When he took office in 2019, Kevin Thomas, the first Indian American elected to the state Senate, had a lot riding on his first term representing part of Nassau County on Long Island. “I had an immense responsibility to make sure that I do things the right way, that I get on and vote on bills for the right reasons,” Thomas said. “It’s like being the first child in a family and everyone is looking at that child to set the pace, to set the road ahead for everyone else that follows.”
In his first two years in the Senate, Thomas said he has tried to make the most of his time – not just with the legislation that he has supported but also in sharing some elements of South Asian culture with the legislative body. He has pushed for the recognition of the Hindu festival Holi, shared the Indian sweet laddu with his colleagues and invited imams to give the Senate’s opening prayer.
Despite Thomas’ historic election, one fact remains true: Of the more than 300,000 South Asian Americans living in New York City, not one has ever been elected to political office. (State Sen. Roxanne Persaud, who was born in Guyana and represents parts of Brooklyn, told City & State that her great-grandparents came to Guyana from India. Persaud said that while many in the South Asian community refer to her as one of their own, she identifies as a Black woman, but proudly embraces her other cultures.)
In Queens, where the South Asian community is most heavily concentrated, no candidate has broken through the barriers to elected office in South Ozone Park, Jackson Heights or Jamaica. “It is very striking,” Zohran Mamdani, a candidate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America who is running against Assembly Member Aravella Simotas in Western Queens, said of the lack of South Asian representation in elected office. “I think it speaks to the fact, as a community, South Asians have been marginalized politically. And not simply ignored, but also erased from the political fabric of our city,” added Mamdani, who identifies as Indian-Ugandan.
Mamdani is one of a handful of candidates this year who identify as South Asian – which broadly includes countries in the Indian subcontinent as well as some people who identify as Indo-Caribbean and trace their ancestry to South Asia. And while the pandemic primary meant that only in-person vote counts have been reported so far, two of those challengers are leading the incumbents so far, while a third trails close behind.
Along with Mamdani – who, with in-person ballots counted, led Simotas by 7 percentage points – there’s Jenifer Rajkumar, running to oust Assembly Member Michael Miller in southwest Queens, and Suraj Patel, who is challenging longtime Rep. Carolyn Maloney in her district that spans Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. With in-person ballots counted, Rajkumar led Miller by a whopping 25 points and has declared victory, while Patel, waging his second battle against Maloney, is less than 2 points behind the 14-term congresswoman.
These candidates’ strong performances make Thomas happy. “I get this feeling in my heart saying, ‘All right, this is good,’” Thomas said. “There are so many of them stepping up.” That includes candidates who didn’t perform on Election Day, but who ran competitive races nonetheless. There’s also Shaniyat Chowdhury, who is running against Rep. Gregory Meeks; Mary Jobaida, who challenged Assembly Member Catherine Nolan; and Richard David, who is running in the vacant 31st Assembly District. Not to mention South Asian Americans running for lower level roles like district leader or judicial delegate.
While Mamdani, Rajkumar and Patel differ somewhat in background and ideology, all are excited about the prospect of expanding South Asian representation in Congress and the state Legislature. If one or more of these candidates succeed, it will be a testament not simply to civic engagement in the South Asian community or the ability to turn out the vote in pockets of Queens where there are growing South Asian communities. Instead, their victories would occur in the face of many challenges that stand in their way.
One of the hurdles that South Asian candidates in Queens face is the way legislative district lines were drawn. It’s nearly impossible for heavily South Asian communities to coalesce around a candidate because those communities are mostly split into different districts. “The lines were drawn such that the South Asian population was gerrymandered into four different Assembly districts in Queens,” Rajkumar, who is Indian American, said. “That prevented any South Asian candidate from consolidating the South Asian vote.”
“The South Asian population was gerrymandered into four different Assembly districts in Queens. That prevented any South Asian candidate from consolidating the South Asian vote.” – Jenifer Rajkumar, Assembly candidate
Those four districts – the 24th, 31st, 34th and 38th Assembly districts – each boast a population that is at least 12% South Asian. And even though the 24th Assembly District is more than a quarter South Asian, so far it hasn’t led to electing more South Asians. This year, it looks like David Weprin will hold onto his seat in the 24th Assembly District after two challengers – Albert Baldeo, who is Guyanese, and Mahfuzul Islam, who is Bangladeshi – split the vote.
Some hope that the dilution of the South Asian vote will change when new district lines are drawn after this year’s census. John Albert, a consultant at Bolton-St. Johns, has worked extensively on getting more South Asian representation in politics and is a founding member of Taking Our Seat, an organization that advocated for the South Asian community in the 2010 redistricting. “That round of redistricting in 2010 didn’t actually allow for opportunities that would have reflected the gains in population on the ground,” Albert said. By 2022, he said, New York could have elections under new district lines.
