Historic Illinois Primaries Enhance Visibility Of Indian-Americans

News India Times
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Indian-American candidates made history in Illinois, one of them breaking the ceiling to the Illinois State Senate, another sailing through for the U.S. House uncontested, and a record number running for public office, who despite losing the good fight, reserve the opportunity to fight another day.

For Indian-Americans, the highlight was the victory of Ram Villivalam from Illinois State Senate District 8, who in January, will become the first from the community in the history of the country, to sit in the Illinois legislature. Villivalam defeated fellow Democrat and incumbent Ira Silverstein, who over the past year has faced the ire of many Democrats for alleged inappropriate behavior toward woman, despite being cleared of any offenses by a committee. No Republican filed to run in the primary, and March 20 was basically the biggest hurdle for Villivalam to cross. Villivalam defeated Silverstein with 13,200 votes to 7,419 votes with 91.5 percent of precincts reporting, ABCNews7 reported.

Meanwhile, first term Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, was unopposed in his primary, and is expected to sail through to a 2nd term. However, there’s another first during the race toward the general elections Nov. 6 – Krishnamoorthi is being challenged by an Indian-American Republican, Jitendra Diganvker, a businessman from Schaumberg, Illinois, who was unopposed in the Republican primary. After announcing his bid last November, Diganvker has said he is running not as a politician but as an outsider who has suffered many ups and downs in his life, among them the tragic burning down of his home in 1999, in which he lost his two daughters.

About Villivalam’s victory, Krishnamoorthi told News India Times, “His being in the State Senate is really important. I endorsed him early and appeared for him at events.”

The recently-formed Indian American Impact Fund, congratulated Villivalam on his victory.

“We were proud to endorse Ram Villivalam in our very first round of endorsements of the 2018 cycle,” Deepak Raj, co-founder of Indian-American Impact Project and chair of the Impact Fund is quoted saying in a press release. “He represents exactly the kind of candidate that Impact Fund seeks to support: someone with bold new ideas, passion for public service, strong roots in his community, and a deep commitment to Indian American values,” Raj added.

In addition to endorsing Villivalam, Impact Fund made a significant contribution to his campaign to support outreach to Indian American and Asian American voters in his district. Raj Goyle, co-founder of Impact and a former member of the Kansas House of Representatives, added “We are also grateful to Illinois Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi for his leadership and service. His example has inspired countless individuals, both Indian American and not, to run for office and serve their communities.”

As this went to press, the organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Chicago chapter, noted that another Indian-American in Illinois, Ravi Raju, a Democrat running for the Cook County Board from District 15, was ahead of his Democratic opponent by 33 votes.  “More Asian Americans in Illinois are seeking political office than ever before, a trend that continued in Tuesday’s primary election,” the AAAJ, Chicago, said in a press release, noting that a record number of Asian Americans sought seats in the U.S. Congress, State House, and local governments across the state. “With over 700,000 Asian Americans in Illinois, our community has begun to show its power and run for office at all levels,” it said.

Some of the other candidates that are possibly of South Asian origin, ran and even performed reasonably well (other than Cyrus Hosseini) in their races, going by the list provided by AAAJ, Chicago — Dilara Sayeed (27% in Illinois House district 5), Sameena Mustafa (24% in U.S. House district 5), Sapan Shah (29.8% in U.S. House district 10), Neill Mohammad (27.1% in U.S. House District 16), Bushra Amiwala (26.5% in Cook County Board District 13), Rishi Agrawal (21.5% in the Cook County 8th Judicial Subcircuit), Cyrus Hosseini (3.5% in the Cook County 8th Judicial Subcircuit), Mehr Qayyum (12.5% in DuPage County Board District 3), and Hadiya Afzal (13.7% in DuPage County Board District 4).

Not winning should not dissuade Indian-American candidates, Krishnamoorthi said, drawing attention to his own defeat in a primary, before he tried again and won, not just the primary but the general election, to become the first Indian-American from Illinois in the U.S. Congress just last January. Krishnamoorthi is now among a crop of four Indian-Americans in the U.S. House, and a fifth from the community in the U.S. Senate.

“The question is how you run a campaign, how you do it in a dignified way, and lose gracefully. You will live to fight another day,” Krishnamoorthi said.

