Sayu Bhojwani, author of the new book ‘People Like Us,’ tells Moneyish how first- and second-generation candidates can win elections and build power.
Building a stronger, more representative democracy means electing more “people like us,” says Sayu Bhojwani.
Latinos and Asian-Americans make up more than 22% of the U.S. population but occupy less than 2% of the more than half-million elected positions nationwide, according to a report from the nonpartisan nonprofit New American Leaders. The national organization, which Bhojwani founded and leads, trains first- and second-generation Americans to run and navigate government.
And Bhojwani, who served from 2002 to 2004 as New York City’s first immigrant-affairs commissioner, argues that immigrants and refugees inspired by America’s promise and founding principles are incredibly well-suited for public office. After all, many of them have fought to reach and stay in the U.S.; they’ve negotiated the bureaucracy of American citizenship and sometimes even risked their lives to get here.
“Because we’re willing to fight to be here, I think we have the fight and the fire that it takes to help shape the system so that it works better for us,” Bhojwani, herself an immigrant born in India and raised in Belize, told Moneyish.
The 51-year-old New Yorker charts the paths of some of these “new American” public servants in her forthcoming book, “People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door.” Bhojwani draws lessons from successes like Raquel Castañeda-López, a Mexican-American political newcomer who was the first Latina elected to the Detroit city council, and refugee Ilhan Omar, a progressive Minnesota state legislator poised to become the first Somali-American in Congress.
“I think Ilhan’s primary win is rooted in the same values that we teach in our campaign training, which is that you can run with your immigrant and refugee experience front and center, and that you can run and win by engaging a segment of the electorate that has long been ignored by traditional candidates,” Bhojwani said of Omar, an alumna of NAL’s governance training program.
She’s also quick to expand the discussion beyond “identity politics”: “No one can run and win based on their identity alone,” she said. “Most people who win office win it by building some sort of coalition.” Omar’s winning coalition strategy involved mobilizing young people, immigrants and progressives, Bhojwani writes in her book.
Of course, Bhojwani points out, political neophytes face several barriers to entry within the traditional power structure. For example, there are gatekeepers like party leaders, major endorsing organizations and union leaders; the ever-present money equation, including both the cost of running for office and typically low legislator salaries that may discourage candidates with debt or a mortgage from pursuing public service; and a lack of term limits in many states that would open up the field to newcomers.
Bhojwani advocates for enacting term limits (just 15 state legislatures had them as of 2015); paying legislators a living wage so they can focus on serving rather than on making ends meet; and switching from at-large elections to district-based elections, which can allow newcomers to raise money and reach voters within a smaller universe.
She praises Sam Park, Georgia’s first openly gay male state legislator who is running for re-election this year in Gwinnett County, for engaging a “multiracial coalition of voters” in a diverse district. Park serves as a model for other Democrats that it’s possible to win on a progressive platform in red-state Georgia, Bhojwani says, and sends a signal to the rest of Georgia and the South at large “that there is a new South that can recognize and can lift up progressive voices of color, including Asian-American, LGBT men.”
There’s also Democratic Arizona State Rep. Athena Salman, a millennial from a multiracial family who has participated in the state’s Clean Elections program and won her primary this year. Park’s and Salman’s stories, Bhojwani ventures, “signal the possibility of what could happen in places that, frankly, Democrats and progressives tend to write off.”
This election cycle has already seen high-profile wins by women of color: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a millennial Democratic Socialist from a Puerto Rican family, defeated Queens party boss Rep. Joe Crowley in her June primary; former Michigan state representative Rashida Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, is set to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress after she runs unopposed in November.
But while Bhojwani says she is hopeful about the present level of energy, she cautions against getting “swept away” by individual wins, noting they can only make an incremental difference to percentages in representation — not instantly “fix the way that Congress works” wholesale. Candidates must stay vigilant and build “people-powered movements” for the long-term, she said, staying connected to electoral strategy and getting out the vote while also acknowledging that “a lot of people don’t vote, can’t vote, or don’t feel like their vote is wanted and needed.”
While these new Americans often think they’re not ready to run, Bhojwani added, “we already have what it takes to be the leaders that we want to see in office.” “We already know what our communities need; we already know what’s not working,” she said. “And that enough is a pretty big qualification.”
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