- Joining a crowded field of candidates in the race, the Indian American wants to restructure and rebuild the city she calls home.
Reshma Patel wants to combine her expertise in public finance, city politics, people skills, civic engagement and volunteering, to manage New York City’s finances as its municipal auditor and fiduciary. The Indian American is running for New York City Comptroller, seeking to be the first Asian American woman elected to a city-wide position. Patel has joined a crowded field of candidates (nine, including her, as of now) looking to replace current Comptroller, Scott Stringer, who is term-limited and is running for mayor. The primaries are set for June 22 of this year.
Patel tells American Kahani she is confident her experience and familiarity with the New York City Comptroller’s Office will hold her in good stead. She has spent eight years of her nearly two decades-long public finance career working as a financial advisor to the State of New York as well other city governments. “But New York City was my primary client,” she says. “So I worked with the Comptroller’s Office almost on a daily basis. I became almost like an extension to their staff.”
During that time, Patel worked in the debt financing program to fund capital projects as well as the debt management program. “I am one of the few experts who knows how to restructure New York City’s debt,” she says.
It is a function of the comptroller’s office that is often overlooked, she observes. “But it’s an important issue,” she notes. “I had to bring that to the forefront by running,” she adds. “Often we have comptrollers who want to be mayor, while its great for the comptroller to be a person who’s advocating for different legislative policies, we need someone who also understands the finance
aspect of the office too,” she says.
A comptroller can make policy recommendations, but the main job is to hold
the City government accountable — “whether it’s for what the Mayor is putting
in the budget or what he’s not — but also any types of policy undertakings for
the city and auditing of city agencies,” including COVID relief money.
Some of the key issues of Patel’s campaign include helping New York City recover from COVID-19; preparing the city for a more sustainable and equitable future; stewarding the pension fund to deliver impactful change; and auditing city agencies with a people-centric approach that keeps sustainability and equity in focus.
Patel is engaged in city politics. She is the president of the Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club and vice-chair of the Manhattan Community Board 6 Budget Committee. She recently served as the board co-chair of Chhaya Community Development Corporation. However, she stepped down from that position after announcing her candidacy for comptroller, because of a conflict of interest.
“One of the reasons why I think it’s necessary for me to run at this point is
because we are in difficult economic times and the city needs to be built back
better,” she says. “We need voices to come to the table who have an expertise in the area, but I also think we need people who represent different communities.” She highlights the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had
on immigrant communities, as well as women and people of color. “This
divide existed before COVID as well, but the pandemic has brought it to light,”
she says. Patel has witnessed firsthand this reality through her work at Chhaya.
“These are unprecedented and also interesting times for New York City and how we move forward,” she says, adding that the pandemic “makes it harder to campaign and connect with the people.” Now Patel, like everyone else is managing her campaign virtually.
Patel has been interested in civic engagement since she was a little kid. “So I was always interested in politics, in governments,” she says and remembers being “out there,” even before she could vote, campaigning for candidates, registering people to vote. “This comes from my own interest and also my family, my parents discussed these things at home and the importance of volunteering.”
She has been involved with nonprofits since she was in high school and ever since she moved to New York , she has been engaged in community work. Even though her work in public finance, her clients have primarily been state and local governments.
Patel says “while she entertained the idea of running for office as a young
child, she never thought that someone like her could run for office in the U.S.
“When I was in the 4th grade, I said I wanted to be president and a classmate
told me I couldn’t because I was a girl. ”She would later find out that she
couldn’t because she wasn’t born in the U.S.
As she got older, she became busy with her professional life and wasn’t thinking about ever running for office. It wasn’t until 2015 that Patel got more involved in civic engagement and politics. That year, she got involved in getting people out to vote. But
when Donald Trump got elected the following year, she knew she was in it for the long haul. “So in the last four years my primary function, the focus of my life has been to get people out to vote, to flip congressional seats, to get Donald Trump out of the White House.”
One of the things Patel realized during this time was the lack of awareness
among people about how our government works and about the power of voting. “Democracy only works if everyone participates and unfortunately not enough Americans participate,” she says. “One of the things I focused on is going into schools, into different community groups and educating people on the importance of voting.” Among reasons for this lack of awareness, Patel notes is “lack of civic education.” Noting that the rules are complicated, Patel says, “actually we make it hard for people to vote, every time a new group has gotten the right to vote in the US, they have had to fight for it.” And in order to streamline the process Patel says that groups like community activists like herself “have been advocating for electoral reform so that it is easier for people to vote and are educating people about what’s on the ballot,” she says.
“Having done a lot of work in different commutes, I have pockets of support, already,” she says. “I have never been elected to office before, but those who already have been elected have a much bigger base in their communities than I do, but I am trying to convince enough people in those communities to vote for me as their number one or number two choice.”
This year, New York City will move to a system of ranked-choice voting. Under the system, voters will rank up to five candidates in order of preference, instead of casting a ballot for just one. “If no candidate gets a majority of the vote, the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes are parceled out to the voter’s second choice. The computerized process will continue until one candidate has a majority and is declared the winner.
Patel acknowledges the increased engagement in the South Asian community and in so many other communities. However she notes that the city has never had a South Asian elected, though this year there are quite a few people running at all levels. Last year, Jenifer Rajkumar and Zohran Kwame Mamdani became two SouthAsian Americans elected to the New York Assembly. “People are stepping up and running, just like me,” she says. “There is this need to have the communities’ voices heard.”
“New York has had only three women ever elected to city wide office, two of them public advocates (Betsy Gotbaum: 2002-2009 and Letitia James: 2014-2018) and one comptroller (Elizabeth Holtzman: 1990–1993), we’ve never had a female mayor and we’ve never had an Asian American woman in any of those positions,” Patel says. “Even in the city council there’s a big movement to get women elected because now there’s only 13 women in the city council so in terms of diversity at all levels of city government is lacking.”
Noting that she is not a career politician, Patel hopes people take notice of what she’s been doing “behind the scenes as immigrant women often do.” She says on her website: “For me this is a job I have always wanted to do, not a stepping stone to being mayor. I love this city and its people, and I know that the office of the comptroller will give me the opportunity to best help at this critical juncture in its history.”
Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.