In a state where Asian-Americans represent more than 10% of the total population, Indian-Americans and other Asians are calling for more representation in the legislature.
Two women activists in Democratic politics, have stepped forward to try and fill that gap – Sadaf Jaffer, PhD, whose family and ancestors hail from both Pakistan and India, but who was born and raised in the United States; and Anjali Mehrotra, a naturalized Indian-American.
Jaffer who is the former mayor of Montgomery Township, New Jersey is seeking the Democratic nomination for the New Jersey General Assembly from Legislative District 16.
Anjali Mehrotra, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) New Jersey, and the Mountainside Democratic municipal chair, is running from District 21.
If both the South Asian women win in the June 8 party primary, they will be up for the Nov. 2 general elections.
Jaffer, incumbent Roy Freiman, Dr. Chris Fistonich and Princeton Councilwoman Michelle Lambros are running for the democratic endorsement for the 16th district assembly seat.
Jaffer is the first South Asian woman to serve as mayor of a municipality in NJ, and the first Muslim woman to serve as mayor of a municipality in the United States, making it a huge accomplishment for the South Asian community.
Born in Chicago, Jaffer’s mother is from Pakistan and ancestors from the Kutch region in India.
The need to represent various diverse communities that do not have a voice at state level is what inspired Jaffer to run for the LD16 assembly seat. “There has never been an Asian-American woman in the assembly; there has never been a Muslim in the state legislature,” Jaffer told Desi Talk.
The 16th District seat came vacant when Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker declared he was running for state senate.
A number of people approached Jaffer saying they felt she would be the right person to run given the kind of experience in leadership she had as a mayor. One of her biggest endorsers is New Jersey’s only Indian-American State Senator Vin Gopal.
“So that feedback from some people, the faith and confidence that they had in me made me think about it and the more I started learning and looking into it, I realized that I should have an impact and implement my values in government,” Jaffer said.
Jaffer is currently a postdoctoral research associate in South Asian Studies at Princeton University where she teaches courses on South Asian, Islamic, and Asian American Studies.
Representing the South Asian and Muslim community, she feels has become an essential part of her identity, she says.
“I really feel that our communities deserve that representation; that we are hungry for it. The younger generation especially wants to be in positions of power occupied by people like them who have their best interests at heart and who ultimately understand them,” she said.
She has many supporters and volunteers around the state, Jaffer said.
“Right now, I’m focused on crafting my message and legislative goals and learning from the public about what they hope to see from their state government,” Jaffer says.
Jaffer’s priority is to create green jobs and eradicate economic poverty by providing more state funding to education in order to lessen property tax burden, extend unemployment insurance to help those who are out of work, and promote ‘New Jersey Innovation’, ‘Jersey Grown’, and ‘Made in New Jersey’ initiatives and infrastructures.
In addition, “I would like to advocate for workers, for immigrants to make sure we eliminate racial disparity in healthcare and law enforcement, and the way of recruiting people to work in law enforcement and other fields as well,” she told Desi Talk.
COVID-19 is also an important element in Jaffer’s campaign, and she wants to make sure that the distribution of vaccines is equitable across racial and economic differences.
Climbing the political has not been easy, Jaffer indicated during the interview, including being underestimated.
“In a way it motivates me more because I want to prove how competent I am, how effectively I can lead, and how much I have to offer as a representative of my community,” Jaffer said. “That is what motivates me to change the society we are living in, so that other people won’t face that harassment and stereotypical judgement.”
Her experience as a mayor for two terms, plus tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed calls for racial justice, she believes, have equipped her for the job she wants to undertake come November.
Jaffer was recently elected to serve on the Board of Trustees for the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. She also serves on the Board of Directors for The New Agenda, an organization that advocates for women’s empowerment.
She was one of the founding members of Inspiring South Asian American Women (ISAAW), a group dedicated to encouraging civic engagement among South Asian American women in New Jersey.
