One of the biggest highlights of 2018 for the Indian-American community living in the Midwest (and neighboring states) has been the number of candidates elected up and down the ballot. Add to that the increasing level of activism on issues, and it could be a perfect predictor of more risk takers taking up the challenge of government and public service in the near future.
“It’s like the ‘sleeping Midwest rising’,” former Obama administration official Ann Kalayil, chair and president of the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute based in Chicago, told Desi Talk.
“When I got elected in 1995, there weren’t many elected Indian-Americans in office other than maybe one or two on school boards,” recalls Michigan State Representative Sam Singh, a Democrat. “Over the years, there’s been more ‘intentional recruitment’ of Indian Americans,” he noted. Before being elected to the Michigan House, Singh served for 12 years on East Landing City Council, joining as one of the youngest members, and even became Mayor of the city for two years.
Americans are “very forward looking, progressive minded people,” according to U.S. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois. “The fact that they would hire a person with a name that 90 percent cannot pronounce, is evidence Indian-Americans are rising,” he added.
Of the twelve states that make up the Midwest, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, the state of Illinois saw two high profile Indian-American elections; Michigan got two, Wisconsin garnered national attention with on one, and in Kentucky, the state bordering the Midwest, an Indian American swung the polls.
Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, won back his seat from District 8 with a thumping majority, and not least of all, he had as his opponent Republican Indian- American J.D. Diganvker, who garnered a not insignificant 33.7 percent.
Again in Illinois, Democrat Ram Villivalam became the first Indian- American in the General Assembly, winning his seat into the State Senate from District 8.
In the Ohio State House, Republican Niraj Antani, 27, was re-elected for a third term from District 42.
Wisconsin threw up one of the community’s most impressive wins when Democrat Josh Kaul was elected as the state’s Attorney General in a fight to the finish. According to Madison.com news, late-counted ballots from Milwaukee County and mail-in ballots vaulted Kaul to the leading position after being neck-and-neck with incumbent state Attorney General Brad Schimel.
In Michigan, it was only because of term limits, that longtime Michigan State Representative Sam Singh, a Democrat elected from District 69, did not run. But he will be back, he told Desi Talk,, after leaving in January, to run for another office in the near future.
But another Indian-American won in Michigan’s State Assembly, Democrat Padma Kuppa from District 41.
“From day she did it the old fashioned way- knocking on doors and meeting people,” Singh said about Kuppa. Even though District 41 has the largest concentration of Asian Americans, Singh said, they are not more than 20 percent, so it needed a larger pool of voters to bring her into office. Kuppa became the first Indian-American woman in the Michigan State Legislature. “We did it together we flipped 41! Thanks to all our supporters – the journey was rewarding: meeting and reconnecting with so many neighbors and friends, new and old, and listening to their concerns, talking about our shared values. Proud to have run a clean & positive campaign!” Kuppa tweeted.
Illinois leads the way in the Midwest in terms of the number of with Indian-Americans elected at the federal, state, and local level.
“From the Illinois perspective, we have got representation for the first time in the General Assembly,” not just in the U.S. Congress, noted Kalayil, “It was a matter of seizing the moment when the previous incumbent was found to be having ethics issues. The (Indian-American) community and the Democratic organization took it on,” added Kalayil, who lives in the same district which has a large concentration of Indian-Americans.
Alderman Ameya Pawar from the 47th Ward, is now running for Chicago City Treasurer, and according to Kalayil, he is a “formidable” candidate “doing very well.”
“This coming together of Raja, Ram, and Ameya — we are seeing a critical mass, The Midwest is where you are going to see some real advancing of the community,” Kalayil asserted.
“The next election will see more frequent tries,” for public office, Singh predicts,” It takes time and intentional recruitment.”
Add to that, close touch with the needs of one’s constituents. During his years in office, Singh recalls his biggest achievements lay in fighting the opioid epidemic and getting laws passed relating also to amnesty for those fighting addiction; adequate funding for higher education, including for Michigan State University.
Democrat Amir Malik, born and brought up in the U.S. whose parents came from Pakistan, lost by a hair’s breathe to his Republican opponent Nolan West, when he ran for the Minnesota State House from District 37B this November.
Interestingly, in the Midwest, Minnesota was among the first in the country to elect an Indian-American, Satveer Chaudhary, 1996-2010, first to the State House and then to the State Senate; Iowa came a close second with Swati Dandekar, 2002-2011, who was also elected first to the State House and then the Senate.
One notable race and victory, even though not technically in the Midwest, but in neighboring Kentucky, was that of Democrat Nima Kulkarni, whom voters in District 40, elected to the State House with 74.2 percent of the vote against Republican Joshua Neubert’s 25.8. This was after she soundly defeated three Democratic contenders in the May party primary.
Singh plans to run again – “At some point down the road in four years the State Senate seat in my district will be open– and I’m looking at running for that,” he told Desi Talk. “The Midwest is opening up.”
Krishnamoorthi calls 2018, a “fabulous year” for him and his constituents. Among the major accomplishments he lists are his skills training bill that became law, “which means 13 million people will get that advance skills training,” and leading the effort to get the Illinois Railroad Authority to allow for a western access to O’Hare Airport, one of the largest hubs in the world for airline traffic.
“I’m so lucky to represent some of the best and finest people,” said Krishnamoorthi who attends almost every Indian-American community event he is invited to.