Sanat Sethy wants to change the trajectory of San Ramon, a booming town in Contra Costa County in the East Bay of California. Councilwoman Sabina Zafar wants to prioritize the quality of life in San Ramon, safety of the citizens and protect the city’s parks, trails and open spaces. Physician Dinesh Govindarao is keen to lead San Ramon into a healthier and a more community-conscious future. Entrepreneur Aparrna Madireddi wants San Ramon to be fiscally smart and sound for decades to come. Businesswoman Susmita Nayak wants San Ramon citizens to maintain a good quality of life by optimizing the city budget efficiently.
And to lead the town on the path of their vision, Sethy, Zafar, Govindrao, Madireddy and Nayak — all South Asian Americans — are seeking to replace outgoing Mayor Bill Clarkson during the Nov. 3 election. Also in the mayoral race is Dave Hudson, San Ramon’s longest-tenured council member.
It is a similar scenario for city council elections. Three of the four candidates have South Asian heritage — activist Sameera Rajwade, IT professional Varun Kaushal, former San Ramon Parks and Community Services Commissioner Sridhar Verose — are joined by college professor Reza Majlesi. They are running from District 3, which primarily covers a large section of the Dougherty Valley along Bollinger Canyon Road. The seat is up for grabs with incumbent council member Phil O’Loane deciding to not run for re-election.
DanvilleSanRamon.com, a hyper-local media organization covering the San Ramon Valley, reported that resident Thomas Sheridan, a fifth prospective candidate who turned in nomination papers on Aug. 12 deadline day, failed to qualify for the ballot, “for not obtaining 20 valid signatures from registered voters residing in District 3 as was required.”
In the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, Kumar Nallusamy is running along with Laura Bratt and Scott Roberts for Area 3.
What is behind the sudden flux of Indian American candidates running for local office? Longtime San Ramon resident, Girish Muckai, an IT professional, told American Kahani that the growing Indian American political representation is a testament to the “significant increase” of the community’s presence in the the fourth largest city in Contra Costa County. “What attracts people, particularly young families to is the excellent school district, open spaces and parks and safe neighborhoods,” Muckai said. “People are passionate about local issues – like commute, traffic congestion and open spaces and safe neighborhoods, and have realized that their involvement is necessary to to bring change.”
Changing Landscape of San Ramon
Several studies conducted on the rise of the Indian American population in California show that the community initially flocked to the burgeoning Silicon Valley, and grew significantly over the years. After populating gateway suburbs like Fremont and Milpitas, people began moving to more affluent towns like San Ramon.
Muckai moved to San Ramon in 2003. “That time there were hardly any Indian Americans,” he says. “But it’s a whole another story in the last 10-12 years.”
In 2010, San Ramon’s population was 53.6 percent white, and in 2017, the white population was at 7.6 percent. The number of Asians, on the other hand, grew from 36.6 percent of the city’s population in 2010 to 42.3 percent in 2017. Last year, the San Ramon population was estimated to be 75,995, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Numbers from 2017 City Data, show that 35.4 percent of San Ramon residents are foreign-born (6.0 percent born in Asia), which is 23.9 percent greater than the foreign-born rate of 27.0 percent across the entire state of California.
It was not until the 2016 elections that Indian Americans began running for the city council in San Ramon. Until then the city council was all “midddle-aged White men,” Madirredi says. In 2016, both Zafar and Nayak made an unsuccessful bid for the city council. Incumbents Phil O’Loane and Scott Perkins won re-election to the city council handily in a four-person race for two seats. O’Loane garnered 6,080 votes; Perkins followed with 5,478 and Zafar and Nayak came third and fourth with 2,411 and 1,546 votes respectively, the East Bay Times reported. The two women are once again pitted against each other, the time in the mayoral race.
Zafar says she is happy that so many South Asian American candidates are running for office. “It speaks volumes of how far along we as a community have come.” And even if there’s competition, “there is also a sense of pride and achievement in each and everyone running,” she adds.
However, candidates American Kahani spoke lamented that fact that the increase in the Indian American population in the state doesn’t translate to votes, because of immigration status. Sethy says only about 4,000 Indian-Americans are registered to vote. One of the reasons for that is the rise of young families in the area. “Most are on work visas and the excellent public schools and the growing real estate development attracts them to the city,” Madireddi says.
A young family can buy twice the house for their money in San Ramon that they can in Silicon Valley, and in the bargain they get the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, which ranks as the No. 1 unified district of its size in California based on the state Academic Performance Index.
US.com’s ranking of schools in 2018, shows Dougherty Valley High School ranked 37 in California rankings and number 241 in national rankings, while California High School holds number 214 in the California rankings and number 1,177 in National rankings. The total minority enrollment at Dougherty is 86 percent, with a significant number of Indian-Americans.
Apart from the schools and the parks and the valley, the low crime scene also attracts people to San Ramon, Zafar says. San Ramon ranks as the third safest city in California – and second safest in the Bay Area – by the national online security and home safety resource organization SafeWise. “The San Ramon Valley is a beautiful place,” Sethy says, with great school districts, parks and green spaces. But that is now in danger he says, and saving them is one of his top agendas.
Parks and open spaces play a big part of Verose’s campaign as well. The former Parks and Community Services Commissioner supports the city’s “high standard for public safety, preserving its pristine open space and maintaining its residents’ quality of life,” according to his campaign website. “I strongly believe in community-based solutions (and) I’ve been engaged in our community services for the past 13 years,” Verose told DanvilleSanRamon.com.
