Immigrants vs rich, White incumbents – Sayu Bhojwani’s take on American politics

Sayu Bhojwani

NEW YORK – Sayu Bhojwani, who served as New York City’s first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs, founded South Asian Youth Action, and is the founder and president of New American Leaders, has come up with an engaging book on the struggle of new immigrants and minorities as they navigate their way through the American process to political representation at the grassroots and state level.

‘People Like Us – The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door’ (The New Press; hardcover; 232 pages; $24.99) by Bhojwani, who has a PhD in Politics and Education from Columbia University, where her research focused on immigrant political participation, is a timely book as the midterm elections on November 6, is expected to throw up a new wave of political leaders from marginalized communities, and displace long-serving incumbents, who are mostly White and male.

Bhojwani is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges. Before he debut book’s publication, her 2016 TED talk ‘Immigrant Voices Make Democracy Stronger’ was viewed over 800,000 times.

In “People Like Us,’ Bhojwani argues that politics is rigged: America’s political leadership remains overwhelmingly white, male, moneyed, and Christian. Even at the local and state levels, elected office is inaccessible to the people it aims to represent.

However, a lot of change is underway, she analyzes. Bhojwani cites instances of defying odds, like in Anaheim, California, where a previously undocumented Mexican American challenges the high-powered interests of the Disney Corporation to win a City Council seat. In the Midwest, a young Muslim Somali American unseats a 44-year incumbent in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Bhojwani, talking of the religious diversity of America, point out that Whites are 63 percent of the country’s population, Latinx 16 percent, African Americans 13 percent, and Asian Americans 5 percent. The other 3 percent identify themselves as mixed race or other. By the time the 2020 Census takes place, more than half of all American children will belong to a racial minority group.

“Despite this increasing diversity, Congress still looks like it did in the distant path: its members are 81 percent white and male, and only 7.1 percent are women of color. Although the 115th Congress is the most diverse in history, only 9.4 % of its members are African Americans, 8.5 % Latinx, and 3.3 % Asian Americans,” she notes.

White men currently make up only 31 percent of the US population but hold 65 percent of the elected positions in state and local governments. Latinx and Asians are the fastest growing immigrant groups but hold only 2 percent of the 500,000 state and local elected offices, she notes.

“This representation gap – between who Americans are and who our leaders are – is not coincidental. Instead, it is an international product of history and systemic white supremacy,” writes Bhojwani.

Bhojwani points out that politics is associated with a high price tag. More money is spent on campaigns than ever before, and not just on Presidential and Congressional races. From 2000 to 2016, contributions to state House races across the country nearly doubled, from $398 million in 2000, to $726 million in 2016. State Senate contributions saw the same level of growth, from $240 million in 2000, to $437 million in 2016.

Then there is the viciousness of it all.

Bhojwani writes about immigrant candidates like Mexican American Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, the Council member for Detroit’s District 6, who still lives in a joint family household, and grew up poor.

The negative ads against her when she was up for re-election included a mailer which had a picture of her home where she lives with her sisters and brother, and it cited housing code violations. Fox News ran a story, online and on TV, with the headline ‘Is Detroit Councilwoman’s home part of city’s blight problem?”

People Like Us by Sayu Bhojwani.

In the era of ban against some Muslim-majority nations and xenophobia, Bhojwani writes of the case of Ilhan Omar, born in Somalia who unseated Phyllis Kahn who served for 44 years on the Minnesota State Legislature, in 2016.

An ethnic Somali, Omar moved to Minneapolis at the age of 14, after her family had lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years. Her first years in America were spent in middle school, as a refugee.

“I felt all of my otherness, as a black woman, Muslim, immigrant,” she told Bhojwani.

For Omar, however, all that changed quickly.

“But just over a year later, all that felt “suspended” when she received a certificate of student achievement signed by then president Bill Clinton. That moment was pivotal: it marked the first time she felt American. Even with all the public identities that seemed to marginalize her, she says: “to our President, I was just a student,”’ writes Bhojwani.

“Millions of Americans have stories like this one, about the moment when something shifts internally, moving them from asking, “What Am I doing here?” to a moment like the one Ilhan had when she held that certificate in her hands and realized she could be just another American student. “I thought, I’m home; I’m fine,” writes Bhojwani.

Another successful immigrant story, like that of Omar, and somebody who also grew up a in a refugee camp is Fue Lee, a 24-year-old born in a Thai refugee camp, who defeated fellow Democrat and 20-year-old incumbent Joe Mullery, for House District 59A in Minnesota.

Bhojwani also delves into the rigors of public life, and the financial toll it takes to actually have commitment for the job to serve constituents.

“A life in public office in America is draining, in part because of a 24/7 news cycle that can require immediate responses from public figures. Whether a bill is being considered on the floor of a legislature or a tragic accident occurs, elected officials are expected to be available to respond, in addition to regularly engaging their constituents through social media. They are also under constant pressure to see and be seen – at community events, for fundraising purposes, and their district’s businesses,” she writes.

And legislators often pay a personal price for their decision, sometimes living at the margins of the economy as they struggle to survive on part-time salaries for full-time jobs.

Bhojwani gives the example of Yvanna Cancela, who was the political director at the Culinary Workers Union, before becoming a state senator in Nevade, and who makes $8,777 a year plus per diem allowance for the days on which the legislature meets. In Nevada, that’s 120 days every two years.

However, in the four states will full-time legislatures, the yearly salaries are $90,526 in California, $84,012 in Pennsylvania, $79,500 in New York, and $71,685 in Michigan. These salaries are supplemented with per diem allowances for days the legislatures are in session. In places like Los Angeles, City Councilors earn a generous yearly salary of $184,610, more than the governor, state legislators, and most members of Congress. In New York City, Council members make $148,500.

Oftentimes, there are cases of immigrants like Vandana Slatter, a Washington state representative who waited until she could afford to quit her job and her son was out of high school before she ran for the Bellevue City Council. Until December of 2016, Councilmembers made $19,800 a year, as salary had not increased for 16 years. The salaries increased in 2017, to $28,728.

Bhojwani makes the point for democracy reforms, which would entail revamping the policies and processes that has kept ‘people like us’ out of power. These would also include redistricting to take into account interests of minority voters, and beat out challenges in redistricting that have to do with biased maps for Congressional and state legislative districts. Only 21 states in the country have commissions that are bipartisan or nonpartisan to help determine how these districts look.

“As the most marginalized groups in American politics, they need to be engaged as voters, donors, and candidates in order to make democracy more inclusive and representative,” Bhojwani writes.

Bhojwani notes that one in four Americans is an immigrant or child or immigrants, and by 2040, that number will grow to one in three. But voter participation among these groups is significantly lower than among native-born whites and African Americans. Fewer than 50 percent of eligible Asian Americans and Latinx voted in the 2016 elections, compared to 65 percent of Whites and 60 percent of African Americans.

Bhojwani writes: “In addition to dismantling the system that is rigged in favor of rich white men on both sides of the aisle, we must also shift the culture within politics about who can be an American leader. Ironically, voters are frustrated with the usual political insiders, but the system only works for insiders.”

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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