For the first time three Indian-American candidates are running for the mayor of Edison township which is New Jersey’s fifth largest community, and home to one of the nation’s largest Asian-Indian populations.
Several Democrats and Republicans, including incumbent Mayor Tom Lankey, are running for their party’s endorsement for Mayor of this city. If any one of them is endorsed, it would put them in the running on the June 8 primary ballot, followed by the general elections on Nov. 2.
Attorney and former Edison Township Council member Sapana Shah; Edison Democratic municipal chair Mahesh Bhagia: and Edison Council Vice President Samip Joshi are the Desi candidates seeking the nomination of the party.
Competing from the same community is a sign of political maturity and shows the increase in number of people who want to be part of the political process, observers say. The three candidates share a similar view for Edison’s future, to prioritize the township and its residents.
Shah was inspired to announce her campaign to help her hometown become a stronger, more prosperous place for people to live, raise families and work.
“I will vigorously appeal to federal and state officials to obtain as much recovery assistance as possible for Edison’s small business community. And, I will create a practical strategy to make Edison a growth destination for new corporate investors, especially pharmaceutical research and high-tech firms,” Shah told Desi Talk in an email response.
She believes this strategy will create more well-paying jobs for the residents and relieve the burden on residential taxpayers.
Meanwhile, Bhagia is motivated to create a cohesive vision for Edison that provides residents with an open and transparent government, stable taxes and better services.
Considered a front-runner in the race, Bhagia promises, in his campaign, that his administration will be fully transparent, will never forget everyday services that residents have every right to expect like clean water, reliable garbage and recycling services, drivable roads, usable parks and recreation, and public safety.
Responding further to Desi Talk’s queries, Bhagia slammed Mayor Lankey’s administration. “Edison also faces a big challenge due to the current administration mismanaging the township budget and chronically relying on increasing residential property taxes to plug budget gaps,” he said, adding, “I pledge fiscal responsibility from day one. Every tax dollar will be spent with full knowledge and appreciation as to how hard residents work to make that dollar. I will also work with the Edison Board of Education to improve our schools. We need to work together to solve school overcrowding and other fundamental issues.”
Joshi is running for mayor to make a positive impact in the Indian-American community he says.
“Edison is where I was born and raised. Using my experience and education, as Mayor, I will form a new township masterplan for smart growth investments that can offset higher taxes, increase the value of our properties, cut municipal waste and build a community that we are proud of now and for the future,” he told Desi Talk.
Notably, all three are insiders having served in various positions in municipal government. They are well equipped to become Mayor as they know the workings of the township from the inside out.
Bhagia served on the Township Finance Committee from 2011-13 where he analyzed and forecasted the town’s expenses. He also served as special assistant to Mayor Lankey.
Shah was elected to a four-year term on the Edison Township Council in 2014 after serving on the town’s Board of Education from 2011-13. She is also the past president of the Asian Pacific American Lawyers Association of New Jersey.
Joshi has been a member of the Edison Council since 2018, and served on the Edison Zoning Board of Adjustment from 2016-17 and the Edison Fair Rental Housing Board from 2010-14. “I’ve also worked in townhall and on campaigns for 17 years now,” he said.
According to the United States Census Bureau, as of July 2019, Edison has an estimated population of 99,758 out of which 48.7 percent are Asians, including Asian Indians (Indian-Americans).
Bhagia believes Edison’s diversity is one of its strongest assets. “My administration will embrace the township’s diversity and that means having township government reflect all facets of the township’s population,” he says.
Shah’s goal is to be a mayor who can “bridge the cultural divide”, someone who understands and serves the needs of all residents rather than be a ‘South Asian’ mayor, she clarifies.
“The needs and concerns of South Asian and East Asian families are largely the same as those of any family. My immediate priorities will be to address Edison’s primary concerns: Its poor water quality, its rising property taxes and its aging infrastructure,” Shah emphasized.
According to Joshi, his priorities overlap among communities such as the need for a community center, a new senior center, and overcrowding of schools, but he believes the Indian American population is especially concerned about public safety during the holidays.
“Indian Americans have been targeted year over year in home invasions and burglaries. In 2009, I led the effort to mobilize more than 200 residents in townhall seeking increased patrolling. The home invasions and burglaries have significantly fallen and neighborhoods have adequate policing now,” Joshi said.
With COVID-19, many people lost their jobs all over the country and local communities have been adversely impacted by it, notes Bhagia who is an active member in a number of local and neighborhood civic actions. He was part of organizing a mobile food pantry where local residents could obtain a week’s worth of groceries. He also distributed PPEs to the residents, local hospital and first responders.
Asked how it was to compete against other Desis, Shah said, “I do not consider myself a better candidate, but I believe I am the Edison Democratic Party’s most experienced choice for Mayor.”
On the same question, Bhagia believes he offers a unique perspective. “Like many in Edison, I was born in India and immigrated here for better opportunities for myself and my family. I understand the challenges that these hard-working people face and the sacrifices they make because I went through it myself. I spent decades in Edison as a community organizer and activist and I have deep relationships with Indian leaders but also the grassroots, and I believe I am the candidate that best understands their needs,” he contends.
Joshi considers himself the most experienced among the candidates.
“I inarguably have the most experience and I have gotten the most work done. My roots in Edison run deep- I was born and raised here and I have gone through the entire public school system. I know Edison, its residents, and each neighborhood’s unique concerns and challenges better than anyone else running. My community engagement in every part of town is exceptional and I would represent every neighborhood in Edison,” he said.
Shah serves as part-time Assistant Corporation Counsel for Jersey City, providing legal advice and drafting ordinances and resolutions for city officials.
Shah’s family moved to Edison in 1984 from Chicago, when she was a child. An alumni of the Township’s public school district, Shah earned an Economics degree from Rutgers University; a Law degree from Albany Law School–Union University; and she worked as a financial analyst for Dun & Bradstreet before law school.
Joshi has been the executive vice president of SD Capital Funding since 2013. He received his Executive MBA degree in Digital Marketing from Rutgers University and Bachelor’s degree in Political Science.
Bhagia has lived in Edison for over 20 years. His wife is a practicing dentist in Edison and they have two daughters attending Edison Public Schools.
Local community leader Pradeep Kothari believes Indian-Americans entering politics is the result of the foundation the community laid down in this country since the past 20 years.
He told Desi Talk, “Youngsters and many people are trying to enter into mainstream politics and get selected, we are very happy about that. Currently in the state of New Jersey, we have one senator, two assembly members. By the end of this year, our goal is to have four assembly members. This is a very good opportunity for our community and I am very optimistic that we will have a South Asian as a mayor.”