Longtime resident Sangeetha Sandeep can vouch for the changing landscape of the town. When she moved to San Ramon nearly 20 years ago, there weren’t many Indian-American families. “Now the dynamics of the town are changing,” she tells American Kahani “Gone are the long drives to Fremont. I have everything available within a 10 miles radius — from Indian grocery shops to Bollywood movies and a variety of Indian food options.” There are areas in town that are 100 percent Indian as well.
From Cricket to Bollywood
Along with greater representation on the ballot, increase in the Indian-American population in the Tri-Valley area also translates into a rise in everything desi: from multiplexes screening Bollywood films to Sanskrit, shloka and regional language classes to Indian restaurants and grocery stores. While most saw these burgeoning businesses as a way to stay connected to their culture, some like Khushbu Patel saw something else: a potential for business.
In 2013, she and her husband opened Patel Market just off Bollinger Canyon Road. “It was an obvious choice,” she told SF Gate at the time. “We came here for the schools and great homes, but the business opportunity with the growing immigrant population was just too good to pass up,” she told the paper. “I love this area. Nice life.”
Indian Americans are also coming together socially to celebrate festivals, thanks to groups like the San Ramon Arts and Cultural Association. Together with the township, the SRCA hosts Diwali celebrations every year.
Another indication of the clout Indian Americans hold in the town is the growing popularity of cricket. According to Satyen Lokanandi, president of the San Ramon Cricket Association (SRCA), there are about 30 adult teams and about 1,500 youth from San Ramon, Pleasanton, Danville and Livermore who are actively playing the sport. The SRCA runs a year-round cricket academy, which provides coaching and games for the youth. San Ramon has two cricket fields: Monarch Park and Windemere Ranch School Park. City council candidate Verose, is an avid cricketer “San Ramon is a beacon for other cities, leading the way for other cities to follow,” he told the East Bay Times.
Mayoral candidates Sethy, Zafar, Govindrao, Madireddy and Nayak are all committing to affordable housing, transparent governance, affordable healthcare, equal educational opportunities, youth leadership development, enhanced public safety, improved transportation, sustainable environment, development of small businesses, preservation of open spaces, and increased civic participation.
Sethy, who ran an unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2018, wants to streamline the traffic and practice smart housing. Reducing traffic congestion is his number one priority he says.
“I am not a politician,” Sethy told American Kahani “I have always believed in healthy competition.” He says he is here to solve issues concerning residents. “I think the city needs changes and return to our core values,” Sethy says. “Year after year, the things I care about are getting worse,” he said. “This has to change and I am running to change it.”
Like Sethy, Majlesi’s top priorities are to reduce traffic congestion, limit construction and preserve hillsides, promote safety and security, and perhaps most prominently, bring a new perspective and voice to the council. A business owner who acquires and develops buildings, Majlesi is also an educator who has taught at the University of California Berkeley, Diablo Valley College and most recently Contra Costa College.
Madireddy has a similar agenda. “Policies and ideas that were effective in the past will not pass the litmus test today, when it comes to effective governance,” the 21-year San Ramon resident, who’s an entrepreneur and city and school volunteer told American Kahani. “I want San Ramon to be fiscally smart and sound for decades to come.”
Zafar, on the other hand, has established herself as a candidate who will oppose the current status-quo of the council, advocating against the rapid growth of the city and the council’s “aggressive pro-development policies shortsightedly adopted by current city leaders.”
Another advantage the mayoral candidates have is experience in the public school systems from a parental point of view; all have kids in the system, and have been actively involved in the parent teacher groups.
An Agent for Political Change
Along with providing a better life to its residents, 21-year-old Sameera Rajwade’s platform centers around defunding and demilitarizing the police and promoting educational reform. “I am disillusioned with the politicians,” she told American Kahani, adding that her campaign is focusing on the “intersectional justice of climate, race and economic well-being.”
Born and brought up in San Ramon, Rajwade is a first-generation Indian-American who identifies as non-binary. A local community activist, who organized a Black Lives Matter march in San Ramon in May, has always worked for marginalized communities. She hopes to galvanize the youth in the area.”I am running for San Ramon City Council because I love San Ramon and want to fight for all of my fellow residents, not just those whose financial interests are aligned with government officials,” Rajwade says on their campaign website.
“Defunding the police is a national movement and bringing that movement into wealthy white/Asian suburbs is an extremely integral part into actually making police defunding and eventual abolition and reparations a true manifestation in this world,” Rajwade says in a video posted on her Instagram account.
Educational reform is another area she wants to focus on. “I am advocating for a more inclusive curriculum in schools that teaches about historical genocide and brutality of slavery that transpired in the United States, as well as the innovative contributions by Black and indigenous people of color,” Rajwade told American Kahani. “I know what I’m doing right now is an uphill battle and I have no idea if I’m going to win,” Rajwade says. “And even if I don’t I’m still going to keep fighting. I truly believe in a better future. I truly believe that change is coming.”
Like Rajwade, Kaushal, an immigrant from India, wants to shape San Ramon into an inclusive community. “I am running because, just like the wonderful residents of the city of San Ramon, it is also my deepest desire and a shared vision to see this beautiful city we call our home, as strong, resilient and thriving with a robust local economy that is capable of catering to the diverse needs of its wonderful residents,” Kaushal told Danville San Ramon.
Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.