For a region where Indian Americans make up a significant minority, some 313,620 in New York, and 292,256 in New Jersey, not to mention Pennsylvania and Connecticut, the New York Tri-State Area has failed to throw up winning combination that could catapult a candidate from the community to the U.S. Congress. Much of it has to do with the math and the configuration of districts, both factors that have in the past seen Indian Americans win in local and state races, such as New Jersey Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin, and Hoboken Councilman Ravinder Bhalla.
Indian Americans number 3.2 million according to the 2010 Census, and the largest percentage of them, nearly 30 (29.9) percent of that live in the Northeast (16.3 in the Midwest, 29.3 percent in the South and 24.6 percent in the West). Of the 29.9 percent who live in the Northeast, 11.6 percent live in New York and 9.8 percent in New Jersey.
What it will it take to elect an Indian American to Congress from the Tri-State Area is not just a district favoring the political party of the candidate, but also a combination of experience, local involvement, and a genuine commitment to various causes be they small government or environmental conservation.
So whichever way you slice that pie, the numbers are not going to get you to Congress, say political analysts and activists. “The largest number of votes I got when I was re-elected to the Passaic City Schools board was from orthodox Jews. And it was the sole orthodox Jew on the board who nominated me for president,” says Salim Patel, president of Passaic City Schools.
It was a Jewish-dominated area that voted for Hameeduddin for Mayor of Teaneck, N.J.; It was Assemblyman Chivukula’s strong commitment to his Franklin Township community that made him Mayor back in 2000, the base from where he launched his statewide office race, not to mention his years of working on issues like energy conservation, technology innovation, and socially liberal causes.
While nothing can be predicted a hundred percent, the winning combination is made up of at least 4 ingredients, says Kris Kolluri, former Capitol Hill senior staffer who worked on many campaigns. They are the right district whether Republican or Democrat; the institutional/organizational support; the financial resources, and the character of the candidate, says Kris Kolluri, former political staffer on Capitol Hill who has worked on several campaigns. “The tristate is ripe for an Indian American candidate to run and win,” he says despite all these variables. But a district has to be at least competitive if not outright Democrat or Republican leaning, to stand a chance. Chivukula ran a tough and vigorous campaign but the odds were against him both because of redistricting and an incumbent with a high favorability rating. Factors such as independents, women, diversity also matter to a degree, he added.
Bhalla, who sports a turban, is a prime example of winning in what is considered a “cross-over” district, one where his ethnicity provides no advantages. He credits his win to putting together a team of volunteers, knocking on doors in a generally affluent, professional district, and a voter base that cast ballots on non-racial issues. The Hoboken city council, he noted, has to work with Republican Gov. Chris Christie to achieve goals. “I am a Democrat but I don’t necessarily have a warm and fuzzy relationship with the local Democratic party establishment. Now he is positioning himself to run for the New Jersey state Assembly from District 33 in 2013, he told Desi Talk. Using his councilman position as a springboard, he has been networking. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat with a national profile, is doing a fundraiser for him soon.
However, he is puzzled as to why President Obama’s victory in New Jersey did not transfer to Chivukula; Salim Patel points to the fact that in Republican leaning districts, President Obama did not get the majority vote but that in competitive districts, the Obama vote did help Democrats. “Politics is a numbers game,” Patel emphasizes. The numbers did not favor Chivukula in District 7, which was redesigned to favor Republicans. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made a strategic decision to put Chivukula up against incumbent Leonard Lance. “They thought here was a strong candidate and he might be able to turn things around. He came out a winner,” he said about Chivukula who lost with less than 40 percent of the vote. “He made national and state headlines and when a New Jersey state Senate seat opens up, he is positioned to run for it.”
He concedes that sometimes the parties put up candidates they know will lose because they see hitherto inactive voters turn out and also raise money, for example, in Morris County, N.J., where the Democrats put up an Indian Muslim American candidate, Wasim Khan, knowing he could not win, Patel says; or in Middlesex County where the Republican Party put up a candidate (Sam Khan for Freeholder) where no Republican had won in 30 years. “Politics is about votes … and money. Regardless of losing, these two mobilized the base and the money. So later they can run for another office,” he said. Insiders in the two parties know who can win or lose, and in really competitive areas, they will not field a minority candidate (with little chance of winning),” Patel adds. But putting up Wasim Khan and Sam Khan means a large number of South Asians got involved. “It’s a building process.”
Patel’s father ran for the Passaic City Schools board 20 years ago, and built the connections which helped get Salim Patel to the same office; And the person he ran with on the slate was an old classmate for high school where the two had been in the marching band. Local alliances are critical. What is really needed for an Indian American or South Asian to win or move upward, he said, was to have “a genuine interaction in the public sphere,” not a photo-op commitment.