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Indian American Challengers Unseat Incumbents to Win N.Y. Democratic Assembly Primary

Indian American Challengers Unseat Incumbents to Win N.Y. Democratic Assembly Primary

  • Jenifer Rajkumar and Zohran Mamdani are assured a win the Nov. 3 elections to become first South Asians to represent their districts in the assembly.

Two Indian American candidates for the New York State Assembly, are poised to make history this November, after securing the Democratic nomination in their respective districts. Jenifer Rajkumar, who won 52 percent of the votes in District 38, defeated incumbent Assembly member Michael Miller. Joining her is Zohran Kwame Mamdani, a first-time candidate from District 36, who unseated 10-year State assembly veteran Aravella Simotas. 

Assembly District 38 includes Woodhaven, Ridgewood, Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and Glendale, while District 36 covers several neighborhoods in the north Bronx, including Norwood, Bedford Park, Williamsbridge, Co-op City, Wakefield, and Baychester, as well as the southern Westchester County city of Mount Vernon.

Citing election results, the Queens Chronicle reported that Rajkumar performed well across the district’s diverse groups which includes “large South Asian and Latino communities, as well as low-density, mostly white sections.”

Both Rajkumar and Mamdani are assured a win in the  Nov. 3 general election and a seat in Albany in 2021. Rajkumar is running from a heavily Democrat district, and Mamdani has no Republican challenger. If elected, both will be the first South Asian Americans to represent their districts in the New York Assembly.

Zohran Kwame Mamdani, a first-time candidate from New York’s District 36. Top photo, Jenifer Rajkumar candidate from District 38 campaigning in New York.

Mamdani, 28, a foreclosure prevention counselor and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, won by just 300 votes. While the result has not been made official by the Board of Elections yet, Simotas conceded her loss on social media. “I congratulate @ZohranKMamdani for his win and a well-run election. I wish you the best as you begin your legislative career and fight for the 36th AD,” Simotas tweeted on July 22. 

Mamdani, an Ugandan American is the son of noted filmmaker Mira Nair and Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani. He was born in Kampala, Uganda, and has lived in New York since he was 7 years old. He has ‘Kwame’ as his middle name, after the first prime minister of Uganda.

“I’m honored and humbled by the trust placed in me by the voters of Astoria,” Mamdani said in a statement on July 22.  “But the movement you helped us build can’t end here. It has to last beyond any one election or any one candidate. We have to build something that will endure for years to come, to fight for a New York for the many, not the few.”

On his website, Mamdani says he is running for an state Assembly seat “because our housing is unaffordable and our bills are unpayable. The reason is that big landlords and corporations have too much power, and tenants and workers don’t have enough. I want to help our neighbors take their power back.”

Mamdani, also a rapper who performs under the stage name Young Cardamom. He has produced a few hiphop and reggae videos including “Nani,” starring actor and cookbook author, Madhur Jaffrey. 

Rajkumar, 37, daughter of immigrants from India, told the Queens Chronicle that her “campaign had been able to achieve the near impossible by winning with a margin of 27 percentage points during a global pandemic. When the people of South Queens needed a leader, our office was the first to show up, setting up a 24/7 Coronavirus response team that operates in seven languages.”

According to data from the NYU Center for the Study of Asian American Health, there are more than 300,000 South Asian Americans living in the Big Apple, and not one has ever been elected to political office. 

Rising Star

A national civil rights lawyer, Rajkumar is also a locally-elected Democratic District Leader in Lower Manhattan. She served as the director of Immigration Affairs & Special Counsel for New York State under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Born and raised in New York, the civil rights attorney, who is a professor at CUNY, has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford Law School. She has been named as a “Rising Star: 40 Under 40” by City & State, and was awarded the 2012 “Young Woman of Achievement Award” by the Women’s Information Network. Rajkumar was the co-chair of the Ready for Hillary Millennial Council. She also had previously served on the national board of directors of the Women’s Campaign Fund, which seeks to increase the number of women in elected office locally and nationally. In 2016, she finished second in a six-way Democratic primary in 2016 for a New York Assembly seat. 

See Also

Rajkumar and Mamdani’s win is a significant step toward representation of the South Asian community in New York City. According to data from the NYU Center for the Study of Asian American Health, there are more than 300,000 South Asian Americans living in the Big Apple, and not one has ever been elected to political office. 

In 2018, Kevin Thomas became the first Indian American to win a seat in the New York Senate from District 6. The 32-year-old lawyer defeated longtime incumbent Kemp Hannon, who had held the position for nearly three decades.

Serving along with Thomas in the state Senate is Roxanne Jacqueline Persaud, who was elected in November 2015 after serving in the State Assembly. However, according to a City&State report, Persaud, a Guyanese of India origin told the publication that “while many in the South Asian community refer to her as one of their own, she identifies as a Black woman, but proudly embraces her other cultures.” 

While the primaries in Rajkumar and Mamdani’s respective districts could come up with a result after counting the mail-in ballots sent for the June 23 Democratic primary, Suraj Patel, who is running against longtime Senator Carolyn Maloney, still remains hopeful and is refusing to concede. AMNY reported on July 28 that Maloney’s lead grew by 3,700 votes in the highly-contested race. 

“Today, six weeks [after the primary] — and with more than 12,000 ballots rejected in our single district alone — the Board of Elections’ initial count of the record 95,000 votes in our race has been completed, and while no candidate secured a majority, we accept the result that has the incumbent ahead by less than 4%,” Patel lamented in a Facebook post on July 28. “Unfortunately, in ours, thousands of voters never received their ballots, and for those who returned their ballots by mail, nearly 25% were rejected. This is not just slightly above the norm compared with other states. It’s 100 times the rejection rate of Wisconsin.”

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