Indian-American candidates made history in Illinois, one of them breaking the ceiling to the Illinois State Senate, another sailing through for the U.S. House uncontested, and a record number from the community running for public office.
The highlight was the victory of Ram Villivalam from Illinois State Senate District 8, who in January, will become the first from the community in the history of the country, to sit in the Illinois legislature.
“I am excited, honored, proud of the campaign we ran,” Villivalam told News India Times after his victory. He defeated fellow Democrat and 20-year incumbent Ira Silverstein, who over the past year has faced the ire of many Democrats for alleged inappropriate behavior toward a woman, despite being cleared of any offenses by a committee.
No Republican filed to run against Villivalam in the primary, and March 20 was basically the biggest hurdle for him to cross, defeating Silverstein with 13,200 votes to 7,419 votes with 91.5 percent of precincts reporting, ABCNews7 reported. However, as election dates stand, there is an outside chance that the GOP might appoint someone to run before June, or that an Independent could enter the race to oppose Villivalam.
The biggest lesson he learnt from his campaign, Villivalam said, is that “The people of the 8th State Senate District deserve an effective, proactive and truly progressive representation; that they want politicians to come to their doors.” He said the door-to-door campaign showed “no one had ever knocked on their door.”
Meanwhile, first term Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, was unopposed in his primary, and is expected to sail through to a 2nd term. However, another first during the race toward the general elections Nov. 6, is a Republican Indian-American, running against Krishnamoorthi. Businessman Jitendra Diganvker of Schaumberg, Illinois, was unopposed in the Republican primary.
After announcing his bid last November, Diganvker has said he is running not as a politician but as an outsider who has suffered many ups and downs in his life, among them the tragic burning down of his home in 1999, in which he lost his two daughters.
About Villivalam’s victory, Krishnamoorthi told News India Times, “His being in the State Senate is really important. I endorsed him early and appeared for him at events.”
Ann Kalayil, co-founder and current president of the Chicago- based South Asian American Policy and Research Institute, said the most noticeable aspect of the primaries this time were the numerous South Asians running for office, especially women. “They seemed to be saying ‘our time has come,’,” said Kalayil, an Indian-American political activist for decades, who serves currently as the Bureau Chief of Asset Management for the Cook County government.
The recently-formed Indian American Impact Fund, congratulated Villivalam on his victory.
“We were proud to endorse Ram Villivalam in our very first round of endorsements of the 2018 cycle,” Deepak Raj, co-founder of Indian-American Impact Project and chair of the Impact Fund is quoted saying in a press release. “He represents exactly the kind of candidate that Impact Fund seeks to support: someone with bold new ideas, passion for public service, strong roots in his community, and a deep commitment to Indian American values,” Raj added.
In addition to endorsing Villivalam, Impact Fund made a significant contribution to his campaign to support outreach to Indian American and Asian American voters in his district. Raj Goyle, co-founder of Impact and a former member of the Kansas House of Representatives, added “We are also grateful to Illinois Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi for his leadership and service. His example has inspired countless individuals, both Indian American and not, to run for office and serve their communities.”
As this went to press, the organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Chicago chapter, noted that another Indian-American in Illinois, Ravi Raju, a Democrat running for the Cook County Board from District 15, was ahead of his Democratic opponent by 33 votes. As of March 22, Ballotpedia said the race was too close to call.
“More Asian Americans in Illinois are seeking political office than ever before, a trend that continued in Tuesday’s primary election,” AAAJ, Chicago, said in a press release, noting that a record number of Asian Americans sought seats in the U.S. Congress, State House, and local governments across the state. “With over 700,000 Asian Americans in Illinois, our community has begun to show its power and run for office at all levels,” it said.
