“Mara Chokra Ne Jitadvo Che,” Indian-Americans win key seats in New Jersey

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Vin Gopal, left, with Raj Mukherji – Gopal won his race for the New Jersey State Senate, becoming the first Indian-American elected to that body in its history; Mukherji won back his seat to the New Jersey State Assembly. He remains the only Indian-American there.

From the New Jersey State Senate to the City of Hoboken, 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.

Vin Gopal, the charismatic rising star and former 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. He becomes the first Indian-American to be in the N.J. State Senate.

Madhuben going to vote Nov. 7, in District 11. (Photo: Ritesh Shah Facebook)

“Mara Chokra Ne Jitadvo Che,” were the words Madhuben, a voter in District 11, Monmouth County said about Gopal’s win. The octogenarian, who went to the polls holding her cane, to vote Gopal in, was voting for the first time in her 35 years in this country. “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 taking a dig at President Trump’s victory last year.

In Hoboken, the town across the Hudson crowded with professionals who work in New York, Councilman Ravinder Bhalla won to become the new Mayor of the multicultural city. He becomes the first Indian-American and first Sikh to hold that office.

The only Indian-American member of the New Jersey State Assembly, Raj Mukherji, won back his seat.

“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 the largest concentration of Indian-Americans in the country, and it has been a long held angst that they are not occupying the number of offices they should be compared to their population.

Hence, for Indian-Americans, the Nov. 7 elections in New Jersey where they contested up and down the ballot, it was a test watched keenly by the community nationwide as an example of whether they can make a breakthrough as a formidable force future politicians have to deal with.

Shanti Narra, who got re-elected to the North Brunswick City Council Nov. 7. (Photo: Facebook)

Some of the other winners included Shanti Narra being re-elected to the North Brunswick City Council; and Sadaf Jaffer, won her race for the Montgomery City Council; early results showed Sangeeta Doshi may have won her race for the Cherry Hill Township Council, according to cherryhillssun.com.

Before election day, some Indian-Americans were concerned whether members of the community would actually get out to vote, an Achilles heel 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 and said 80 to 90 percent of Indian American voters in District 11 cast their vote, a historic high.

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.

Before voting day, Gopal who is not given to hyperbole, told this correspondent, there was a ’50-50′ split in District 11, and the possibility of switching the seat from red to blue was real. He was proved right.

His 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.

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 American outreach for Murphy, told News India Times, there was a lot of excitement in the Indian-American community to bring about a change of guard at the state level, and Murphy’s focus on the economy, the tech sector, and job creation appealed to this community. 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.

Before election day, Assemblyman Mukherji told News India Times he banked on Gopal’s victory, “But Vin’s victory will merely double the number of Indian-Americans in the State legislature,” which is a far cry from the right number according to his math. “There are about 350,000 Indian-Americans in New Jersey out of a population of 8.9 million. So that’s 4 percent of the state. 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,” Mukherji said.

“So while we may be flexing our muscle, we have a long way to go from the minimum appropriate representation,” Mukherji added.