Indian-Americans make historic gains in New York Legislature

New York State Senator Kevin Thomas (District 6), is the first Indian-American ever elected to serve in Albany. (Photo: Sen. Thomas Twitter account)

From zero in 2018, to one in 2019, and then suddenly a jump to four – that is the trajectory of Indian Americans victories in the New York State Legislature.

As the vote-count came to a close for the New York State legislature weeks after the Nov. 3, 2020 elections, Indian-Americans made historic gains in Albany, the seat of the Empire State’s government.

Two Indian Americans were decisively elected to the New York State Senate by Nov. 16, after absentee ballots were counted – Sen. Kevin Thomas was re-elected from District 6; Jeremy Cooney from District 56.

And two Indian Americans are going to be ensconced in the State Assembly come January – Jenifer Rajkumar from District 38; and Zohran Mamdani from District 36.

All these victories mark a historic level of Indian American representation in one state alone.

In 2018, Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) became the first Indian American in New York’s history to serve in the State Senate.

Thomas declared victory in his 2020 re-election bid Monday Nov. 16, 2020, after the results of the absentee ballot vote count put him over his Republican challenger Dennis Dunne, Sr.

Poster on the Twitter site of Indian American candidate for the New York Senate Jeremy Cooney, who became the second Indian American elected to the upper house of the state legislature. Photo: Twitter

Jeremy Cooney (D-Rochester) defeated Republican Mike Barry in the race for the New York State Senate’s 56th district, becoming the second Indian American to serve in the Upper House from upstate New York.

While on Nov. 3, Cooney led by just 866 votes, after the absentee, affidavit and military ballots were counted, his lead increased to more than 14,000 votes, making it a decisive victory.

The 56th District lies in upstate New York and includes the town of Brighton, Clarkson, Gates, Greece, Hamlin, Parma and parts of Rochester.

Cooney, a lawyer by training, was born in an Indian orphanage and adopted by a single mother in the U.S. He grew up in the South Wedge neighborhood of Rochester, in an Irish family.

He lost his mother to dementia and brain cancer, a life experience that influenced his future path, according to his profile on the campaign website. Cooney has worked in all levels of government, starting with Capitol Hill where he was in the office of Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, and later in the administrations of two New York Governors and the Mayor of Rochester. Cooney and his wife Diane, live in downtown Rochester.  

“After first running in 2018, we successfully flipped this seat from “red-to-blue” for the first time in 20 years, ensuring representation for Rochester in the Senate Democratic Majority. We will work to create upstate jobs, fully fund our schools, and lower healthcare costs,” Cooney tweeted , Nov. 17, 2020, after the absentee ballot count.

This was Cooney’s second attempt to get elected to the Senate. In 2018, he ran against then incumbent Joseph Robach, a Republican, getting 44.4 percent of the vote to Robach’s 55.5 percent.

Zohran Kwame Mamdani, son of renowned film maker Mira Nair, running for N.Y. State Assembly from District 36. Photo: Twitter

 Zohran Kwame Mamdani, the son of renowned filmmaker Mira Nair, is a Uganda-born Indian American, and breaks the mould of candidates from this community. A rapper whose slogan for the campaign was “rotis and roses” ran from the 36th Assembly District that includes the trendy Astoria neighborhood. He describes himself as a Democratic Socialist.

Congratulating Cooney for his win, Sen. Thomas said this election cycle held special significance for the Indian American community.

“In addition to electing Kamala Harris as the first woman, the first African American and the first Indian American to serve as Vice President, we saw unprecedented numbers of South Asian candidates running for office across New York, and record voter turnout from the South Asian community,” Thomas said.

“The South Asian community has burst forth in the New York political scene and has a seat at the table,” Rajkumar told News India Times. “Every one of the Indian American candidates won because of their hard work and persistence which are their hallmarks of the community. Indians are asserting themselves from upstate to downstate and across the country,” she added.

Rajkumar, whose 38th District in Queens, N.Y., is still in the process of counting absentee ballots, is the presumed winner with a 70 percent to 30 percent lead in the Nov. 3 elections, a gap that she told this writer, could not be made up with the absentee ballots.

“I am very proud about the change we are going to make in New York,” Rajkumar said. “And if you look at our history it shows that we are cross-cutting candidates. We cut across ethnicity and ideology. In my district I won the Latino vote, and the support of conservative and liberal Democrats. Indian Americans are able to unite diverse communities,” she asserted.

Jenifer Rajkumar at a South Asian grocery store in Queens. She just announced her candidacy for the New York State Assembly from District 38. (Photo: Sultan Khan, courtesy Rajkumar campaign)

Born and raised in New York, Rajkumar is a graduate of Stanford Law School with distinction for her pro-bono legal work. A magna cum laude, phi beta kapa graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Rajkumar has litigated class action cases, and won some landmark victories as a member of legal teams, on issues ranging from rights of workers, tenants, women  and against big pharma. She also teaches at City University of new York. Gov. Cuomo appointed her as his director of Immigration Affairs & Special Counsel for the state.

Sen. Thomas’ responses to questions from News India Times, echoed the views of Rajkumar.

“I think there’s a broader political awakening happening in the South Asian community. People are more energized to participate in politics than ever before, and seeing more Indian American representation across so many different levels of government is a big inspiration, especially for young people,” Sen. Thomas said, noting that dozens of Indian Americans had run for office in this election cycle, and that there was an increase in voter turnout.

“That was a big factor in my election in 2018, and helped me break that barrier to become the first Indian American to be elected to the State Senate. I think overall, the South Asian Community is developing a stronger voice in American political life,” Thomas added.

The community’s stepped up political activism, he said was a sign of a shift in generational values. “You have first-generation immigrants, like my parents, whose number one priority was to establish themselves and help their children thrive. They gave me the opportunity to pursue a career as an attorney, and that allowed me to later shift my focus on politics. And you’re seeing a shift where the community isn’t just mobilizing around cultural events anymore — people are participating more and more in community and political events as well,” Thomas observed.

Even though Indian Americans are relatively new immigrants and a relatively small ethnic group in the country, “We’re also one of the fastest growing communities. I think this election will have a lasting impact by inspiring more Indian Americans to participate in politics. And as more and more Indian Americans enter electoral politics, gain more experience, and seek higher office, the community is going to see increasingly more influence and representation.”





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