A leading Indian-American political organization has hired a new executive director as it heads into the Nov. 3, 2020 elections with the goal of further boosting the community’s presence in public offices up and down the ballot.
IMPACT announced the hiring of Neil Makhija, a public interest lawyer, law school professor and former candidate for Pennsylvania state legislature in 2016, as its head July 28, 2020. The organization also announced a $10 million commitment to support Indian American candidates nationwide, as well as plans to create a new program to identify, elevate, and support Indian American elected officials running for higher office.
In an interview with News India Times, Makhija said he wants to apply what he has learnt since he ran for office in 2016, to boost IMPACT’s work.
“I came from a very bellweather district in a bellweather state in Pennsylvania. It really gave me a crash course in politics. Plus my teaching. I’m coming from a perspective where I can advise candidates and evaluate races and also approach and advise donors. We’re really trying to scale up. And are also thinking of how to build the infrastructure to support candidates in off years also.”
If Sen. Kamala Harris is presidential candidate Joe Biden’s choice for vice president, or even just for Biden’s candidacy, Makhija said he was looking to hold a national event “to galvanize the community and show we are there.”
The Indian-American community has seen what can happen when they have representation.
“We’ve seen what our leaders can do and the huge inspiration they are. People like (Congressmen) Raja Krishnamoorthi in the Intelligence and Oversight committees; Ro Khanna as Senator Sander’s campaign manager… People have more role models to look up to,” he said.
In 2020, more opportunities are before Indian-Americans, such as those running for statewide offices, Srinivas Preston Kulkarni running for the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas District 22; Sara Gideon, speaker of the Maine lower house, who is challenging long time Republican incumbent Susan Collins; Nina Ahmad vying for Auditor General of Pennsylvania; and Ronnie Chatterjee in the running for Treasurer of North Carolina.
“These are tough races and we want to get behind these candidates and get the people behind them,” Makhija said.
“The groundbreaking investment and prominent hire signals a new phase in the organization’s development,” the press release from the organization said, at a time when Indian-Americans “are beginning to flex their political muscle on the national stage.”
It pointed to Kamala Harris as a top contender to be the Democratic nominee for Vice President; the number of Indian Americans in Congress which has grown five-fold in just the past eight years; a record number of dollars going to Indian American candidates; and just last week, the Democratic National Campaign Committee releasing its first-ever Hindi language political ad in Kulkarni’s District 22.
All of these developments have come less than 75 years since South Asians began emigrating to the U.S., and 55 years after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended discriminatory quotas and opened the doors to Asian immigrants, IMPACT noted.
“I’m excited about the Indian-American community’s growing engagement in the political process — not just as an Indian American, but as someone who believes the more Americans of all ethnicities and backgrounds feel ownership in our democracy, the stronger our democracy will be,” Sen. Harris is quoted saying in the IMPACT press release. “As IMPACT moves to its next phase of leadership, I look forward to being joined in the Capitol by even more Indian Americans to move our country forward for everyone,” Harris added.
“This is a pivotal moment for our community and our country,” said Makhija. “After significant gains in previous election cycles, Indian Americans are poised to assert our emerging power by electing more Indian American candidates at every level of government, and by supporting excellent candidates of all backgrounds who share our ideals of inclusivity, equity, and civil rights.”
“Over the next 100 days, IMPACT will be laser-focused on supporting these efforts to maximize the far-reaching potential of the Indian American community through powerful fundraising, targeted outreach, and grassroots mobilization,” Makhija added.
“We’ve seen Indian American engagement grow from a community on the margins of American politics to a burgeoning force,” said investor Deepak Raj and Raj Goyle, co-founders of IMPACT. “We’re thrilled to have Neil lead IMPACT into the next chapter of growth and scaling Indian American political power.”
“By organizing to win elected office, Indian-Americans are infusing politics with new experiences, ideas, and global connections,” said Nikil Saval, State Senator-elect in Philadelphia and the first Indian American elected to the Pennsylvania legislature. “Though our history in the United States dates to the early 20th century, and the first Indian-American elected to Congress (Dalip Singh Saund) served in the 1950s, the last decade has seen our ranks grow up and down the ballot,” Saval noted, adding, “I’m thrilled to see IMPACT expand its efforts to improve Indian-American representation, as part of a broader fight to bring more people of color to bear on the American politics.”
Makhija is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. “Mr. Makhija brings experience in civil rights & election law, consumer protection and employment law, and public interest litigation,” says his bio on the UPenn website. He has represented the City of Philadelphia against manufacturers of opioid painkillers, as well as parents and children in the first class action against JUUL Labs, Inc. for marketing of e-cigarettes to children.
His commentary has been featured in top publications including Time, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, POLITICO, etc. In the 2020 election cycle, he serves as an advisor to several candidates and campaigns on issues of consumer protection, workers’ rights, and Pennsylvania, the bio said.
Makhija earned his J.D. at Harvard Law School where he founded the HLS Homelessness Coalition and was a Senior Policy Editor on the Harvard Law & Policy Review. He has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence where he studied neuroscience.
He currently serves as President of the South Asian Bar Association of Philadelphia