But for Patel, Rajkumar and Mamdani to have done as well as they’re doing this year, their base of support went far beyond the South Asian community. Patel said in the district he’s running for – which spans Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens – there’s not a big population of South Asian voters, but the largest concentration is actually in Manhattan, not Queens. “They have a kernel of a South Asian neighborhood to use as a platform or a springboard, but their message has to appeal to a lot of people for them to be successful,” Albert said of Patel, Rajkumar and Mamdani. “Now what you’re seeing is even with the district lines from 2010, the community has grown and it’s just producing a bumper crop of highly qualified candidates who have learned over time that appealing purely based on race is not going to serve them.”
“A lot of times what I’d hear ... is, ‘Wait your turn, wait your turn.’ The immigrant experience is one where we’ll always be waiting for our turn.” – Suraj Patel, congressional candidate
In addition to the issue of district lines in Queens, some South Asian candidates point to a lack of support from the party establishment. Patel said it has been a problem not just for South Asian communities, but for immigrants in general. “For a long time, it was Queens County, (former Rep.) Joe Crowley or whatever, who would pick and choose who gets to run for office. They never picked and chose a South Asian person,” he said. “Frankly, a lot of times what I’d hear when I ran two years ago is, ‘Wait your turn, wait your turn.’ The immigrant experience is one where we’ll always be waiting for our turn.”
It’s one thing for South Asian Americans to be involved in politics, said Patel, who worked for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and then in his administration. It’s another to have those same people running to replace mostly white incumbents. “For years, you’ve had Democrats and the machinery rely heavily on fundraising support from the Indian American community. But when you step out of that lane and run for office, you are certainly met sometimes with a strange resistance about being in the wrong lane,” Patel said. “It was eye-opening for me. You expect that kind of reaction – everything from the coverage and the tropes – from Republicans. But I was naive enough to think that wouldn’t be a reaction you get sometimes from Democrats, from self-avowed progressives.”
“Wait your turn” is a message that Chowdhury heard as a long-shot challenger to Meeks. He is trailing the congressman by more than 50 points. Despite the rise of politicians and candidates like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 or Jamaal Bowman this year, Chowdhury pushed back on the idea that the successes of those insurgent candidates have rendered party establishment groups like the Queens machine suddenly powerless, noting that some people still blindly buy into the “wait your turn” philosophy. “I think there’s always going to be a political divide between people who are progressives and people who are lining up with the machine,” Chowdhury said. “There is this belief that as long as you work with the machine, and you wait your turn, that you will receive some kind of benefit out of it.”
One other explanation for why New York has still seen so little South Asian representation thus far is the fact that the candidates running now are the children of immigrants, who largely didn’t have the luxury of political pursuits. “The last generation, the generation of our parents, came here and their motive was survival – getting on their feet, getting a house, getting a car, being able to have food on their table,” Islam said. “They didn’t have the ability to be involved in things like electoral politics, nor were those who were in electoral politics reaching out to educate them about this entire process.”
Though representation is still an uphill battle, a combination of the growing South Asian population and the barriers that were broken down by progressive insurgents in recent elections puts South Asian candidates one step closer to that goal.
In New York City’s 2021 elections, the wave of South Asians hoping to represent New Yorkers may show that this year’s results weren’t a fluke, but a movement that will continue to grow in Queens, and citywide. Female candidates like Felicia Singh and Shahana Hanif – running for the City Council’s 32nd District in southwestern Queens, and the 39th District in northwestern Brooklyn, respectively – have already thrown their hats in the ring.
Should candidates like Patel, Rajkumar and Mamdani win this year, Congress and the state Legislature could see greater representation of New York’s South Asian population. But as a few progressive candidates pointed out, representation for representation’s sake is not enough. “When we go to the negotiating table, we go to the legislative chambers. We have to ensure that we are not simply there to put a brown face in a white legislative body, but we’re there to advocate for people who have been left behind on the basis of their race and on the basis of their class,” Mamdani said. “Bobby Jindal could be my uncle, but it did nothing for me, because his political ideology is directly opposed to mine. Narendra Modi comes from the same state in India that my father’s family does, but his political rise was predicated on the killing and targeting of Muslims,” he added, referring to the former Republican governor of Louisiana, and the current Indian prime minister, respectively.
The fight for South Asian representation in Queens, New York City and across the state has to go deeper than surface-level, said Mamdani, who, despite an affluent upbringing, has campaigned on progressive ideals like universal rent control and single-payer health care. “There is a limit to which representation will save us,” he said. “I think that what’s important is that we have it combined with a political ideology that speaks to the (question) of why have we not been represented?”