Immigrants and First Generation Americans Are Winning Local Elections

Redistricting and Public Financing Bring New Wave of Candidates

Sayu Bhojwani, People Like Us
People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Rising Up With Sonali / Vimeo (CC BY-NC 3.0) and The New Press.

While the congressional midterm elections and some statewide races dominate mainstream media coverage, there’s a lot of action at the local, grassroots level. As minority communities grow and the dominance of the white majority wanes, immigrants and first generation Americans are running for office — and winning.

Sayu Bhojwani served as Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in New York City, and eight years ago she founded the nonprofit New American Leaders. Her new book is People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking on Democracy’s Door. She profiles a new generation of candidates of color across the country, and their paths to election. Bhojwani explains that the ACLU has sued local governments to enforce a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to establish district elections. Compared to running “at large” in an entire jurisdiction, district elections lower the barrier to entry for new candidates, allowing community-based campaigns with smaller budgets and more personal contact with voters.

Bhojwani also notes that, in states like Arizona, public campaign financing has empowered people with limited resources to challenge powerful incumbents, and win. We also touch on Michigan’s ballot initiative 18-2, which would establish a citizens’ redistricting commission to draw the district lines following the 2020 Census. And Bhojwani closes with some advice for listeners who are considering running for local office.


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Peter B. Collins: Welcome to this Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. Right now all eyes are focused on the midterm elections, and in particular on the national level. But there’s a lot of activity at the state and local level and there’s a new wave of candidates seeking election.
Many are gaining office. And these are immigrants and first generation Americans who are using some novel approaches to get elected. Many of them are profiled in a new book called People Like Us, and author Sayu Bhojwani joins us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Sayu, thanks for being with us.
Sayu Bhojwani: It’s great to be on the show. Thanks for having me.
Peter B. Collins: Now, you run an organization that focuses on helping immigrants and first generation Americans get elected to political office, and it’s called newamericanleaders.org. We’ll talk a little bit more about that as we dive into our subject here today.
But you spent two years as New York’s City Commissioner in the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and then you formed your non-profit about eight years ago. Give us an idea of how you saw the need and how you see momentum developing toward addressing your mission.
Sayu Bhojwani: Sure. Well thanks for giving me an opportunity to talk about the work that we’ve been doing for eight years, which I’m happy to see is getting a lot of traction around the country, not just with immigrants but everyday Americans stepping up to run.
I started it because I knew from my own experience as commissioner that having a voice like mine at the table really mattered. So I myself am an immigrant. I was born in India and raised in Central America, and I became commissioner shortly after September 11th.
So I knew that advocating on behalf of my community mattered and that as much as I cared about New York City and our country, I also had a special insight into how the South Asian, Arab-American, and Muslim communities in New York were being affected by hate crimes and racial profiling after September 11th.
It was that experience that really sealed for me why it matters who is making decisions and making policy. When I started New American Leaders in 2010 it was after I watched Congress fail at passing the immigration reform in ‘06 and ‘07, and started to see the emergence of a number of anti-immigrant bills at the state level.
So the timing in 2010, it was very much… it was not coincidental. It was shortly after Arizona passed its infamous SB 1070, show me your papers law.
Peter B. Collins: Right.
Sayu Bhojwani: The organization is, at its very core, it’s about equipping first and second generation Americans with the skills that they need to run for office but doing that through a values’ based framework that says you really don’t have to deny who you are in order to be able to run.
And that in fact, and as I talk about in my book, that we, as New Americans, are uniquely positioned to help build a more inclusive democracy because we bring our stories and experiences to the table.
But by being on the ballot, we’re also showing to voters and community members that it’s possible for people like us to be in the ballot. It motivates voters from our community to come out to the ballot and elect one of their own.
Then when we get to the policy making table, we’re bringing a set of conversations to legislative decisions that are absent. The experience of marginalization, which we share with other immigrants, with other groups of color, with other marginalized groups, the experience of growing up working class or middle class, the experience of being undocumented, the experience of not understanding government, all of those things help us to be better advocates for our constituencies.
