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Gaining ground: South Asian officeholders, representing a traditionally underrepresented community, say interest in politics is on the rise

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Councilman Ravinder Bhalla is running for mayor of Hoboken against two other council members but has the backing of Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
Councilman Ravinder Bhalla is running for mayor of Hoboken against two other council members but has the backing of Mayor Dawn Zimmer. - ()

The South Asian community is gearing up for some potential firsts in the state in the upcoming election: a Sikh-American mayor and an Indian-American state senator.

Councilman Ravinder Bhalla is running for mayor of Hoboken against two other council members, but has the backing of current Mayor Dawn Zimmer. And Vin Gopal, former Democratic chair for Monmouth County, is running against sitting Sen. Jennifer Beck, a Republican, in the 11th Legislative District.

While the idea of such firsts are a long time coming, Bhalla said he can pinpoint when such a scenario took shape in his mind.

“When I first ran for office in 2009, the political climate was very conducive for having a South Asian run for political office,” Bhalla said, referring to President Barack Obama taking office.

“It gave the indication that, if the country was ready for a black president, it was ready for a Sikh council member.”

Bhalla, however, faced several odds.

Hoboken has a very small South Asian population and he was asked, since he was neither Irish, Latino nor a senior, who would make up his base.

“It was a real-life political science experiment, so to speak,” Bhalla said.

It’s a problem Gopal knows all too well, especially since, despite providing financial and verbal support, most South Asians don’t vote, he said.

“We’ve seen, unfortunately ... South Asian parents encourage their kids not to get into government,” Gopal said. “The focus is on business and medicine.

“Unfortunately, a lot of South Asians have grown up without voting habits. Overwhelmingly, stats show, voting habits have never been good.”

But the presence of South Asians in state politics has been increasing in recent years, and a younger generation is forming and growing a number of politically involved groups around the state with the hopes of changing the voter turnout and engagement.

When Upendra Chivukula took a seat in the Assembly in 2002, he was the first South Asian to do so in state history. The Democrat served the 17th Legislative District through 2014, when he left to work for the Board of Public Utilities.

Raj Mukherjee (D-Jersey City) was elected to the Assembly in 2014.

And while Mukherjee is the only South Asian in the Assembly, other South Asians have joined the political world at other levels, including Middlesex County Freeholder Shanti Narra and Passaic County Freeholder Assad Akhter, who previously served as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.).

There are also others in races for council seats around the state, as well as a handful of sitting council members, like Bhalla.

Bhalla recalls the climate in which he ran for the council seat and reflects on how things have changed since then.

“I did not run as a Sikh councilman, but I was a councilman who happened to be Sikh,” Bhalla said.

But, since the federal election in 2016 and the new administration under President Donald Trump, Bhalla has seen a change and believes it is more important than ever for minorities to be front and center in politics.

“In the larger South Asian community, there is still too much apathy (toward politics),” Bhalla said. “In the climate we are in right now, I feel duty-bound not only to represent the South Asian community by being a public servant, but by bringing (a focus to) issues like hate incidents against Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and (LGBTQ).”

Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange), a former Assembly Speaker and current lieutenant governor candidate on the Democratic ticket with Phil Murphy, said the issue of South Asian apathy and a lack of interest from the broader community is not new.

Oliver recalls the time in the Assembly when Chivukula served.

“It was one of most frustrating things for Upendra being part of political party at the state government level,” Oliver said. “He lamented the fact that his community was overlooked.

“If you go to Middlesex and Somerset counties, there are huge South Asian populations.”

The same goes for West African and Hispanic pockets around the state, Oliver said.

“Too often, there is no inclusion of all of those demographics represented in our state government,” she said.

Nationally, there have been examples of public servants from South Asia, such as Louisiana Gov. and failed presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, or former South Carolina Gov. and current U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — but neither Republican has been inspiring for the younger generation.

But Gopal believes things are changing. Both he and Mukherjee point to wins at the federal level during the 2016 election.

The “Fab Five,” which includes U.S. Reps. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Pramila Jaypal (D-Wash.), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), are proving the growing political power of South Asians — and are in the party that the majority typically votes for.

Gopal said that, not only will there be more interest in politics, but as the younger generation becomes a part of the labor force, more will pick up non-traditional jobs like law enforcement, firefighters and other community service jobs that will help further engagement.

Gopal, who has the support of Murphy, as evidenced by the campaign events at which both are present, said that what needs to be emphasized in the South Asian community is that all politics is local.

“I love local politics because it’s where you see changes get made,” Gopal said. “There is no real party way to fix a pothole or improve schools. A lot of times, changes are not a Republican or Democratic solution.”

The sentiment was echoed by Bhalla, who also believes that what is happening in Washington, D.C., is going to help engage more minorities in the political process.

Pointing to Gopal, Akhter and Mukherji, Bhalla said they are fantastic role models for younger South Asians.

“They are relatively young and succeeding in extraordinary ways locally,” Bhalla said. “One thing our community, at least the Sikh community, doesn’t quite grasp, in my opinion, respectfully, is that all politics is local.

“People in minority communities are not aware enough of that, and you see people running for Congress or U.S. Senate as their first office,” Bhalla said.

During the 2016 election, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) was challenged by underdog Democrat Peter Jacob, who has said he may run again in the 2018 midterms.

But Bhalla said the curve, politically, is 20 to 30 years in local government before running for an office of that level.

Gopal said he hopes that he sees more members of the communities, which have already established themselves as influential in the areas of math and sciences, find greater roles in public service.

“I would like to see more South Asian police,” he said. “What culture has dictated is not always what’s right; it has held back a lot of Asian minority groups.”

Bhalla agreed, pointing to the need from the current political climate.

“There’s a lot of polarization,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that South Asians can’t succeed. We need to succeed now more than ever. We need to stand up and be heard ... be in the public square and really make our voices heard.”

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