Jenifer Rajkumar, 38, is the first Indian-American woman to be elected to New York state Assembly, becoming the first Indian-American woman elected to any state office.
“It’s been a long time in the coming for our community and I know I certainly will not be the last one,” she said.
A Democrat from the Queens region of New York, Rajkumar won 66 per cent of votes.
A graduate of Stanford Law School, Rajkumar had previously worked for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as the Director of Immigration Affairs & Special Counsel for New York State where she said she had “an incredible opportunity to direct immigration for the state of New York in the age of Trump.”
In this role, she got an opportunity to build a USD 31 million programme that ensured that all immigrants in the state who can’t afford legal counsel got that representation. “I was so proud to do that,” she said.
Niraj Antani, a 29-year-old Republican, also created history by becoming the first Indian-American to be elected to the Ohio state Senate.
He said that on November 3, he “had the privilege of now becoming the first Indian-American state Senator in Ohio history. Truly a privilege. So many different barriers being broken by so many different Indian-American candidates and elected officials. It’s just a privilege for me to be a part of that.”
Antani was speaking during a virtual post-election political analysis hosted by leading nonprofit Indian diaspora organisation ‘Indiaspora’.
A political science graduate, Antani, at the age of 23, was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 2014, becoming one of the youngest state lawmakers in the US.
“I am so grateful for the continued support of this community in which I was born and raised. My grandparents lived much of their life under British rule in India, only gaining their freedom seven decades ago. That it is possible for their grandson to be elected as Ohio’s first Indian-American State Senator is a testament to America’s beauty. I thank the voters for entrusting in me with this sacred honour, to be their voice at the Statehouse,” he had said after his win.
Antani said during the Indiaspora discussion that he is “truly privileged” to be a part of the small community of Indian-American elected officials.
He added that he is looking forward to “continuing to serve and try to be a voice for our community in the statehouse.”
Rajkumar’s parents immigrated to the United States from India “with USD 300 and a suitcase and an education” and settled in the Queens neighborhood of New York.
She said her upbringing centered around education and she decided to dedicate her life to social justice.
She became a civil rights attorney and represented workers who weren’t being paid a fair wage. “Now I’m really proud that the dreams of my family have come true and I’ve been elected to this position,” she said.
Rajkumar, who ran a strong grassroots movement, said her district in Queens comprises more than 70 per cent immigrant population, who have been “overlooked and ignored for a very long time. And my office aims to change that situation.”
She said her office will be a place where immigrants will get the help they need in navigating American courtrooms, the justice system, government and education. “Immigrants come to this country filled with hopes and dreams. And it’s my office’s goal to make those dreams a reality.”
Rajkumar stressed that apart from getting support from the South Asian population in her district, a large part of the Latino community also rallied behind her.
“What that shows is that South Asian candidates have incredible crossover appeal across ethnicities. We won across political ideology…I think we need that kind of unity now in our politics more than ever,” she said.
On her priorities going forward, she said her district was one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic and she will be focussing on the economic rebuilding of her district where unemployment is high.
“Mine is a district full of workers. They need a little bit of help to get where they’re going. My goal is to pass legislation that gives them a little bit of help so that they can succeed,” she said, adding that she also aims to help small businesses and immigrant populations that have been struggling due to the pandemic.