“Back To My Roots”:Jenifer Rajkumar, candidate for New York State Assembly, says District 38 in Queens has been overlooked for too long
When she goes to enjoy authentic Punjabi food at Richi Rich Palace or buy Indian groceries at Apna Bazar on Atlantic Ave. in Richmond Hill, Jenifer Rajkumar is reliving the past when her parents landed in New York and lived in Queens to do their medical residencies.
“I love this district. It is full of people who have worked very hard, 25 hours a day,” Rajkumar who is running for the New York State Assembly from District 38, in southern Queens, told News India Times. “It’s time to uplift the neighborhoods of south Queens. Our area of the city has been overlooked for decades, and it is time for that to change,” she asserts.
If she wins the June 23, 2020 primaries, she will probably end up winning in the Nov. 3, 2020 general election in this overwhelmingly Democratic district, to become the first Indian-American woman to sit in the New York State Assembly. She is pitted against incumbent Democratic Assemblyman Michael Miller, who has been in office since 2009. Miller ran in the 2018 election as a Conservative Party candidate, Ballotpedia notes.
Primed For Change
It seems Indian-Americans and others of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean heritage, are primed for change in District 38 as well. When she recently had her first campaign meeting at Richi Rich, “the place was packed.”
According to some facts and figures for District 38, provided by Rajkumar’s campaign which is priming for the race, there are 136,976 residents, 72 percent belonging to minority communities, with 33 percent of the district of “Asian” origin, which includes South Asians.
“Additionally, 21.2 percent of the district’s population identifies as “Other”, a category which likely includes a significant Guyanese, Indo-Caribbean, Indian and Bangladeshi population,” the campaign said, adding that the South Asian population “has never been fully counted in this district and members of the community likely identified themselves as either “Asian” or “Other” on the last census.”
Quoting data from the 2017 Census, Rajkumar’s campaign notes the district has 70,389 Hispanics/Latinos and at least 29,338 Asians dominating neighborhoods such as Richmond Hill, Woodhaven, and Ozone Park.
People in the district know Rajkumar from her frequent visits to the area as Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s Director of Immigration Affairs & Special Counsel for New York State, meeting residents at the Sikh gurdwara on 114th Street, and in the Hindu temples, and churches. Rajkumar headed the Liberty Defense Project, a first-in-the-nation $31 million dollar state-led public-private project to help immigrants access legal services. She traveled from the farms of upstate New York to her home in Queens to help New York’s communities, according to her bio given to News India Times.
Just the other day she visited the 114th Street gurdwara with her father. “We had a really nice time.”
“My neighborhood in south Queens has been overlooked. It is a district with enormous needs,” she says reeling off statistics on the demographic make-up of the district where 50 percent of the residents are immigrants, 26 percent have limited English proficiency, and 22 percent live below the New York City poverty line, she said. In some parts of the 38th, school drop-out rates are higher than graduation rates, absence of good transportation means on average people spend 45 minutes to get to work, she notes.
According to data provided by Rajkumar’s campaign, this district ranks consistently among the lowest voter turnout rates in New York City, and in Queens. In the 38th Assembly District’s last democratic primary (2012), a mere 2,139 voters showed up to the polls (Ballotpedia). In 2018’s state democratic primary, only 17.7 percent of voters showed up to the polls (NYCCFB 2018 Report).
Rajkumar plans to change all that. She wants to build a South Asian Community Center, require libraries and hospitals to be accessible longer hours, have more after-school programs, increase the police presence on streets, at a time when hate crimes are on the rise. “In 1995, there were 200 officers in the 104th Precinct; today the number has dropped to under 130 officers,” Rajkumar said.
“Many families in this district cannot realize their dream of home ownership,” Rajkumar notes. She plans to work on that. “I have the strength, skill and energy to secure the funding for this district that it has needed for decades,” Rajkumar said. “I know how to navigate Albany and I know how to navigate the justice system. As a former official for the Governor of New York, I know how to cut through the government bureaucracy in Albany and the red tape to get the funding we need for our schools, our public transportation and our senior centers,” she asserted, adding, “As a lawyer who has been at the negotiating table for tenants and workers against large multinational corporations, I have the negotiating skills to extract the concessions our district needs from big developers, such as more schools and affordable housing for our community.”
Born and raised in New York, Rajkumar is a first generation American in her family, whose mom was born in a hut in India and whose parents came to the United States with $300 in their pocket, settling in Queens where they got their start.
Running from the 38th District is like coming back home. “I want to represent the people of the 38th Assembly District, but the truth is they represent me,” she says.
A lawyer by profession, Rajkumar is a Professor at City University of New York. She got her law degree from Stanford Law School with distinction for her pro bono legal work; She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania at the top of her class magna cum laude, phi beta kappa where she received the Alice Paul Award for exemplary service to women and families.
For her work for Queens residents, providing access to counsel to people in vulnerable situations, and working for youth and immigrant communities, the Queens Courier honored her as a 2017 “Rising Star” and the Queens Tribune awarded her its “Glass Ceiling Award” for being a path-breaking woman serving the Queens community.
Rajkumar also serves on New York’s Legal Advisory Council of Sanctuary for Families, which works with survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence. In 2015 and 2016, she was selected to Super Lawyers’ New York-Metro Rising Stars List.