, 6, 15, 16, 20, 21, 25, 30, 31, 33, 39, 40, 43, 46, 47

(Source: League of Women Voters Chicago)

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