Jaffer earned her bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and her PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University with a secondary field in studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
Apart from State Senator Gopal, several Indian-American community leaders and activists have also praised her, including Dr. Tushar B. Patel, a retiree from federal government, and a community activist in Central Jersey, Akshat Yalamarty, president of the Somerset County High School Democrats who described her as an “amazing elected official”, one who works with young people, inspiring them, and as a role model for many; Karan Virmani, New Jersey State Director for South Asians for Biden; and Suchitra Kamath, founding president of the Edison Democratic Club.
Anjali Mehrotra, who declared her bid for District 21 on Jan. 25 this year. Currently, three other Democrats apart from Mukherjee are vying for the two seats to be filled from this District. They include Harrison Clewell, Scott Salmon, and Bibi Taylor, according to Ballotpedia. If Mehrotra wins the primary on June 8, she will be pitted against the likes of incumbent Republican Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, who is expected to be re-elected though there are 3 GOP candidates running for the Republican primaries, Munoz, Peter Kane and Steven Spurr, according to Ballotpedia.
Born and brought up in India, for Mehrotra this race is based on the idea of achieving the American Dream.
Coming to America and choosing to live in New Jersey for the education and the opportunities it offered, Mehrotra is quoted saying in her press release, “Sure, my husband and I both faced challenges as immigrants and persons of color, but through optimism and persistence, we were able to carve a piece of that dream for ourselves and our daughters.”
However, she goes on to say that in her work as an activist and advocate, “I have seen how those same opportunities continue to elude the more marginalized groups inour economy – women, especially those of color, Black and brown communities, people with disabilities and our LGBTQIA population.”
According to her bio, Mehrotra has been involved in Democratic politics through her work on campaigns. In 2016, she volunteered for the Clinton campaign in New Jersey during the primary, and worked in Pennsylvania for the General.
She joined Lacey Rzeszowski’s campaign for Assembly in Legislative District 21 and Linda Weber’s for Congress in Congressional District 7, in 2017. In 2020, Mehrotra joined the national communications team of Asians for Biden, helping turnout a key demographic which voted in historic numbers in swing states, the bio says.
She is the co-founder of New Jersey’s fist coalition on menstrual equity and helped push a bill to provide free menstrual products in all public schools.
In late January, N.J. Senate Majority Conference Leader Vin Gopal endorsed her describing her as “a grassroots professional who has worked on a number of Union County campaigns” and someone who “has spent her career advocating for women’s rights, equal rights and human rights.”
In her launch press release Jan. 25, Mehrotra has called for relief for small businesses and jobs in a post-Covid era, better tunnel and transit system, getting guns and fear out of schools and providing an education to youth that will meet the needs of a digital economy.
“And above all, we need tax fairness to ensure affordability,” she says, adding, “The status quo simply cannot continue.”
On her campaign site, Mehrotra For New Jersey Assembly, Mehrotra says the world has changed drastically in the last year and disparities stood out in stark relief, in healthcare, income and wealth, and food security.
“My opponents will want to paint me as a leftist Democrat, but it is their voting record that is out of touch with mainstream values in LD21,” Mehra contends. “Cancer screenings and prenatal care for women are not controversial issues; removing the hurdles that make voting easier for New Jerseyans should not be partisan. Clean water and clean air for residents are not singularly progressive causes,” she says critiquing past administrations for resisting change and moving New Jersey forward.
The times call for “courageous leaders” who are willing to take “bold steps” and aspire to higher ideals of growth and equity for all, leaders who put people and humanity before partisanship.
Mehrotra has a Bachelor’s degree in engineering and a Masters in science with specialization in Information Management, both from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. She acquired a certiricate in diversity and inclusion from Cornell University, and has a certificate in digital design from the prestigious Parsons School of Design.
Among those who have strongly endorsed her are Rick Schkolnick, vice chair of the Mountainside Democratic Committee; Rupa kale, chair of the New Providence Democratic Committee; Lynda Feder, County Committee Member, Cranford; Terri Tauber, former chair of the Summit Democratic Committee.