Some of the other candidates that are of South Asian origin, ran and even performed reasonably well in their races, going by the list provided by AAAJ, Chicago — Dilara Sayeed (27% in Illinois House district 5), Sameena Mustafa (24% in U.S. House district 5), Sapan Shah (29.8% in U.S. House district 10), Neill Mohammad (27.1% in U.S. House District 16), Bushra Amiwala (26.5% in Cook County Board District 13), Rishi Agrawal (21.5% in the Cook County 8th Judicial Subcircuit), Mehr Qayyum (12.5% in DuPage County Board District 3), and Hadiya Afzal (13.7% in DuPage County Board District 4).
As the former president of the Indian American Democratic Organization which was formed 38 years ago, Kalayil said, Indian-Americans’ reluctance to get to the polls has been of particular concern. A poll three years ago by SAAPRI, showed that 37 percent of South Asians don’t vote because they are not citizens, but that another 30 percent had no interest in engaging, she noted. So this time round was a refreshing change, part of the long drawn effort by SAAPRI and IADO to bring out the vote.
Not winning should not dissuade Indian-American candidates, Krishnamoorthi said, drawing attention to his own defeat in a primary, before he tried again and won, not just the primary but the general election, to become the first Indian-American from Illinois in the U.S. Congress just last January. Krishnamoorthi is now among a crop of four Indian-Americans in the U.S. House, and a fifth from the community in the U.S. Senate.
“The question is how you run a campaign, how you do it in a dignified way, and lose gracefully. You will live to fight another day,” Krishnamoorthi said.
“We are starting to see breakthroughs in terms of representation in different levels of government (by Indian-Americans), from village trustees, to town councils, and in Congress,” Krishnamoorthi said, adding, “It’s a trend, and the stakes can’t be higher. I’ve said before, ‘we need to be at the table, not on the menu’.”
Indian-American and South Asian activists and organizations, as well as mainstream organizations engaged the community in a big way going into these primaries, especially ranging behind Villivalam’s candidacy. The major newspaper, Chicago Sun-Times, and Chicago Tribune, both endorsed the young labor organizer who till recently was the legislative coordinator for the SEIU (Service Employees International Union).
The Equality IL PAC (@EQILPAC) for instance, joined the chorus of voices raised in support of the progressive Democrat. It tweeted on March 12, “Sign up to volunteer and help Ram on #GOTV weekend March 17-19 and/or Election Day March 20.” The Indo-American Center’s Young Professionals Phone Bank scheduled a March 15 “Get Out The Vote 2018” event.
Born and raised on the Northwest side of Chicago, Villivalam, whose parents were on the IADO board, and who was himself the president of IADO when he announced his run, saw a window of opportunity to overthrow a fellow Democrat on the heels of negative publicity Silverstein was unable to shake off.
During the primary campaign, Gautam Raghavan, president of Indian-American Impact Fund, told News India Times via email about Villivalam, “He has extensive experience in the community and broad support from Members of Congress, local community organizations, and others.”
The District 8 state Senate seat was also a battle within the Democratic Party, which wants to put a more diverse and younger leadership to the fore.
In an earlier interview, Villivalam spoke of his parents as his role models. “They came in the 1970s. My Dad worked as a dishwasher for a couple of dollars, Mom worked at Amvets also for $2.30,” he recounted. “Then they went back to school and then came back to public service. I will never forget their service. And I hear these stories in the 8th Senate District,” over and over again, Villivalam said.
The Chicago Tribune said Villivalam “is policy proficient, engaged and prepared to push back against the Democrat establishment,” when it endorsed him Feb. 22.
“I’m not taking anything for granted and will continue to work contacting people,” Villivalam said about the months to Nov. 6. “In the coming months, I will reach out to those who voted for me but also those who may not have voted for me. I ran to get the support of all communities in my district,” Villivalam added.
Furthermore, “We have an obligation to defeat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and elect J.B. Pritzker. As a Senator I need a governor who will sign legislation I propose,” he added. His priorities include funding education, reducing gun violence, senior care, childcare, bringing in a progressive tax regime.
Villivalam lives in Chicago with his wife Elizabeth.