The American Dream has gone on to another level for Ranjeev Puri, whose parents left India in the early 1970s in pursuit of better opportunities, to find himself in the Michigan House of Representatives. Born in Wisconsin, just outside Milwaukee in 1984, he grew up watching his parents build a life for themselves from the scratch. They had packed up all they had and mortgaged everything in their home in Amritsar and came here to realize their American dream.
Most remarkably, they had established the first Gurdwara in Wisconsin and had built up a community around them. Puri appreciates the opportunities that this country provided him and his brother as they were growing up. Like all Indian American kids, he grew up confused but eventually learned to stay balanced and “not forgetting who I am,” he says.
“I always had an interest in politics,” he told American Kahani as he saw the power of building community and how politics helps to achieve goals for the benefit of the entire community. He got involved in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. “To work for him those days was a transformative experience for me,” Puri recalls. “I enjoyed myself so much that in 2012 when the time came for re-election, I did whatever I could to make sure I could play a bigger role in the campaign process,” he beamed.
Then tragedy occurred and Puri was left devastated. The Gurdwara in Wisconsin had been attacked by a White supremacist, leaving six dead and four injured. The building had changed but it was the same Gurdwara and the same community his parents had built up for decades. His parents had by then moved to Ohio. “The community had become our family over the years, with our own blood relations staying back in India. We had celebrated birthdays and festivals together and to see those friends on TV crying over their loved ones, broke my heart,” he reminisced. It woke him up to the grim reality of the vast number of mass shootings by white supremacists in this country.
Puri was living and working in Chicago at the time and involved in the election campaign. The day after the 2012 election, he said, “President Obama came into my office, with a big smile, made eye contact with me and said, ‘it’s your turn now. The representation you want starts with you.’ I am not an emotional person but those words made an impact on me,” he recounted.
Puri says he went home that day and told his wife he felt it was the word of God. After finishing his MBA at Chicago University he moved back to Michigan and began helping a lot of candidates locally. He also began his professional life working in the automobile industry in Michigan. He continued to be engaged in politics, helping candidates and building relationships.
As Michigan has term limits in the state legislature (two 3-year terms for the House and two 4-year terms for the Senate), the previous representative for district 21, Kirsty Pagan, approached him as her term was expiring and said, ‘You will be a good fit for this office.’ With her support and the support of his wife Nidhi, his family, friends and the community around him, Puri contested elections this year successfully.
How does it feel to win the ballot? “To be honest, I am relieved. The campaign was a lot of work, very stressful and had become a full family affair,’ says Puri. “I hope to get back to some normalcy of life,” he says, quickly adding, “very importantly, I am also excited to fight for our values in the Michigan House.” One of the first issues, he wishes to address, of course is the pandemic, which has hit Michigan very hard. “A lot of people don’t believe in science and are not wearing masks. So, the Covid response is foremost on my mind.” Clean drinking water is another priority in a state afflicted with water contamination. He would like to see Michigan be once again a good place to raise families. Caring for the environment becomes a part of that. This brings up the question of Green New Deal. Puri says, without wanting to join any ideological wagon, he fully supports renewable energy in his bid to make sure “we can be protective of our environment so that our children can enjoy nature the way we did.” He believes in looking for solutions pragmatically. He says he has received endorsements from all environment groups in the state.
Healthcare is a right, according to him Puri and he would like to work for affordable healthcare. Supporting small businesses, accountability and transparency in government, a voice for seniors, fixing our roads and infrastructure and standing up for Michigan workers are other issues important to him.
Education is another big issue in Michigan, according to Puri and he would like to address this. Schools have received the lowest funding increase in the last few years and so the quality of education has declined. With children aged four and one, Puri is certainly very much invested in education. He would also like to help the state prepare for the rapid changes in technology that are coming in the automobile industry. The expansion of electric cars and the advent of self-driven ones, the economy could look forward to renewed strength. Some industries may lose jobs and others would gain. But the way could be paved for better paid high skilled jobs.
Puri sees a Biden presidency as stability. The last four years have been very volatile and unstable, he says. “It is good to have someone at the top who can restore the respect of the country internationally and whose politics would be for the benefit of all people, not only the wealthy.”
He says his district has one of the largest South Asian constituencies in the state and he is proud to be the fist person of color to represent this seat in the history of the district. “Many communities have long been marginalized in today’s political process, and it is important to ensure we are advocating for every corner of our district. Our campaign was able to bring out thousands of new and first time voters because of our focus on ensuring everyone had a voice.”
In the next four years, Puri hopes to accomplish everything that he campaigned for, be a strong member of the House, listening to and uplifting the voices that have been so far underrepresented. “I hope to return home to look at my boys and feel I have done something for a better future for them and be a role model for them.”
Alpana Varma worked as a Research Assistant at the Delhi University and then as a journalist for over 10 years for several leading 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.