In addition to endorsing Villivalam, the Indian-American Impact Fund has also endorsed another candidate in the Midwest, Aftab Pureval running for the U.S. Congress from Ohio’s 1st Congressional District. (It has also endorsed Aruna Miller in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District. Impact Fund continues to track over 60 Indian-Americans running for office in 2018, and will issue further endorsements in coming months, it said.

“We are starting to see breakthroughs in terms of representation in different levels of government (by Indian-Americans), from village trustees, to town councils, and in Congress,” Krishnamoorthi said, adding, “It’s a trend, and the stakes can’t be higher. I’ve said before, ‘we need to be at the table, not on the menu’.”

Indian-American and South Asian activists and organizations, as well as mainstream organizations engaged the community in a big way going into these primaries, especially ranging behind Villivalam’s candidacy. The major newspaper, Chicago Sun-Times, and Chicago Tribune, both endorsed the young labor organizer who till recently was the legislative coordinator for the SEIU  (Service Employees International Union).

The Equality IL PAC (@EQILPAC) for instance, joined the chorus of voices raised in support of the progressive Democrat. It tweeted on March 12,  “Sign up to volunteer and help Ram on #GOTV weekend March 17-19 and/or Election Day March 20.” The Indo-American Center’s Young Professionals Phone Bank scheduled a March 15 “Get Out The Vote 2018” event.

Born and raised on the Northwest side of Chicago, Villivalam’s window of opportunity to overthrow a fellow Democrat came on the heels of ethics and other alleged misconduct publicity that Silverstein was unable During the primary campaign, Gautam Raghavan, president of Indian-American Impact Fund, told News India Times via email about Villivalam, “He has extensive experience in the community and broad support from Members of Congress, local community organizations, and others. The District 8 state Senate seat was also a battle within the Democratic Party, which wants to put a more diverse and younger leadership to the fore. If he wins this primary, he is a shoe-in for the seat and will replace Silverstein when the next class of legislators is sworn in.

In an earlier interview with Desi Talk, Villivalam said a new generation in government and more diversity was the need of the hour. “People who will challenge … and not just check the box,” he said.

He spoke of his parents as his role models. “They came in the 1970s. My Dad worked as a dishwasher for a couple of dollars, Mom worked at Amvets also for $2.30,” he recounted. “Then they went back to school and then came back to public service. I will never forget their service. And I hear these stories in the 8th Senate District,” over and over again, Villivalam said.

According to his estimate, District 8 has the “largest concentration” of Asian-Americans making up some 25 percent of the population. And as it encompasses areas like Devon and Lincoln, he said, 65 percent of Asian-Americans are people of South Asian origin.

The Chicago Tribune said Villivalam “is policy proficient, engaged and prepared to push back against the Democrat establishment,” when it endorsed him Feb. 22. His Democratic rivals for the March 20 primary —  Caroline McAteer-Fournier, a community activist; and David Zulkey, an attorney — the paper said, “are both strong contenders, but Villivalam’s policy chops give him the edge.”

About his own priorities, Villivalam said, “As I go out across the district, people want minimum wage raised so that they can support themselves. (They want to) reduce gun violence; and making (sic) sure our schools are equitably funded regardless of zip code; lowering taxes for the middle class, and raising it on millionaires and billionaires,”

As part of the SEIU, his website says, Villivalam championed home care for seniors and those with disabilities; childcare for working families; Medicaid for those in need; a $15 minimum wage, and was involved with signing people up for the Affordable Care Act, and organizing job fairs. “Ram is a proud board member of the Gun Violence Prevention PAC and the Indo American Democratic Organization,” his website said.

His election website stressed women’s rights. “Ram fully supports a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment. Women need to be believed, and men need to be held accountable,” it says. He also supports comprehensive immigration reform, the protection of children who fall under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), making Illinois a sanctuary state, “calling out hate crimes for what they are,” and fighting to end discrimination based on race and/or religion, his platform says.

In his interview, Villivalam said he built a coalition of supporters, giving him an edge over Silverstein. He was endorsed by elected federal, state, and county officials, as well as labor groups, including teachers unions, environmental, and LGBTQ community, retirees and social workers groups.

Villivalam lives in Chicago with his wife Elizabeth.