- Sharing opportunities and challenges I face with State Senators Manka Dhingra and Ghazala Hashmi from Washington and Virginia respectively is a gift.
While we might be “Zoomed out,” I love that I have developed friendships via video conference with Manka Dhingra and Ghazala Hashmi — State Senators from Washington and Virginia, respectively. They are both Democratic state legislators who “flipped” their respective districts — and are brown women like me. Being able to share with them the opportunities and challenges I face, and to garner their advice, is a gift I cherish.
There’s different political lingo used to identify those like us who win their seats by a small margin or who are critical to the party’s obtaining a majority, like Senators Dhingra and Hashmi. In 2018, in my first bid for an elected office, I “flipped” a seat that had always been represented by a Republican, adding to the Democratic efforts to win the gavel. We need 56 out of 110 to set the agenda, pass policies that benefit Michigan’s working families, set a budget that reflects our values, and so much more. It takes more effort to flip a seat than to win one that’s always been held by the same party.
In the summer of 2017, as I was gathering info for my initial run for office, a former House Democratic leader advised me to raise at least a quarter-million dollars to run this competitive race. A campaign for a “safe seat” in Michigan usually requires a tenth of that and sometimes less. The asks don’t slow down or stop once you’re elected either — it feels like you’re always fundraising, just to hold on to this “frontline” seat and help others on your team.
As one of a few frontline members of our 52-member caucus, I am also on the frontlines in engaging constituents, addressing a wide range of issues and responding to a diversity of perspectives tactfully, sensitively and compassionately. It’s my job, and that of my legislative staff, but it’s made harder because we don’t have uniform or top-down messaging that can come out of a collective.
I am fortunate to work with a very vibrant and diverse group of Democratic colleagues whose districts face unique issues and whose constituents confront a range of issues — inadequate public school funding to exorbitant higher education costs for students in their district, PFAS and lead in their water supply, worker shortages for their businesses or employees not earning a living wage.
Many of my Democratic colleagues have districts where issues like gun violence prevention or ensuring abortion access are a unifier. I have the exact opposite. Fortunately, I’ve always worked to bring unity to the ethnic and religious diversity in the 41st district. But bridging the political divides requires deeper conversations, and takes canvassing to the next level.
For example, knocking on doors in the district, I’ve been called a “baby killer.” I am proud of representing this district and leveraging my life experience in doing so, reconciling differences and unifying people across diversity. And while my win in 2018 was with a 2.5 percent margin, we worked hard and won by double digits in 2020, and I continue to serve.
I believe that service is an integral part of a life of privilege — I came to this country with just $250 in 1988, but with the education that gave me an advantage, providing a path to a middle-class lifestyle. In 1998, I moved to Michigan with my young family and developed a robust volunteering portfolio over the years. Alongside my job, I served — from the mandir to my kids’ schools, from civic organizations to the city’s planning commission — to ensure that I represented my concerns in the public square and helped my community thrive.
People continuously asked me to run for something — but I never had aspirations to power and had an aversion to partisan politics. But I overcame these issues and became the first Indian immigrant in the Michigan legislature. Expectations from other immigrants, and their understanding of what I can and can’t do as a State Representative inspire me to engage them and make advocacy accessible.
In my first conversation with Manka, she told me that she holds a “Meet and Greet” almost weekly — a small gathering of people to share the journey to public office and what happens once you’re there. These days, I find myself doing the same. In our most recent conversation, I got advice from Ghazala: if people want you to address issues in India or in other parts of the world, remind them you are a state legislator and stay in your swimlane. Grateful for the sisterhood, and excited to see how our connections spark new ideas that will help all of us.
Padma Kuppa is Democratic State Representative for Michigan’s 41st House District and has been just re-elected for a second term. A mother, an engineer from NIT Warangal, and an automotive and IT professional for over 2 decades, and a civic and interfaith leader for years, she is the first Indian immigrant and Hindu in the Michigan state legislature. You can reach her at email@example.com. Learn more at ElectPadmaKuppa.com or Kuppa.housedems.com.