- Dubai-born Malayalee legislator says “my honesty, work ethic, putting people over politics, all these have helped me succeed.”
Kevin Thomas, is really pleased as he feels vindicated by his reelection as State Senator from New York’s 6th District in Nassau County. An initial lead in votes by Republican rival Dennis Dunne was reversed by the large number of absentee ballots cast amid the Covid-19 pandemic in favor of the incumbent and finally last Monday he was declared winner. “Following a very close election margin in 2018, I am thrilled to have won a larger margin this year and I know it is because of my hard work fighting for this community, Long Island and all of New York State,” he said, adding that he was deeply honored by this victory and immensely grateful to the voters.
In 2018, Thomas had made history by being the first Indian American to enter the New York State Senate, unseating Republican incumbent Kemp Hannon who had been in office for three decades. A report in New York Daily News claimed that his victory that year had been part of the blue wave that gave Democrats control with 43 seats over the 63-member Senate. But the bigger margin victory this year shows the people stood behind him.
“My honesty, work ethic, putting people over politics, all these have helped me succeed,” Thomas told American Kahani, adding that he had been propelled towards public service out of a genuine desire to do something for people. “It’s not about the title,” he emphasized, “it’s more about doing something, about giving back.”
Born in Dubai to Malayalee parents, Thomas moved to the U.S. at the age of 10 and grew up in Queens, and then moved with his family to Long Island. Like all desi kids, he struggled to fit in a little bit. “My skin was different and the food I would eat in school was different. I found I could teach others about my culture using food. Everyone likes Indian food,” he said.
Growing up a child of immigrants who came to the U.S. for a better life, he said, his parents gave priority to getting a good education. Like all immigrant children the path seemed laid out for him — studying medicine or engineering, getting married and having children. But, he said, “my generation wanted to do something more, to give back, to make a difference.” With no political links in the family, he was on an uncharted path. Needless to say, his parents are thrilled, excited and very proud about his success today. The area where they are from, back in Kerala has been celebrating his victories and he even did an interview with Malayala Manorama, the most popular newspaper in the state.
Reflecting on his parents’ efforts, he continued, “Their sacrifices paved the way for me to go to law school and become an attorney.” After graduation Thomas decided to return to New York where he was hired as a staff for New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG).
His work at NYLAG included helping people with consumer loans such as credit cards, student loans, auto loans, and other consumer issues. He later accepted an appointment to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights New York State Advisory Committee, where “I worked tirelessly to advance civil rights and expand opportunities for all New Yorkers. Throughout my career, I witnessed hardworking, everyday people being unfairly targeted by predatory companies. We needed stronger protections for New Yorkers. I ran for State Senate to stand up for them, and be a voice for those who need me the most,” he said.
What was it that proved to be the trigger for him to run for office? He said it was the 2016 elections. He saw that things were getting worse for the ordinary people and he felt he had to stand to those who had the voices, on behalf of those who didn’t.
How far was the South Asian community instrumental in his success? Demographically, he said, his district is 60 per cent white and the larger minorities are hispanics and African Americans. Only about 5-7 percent are Asians and among them, South Asian even less. He admitted that South Asian groups in general and IMPACT, in particular, had helped him in fund raising and in getting the votes out by mobilizing the community to go out and vote.
“In 2018 my constituency sought change and got it. My colleagues and I were able to improve the lives of so many New Yorkers,” he said, brimming with satisfaction. He said they passed laws to protect the environment, protect child victims, help out immigrants, increase funding to schools, improve the healthcare system and eliminate barriers to voting and increased funding for roads and bridges. “We chose to serve the people, not special interests,” he reiterated.
Currently serving on the Consumer Protection Committee, he says he is serving the interests of 20 million people and is pushing for a privacy act in the state that would protect consumers’ private information from exploitation.
In a short span of two years Thomas has indeed been instrumental in some far-reaching changes. Nassau County had one of the highest property tax rates in the United States, and he voted to put a permanent cap at 2 per cent. He also voted for a $585 million treatment system to halt further spread of contaminants and protect the public drinking water in the area, a move affecting 250,000 Nassau County residents. He also voted to pass the Red Flag Bill which would prevent individuals who show signs of being a threat, from possessing firearms. Another one to prevent vaping by teenagers. The list seems to go on.
What had irked the Republicans most had been the bail reforms and other criminal justice reforms. Thomas told American Kahani that law enforcement unions went against him as he had voted on bills that go against them but he was committed to making sure that citizens were protected. The New York Daily News reported that Thomas was targeted by the City Police Benevolent Association which used its Political Action Committee to buy $3 million in ads and mailers attacking the Senator. Many of the ads accused him of being ‘pro-criminal’ or tied him to Mayor de Blasio who is considered deeply unpopular in the Nassau suburbs.
About the just concluded elections, he is overjoyed that this election cycle holds special significance …in addition to the election of Kamala Harris there are a number of firsts — “we saw unprecedented numbers of South Asian candidates running for office across New York and record voter turnout from the South Asian community. This is a profound and inspirational moment for the community both in New York and across the United States and I think it will have a lasting impact by inspiring more Indian Americans to participate in politics.”
Looking forward to better days, he echoed the Democrats’ sentiment that President-elect Joe Biden has the ability to unite the country. He understands the challenges facing the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. “Alongside Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, I know he has the skills and leadership to heal our divided nation and rebuild our country.”
Finally, his message to the South Asian community: step out and get into politics, to get your voices heard and do your bit.
(Top photo. Thomas with his wife Rincy and daughter Layla in Levittown, N.Y.)
Alpana Varma worked as a Research Assistant at the Delhi University and then as a journalist for over 10 years for several leadng Indian national dailies. After leaving India for Europe, she has been working as a teacher, translator and freelance writer and editor. She lived in Mexico briefly where she worked in intercultural communications. Currently she is based in Miami.