Assemblyman Upendra Chivikula holds the title of being the first Indian American in the New Jersey state legislature and the fourth Indian American to be elected to a state legislature. Now he has his sights set on Congress, where, come November, he may join the ranks of the few South Asian Americans elected to national office.
For South Asians in politics on a national level, the spotlight has mostly fallen on conservative governors Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Yet a question remains as to whether they can really speak for the 3.4 million South Asians currently living in the United States.
I posed this question to Assemblyman Chivikula last week. He pointed out that demographically, South Asian political support tends to be overwhelmingly Democratic. The elections of Jindal and Haley as candidates of South Asian descent were outside the norm of how most South Asians vote, he said.
Indian Americans have been traditional supporters of the Democratic Party. As many as 85 percent of them favor the re-election of President Barack Obama, according to a recent survey from Lake Research Partners. The same survey also pointed out that Indian Americans have the most favorable opinions of Obama when weighed against other Asian Americans. Likewise, a record number of candidates of South Asian decent – at least 12 – are running for Congress, with a majority of them being Democrats.
Chivikula emigrated from India to the United States in 1974, going from being an engineer in those early years to running for Congress today. He started off his career in public service as a community activist in the 1980s. He joined his local city council in 1997, before moving onto vice mayor of the city of Franklin in 1998 and then becoming mayor in 2000. In 2001, he was elected to the New Jersey state General Assembly.
He reflected on his 2001 election as a particularly difficult one.
“It was a difficult year because the 2001 election occurred right after the September 11 attacks and there was lot of distrust among voters toward immigrant populations,” he said.
Chivikula overcame this distrust by touting his long record of public service and experience. He has served as a New Jersey state assemblyman since.
During his time in office, he worked diligently on energy issues as the behind-the-scenes architect of New Jersey’s innovative legislation that is fueling unprecedented state investment in solar energy. Chivikula’s political track record also includes sponsoring legislation focused on women’s and children’s issues, as well as supporting small business legislation for women and minorities. He has been elected as a deputy speaker and chair of the Telecommunications and Utilities Committee, and currently serves as the vice chair of the Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee. Chivikula is an executive committee member of the National Asian Pacific American Caucus of State Legislators.
As a high ranking public official, and as someone who is taking the next step to run for a congressional seat, Chivikula successfully retains his identity and heritage, yet still appeals to his constituents as a whole.
“I do not just depend on South Asian support,” Chivikula said, “Issues include everyone, and the most important aspect of being an elected official is understanding peoples issues firsthand.”
It is his wide appeal both within and outside the South Asian community that helped to maintain his popularity.
His approachability has also been his asset. I recalled meeting Chivikula many times as an undergraduate political science major at Rutgers University. I was struck by his availability to students and to the community. He came to many Asian and South Asian student events and never hesitated to shake hands and speak with young people who approached him.
Chivikula takes pride in his accessibility to the public. “I am approachable because I want to help people. Public service is a highest service that you can do. People need to reach out to elected officials to voice their issues and be heard,” he said.
In November, Chivikula will find out if he will indeed be the voice of the people, as he runs against an incumbent Republican candidate in a new district.
When asked about his thoughts on South Asians in progressive politics in the future, Chivikula is hopeful. He feels that many younger South Asians are passionate about going into politics, and are starting to get more involved. He also finds social media and the Internet to be promising tools in mobilizing young people and spreading information about politics.
He urges young people to get involved and help on campaigns in order to learn the ropes so that they can avoid time-consuming mistakes when they run for office themselves.
“Even if they run for office and don’t make it, they will still gain valuable skills in fundraising and campaigning,” he said.
This post is part of Hyphen Politics, an ongoing series that looks at where Asian America and politics intersect in the run-up to the 2012 general election.
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