Peter B. Collins: But I would argue, Sayu, that the immigrants and first generation Americans who I know have a stronger knowledge of the constitution, a deeper understanding and respect for the system that we operate under here in this country, and a more literal view of the words of the constitution in the way I embrace it, which is: This is my contract with my government.
Sayu Bhojwani: Yeah. I think you raise a really important point. As someone who… I was born in India, which is a democracy as you know, and I was raised in Belize, which is also a democracy. But not everyone has that experience of a democracy. So when they come to the United States, the rights that we have in America are deeply valued by those of us who have made our way here or are fighting to stay here.
While we may have had some of those rights elsewhere, the ability to speak your mind, to live among different people of different backgrounds and different religions and to do so, largely freely, and I say largely intentionally because obviously it’s not always as free as it seems, but I think we deeply value what America has to offer.
And I would say I think we have a vision of America that is perhaps maybe tinted with rose-colored glasses, but because of that we’re willing to fight for that greater vision than the ones that we see sometimes in reality.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and again, I just want to underscore that in comparison to many citizens by birth, the embrace of the American dream, so to speak, and the American system of governance is something that I see much stronger on the part of immigrants and second generation Americans.
Sayu Bhojwani: In some of that we have to learn, right, in order to pass the citizenship test. There are lessons that we have to learn that native born Americans don’t necessarily have to go through. So some of it is very intentional and some of it I think is for … comes from deep love of country and deep desire to understand the history of a nation that we have made our own home.
Peter B. Collins: Sayu, your book People Like Us, includes profiles and anecdotes of many of these rising political figures. Let’s start in Detroit with Raquel Castañeda-López, which is where you open your book. She has a remarkable story. Thumbnail that for our listeners please.
Sayu Bhojwani: Sure. Raquel is a third generation Mexican-American woman who was working as a community organizer and had won a number of campaigns, was teaching and along the way had never really thought about running herself.
Then Michigan or Detroit, sorry, went through a redistricting process with its city council, which specifically in that case meant that instead of running what’s called a city-wide race where I would have to run and try to get support from around the entire city of Detroit, there were districts drawn up.
And the district that she represents, District 6 in Detroit, was drawn in a way that allowed for the community in which she grew up, which is predominantly Latino and African-American, to select one of their own community residents as a city council member.
So she became the first and is actually the only Latina on the Detroit City Council. She grew up, herself, poor, still lives in the home in which she grew up, andI think it’s, having her in office it matters not just because she’s an advocate for her constituents of all backgrounds, but also it sets this example that our elected officials can be just like we are. They’re not always wealthy and well-connected even though a disproportionate number of our electeds are.
But Raquel and some of the other stories I tell in the book give people the sense of hope and aspiration that they too can become leaders and fight and advocate on behalf of their communities.
Her story, as you may have read, she’s already run for re-election and what I’ve learnt from following these folks for some time is that the re-election campaigns can sometimes be equally if not more difficult, because once people like Raquel have served their first term and been strong advocates and fought on behalf of their communities rather than just stayed on the city council as token members of their community, once they’ve shown that they are such strong champions and such strong fighters, they can be faced with very vicious opposition and they’ve had… I tell the story of a number of people who have gone through rough re-election campaigns even in the short time that they’ve served.
Peter B. Collins: There’s also an expansive effect here where when one person who fits your profile here, a recent immigrant or second generation, does succeed in getting elected, typically the people who worked on that campaign are energized and you describe how Raquel worked for, or was a volunteer for Rashida Tlaib, is that the way we pronounce that?
Sayu Bhojwani: Tlah-eeb.
Peter B. Collins: Tlah-eeb? Okay.
Sayu Bhojwani: Yes.
Peter B. Collins: She is now on track to win the seat that John Conyers retired or resigned from in 2017. This creates a kind of pipeline for diversity in politics, for a fresh group of candidates, and for people who, I would argue, are more in touch with the day-to-day needs of constituents.
Sayu Bhojwani: Yeah. I mean in fact, in that example you shared, Rashida and Raquel are representing those districts but so is a woman by the name of Stephanie Chang who is currently on Michigan State House and is running for Michigan State Senate.
So you have three women of color, of different ethnic backgrounds but with a kind of common mission to serve their districts and to serve their districts in a way that is very constituent focused.
And I think we lose track of that sometimes in the conversation about national politics, right, because we’re so caught up in the fights around policy and around partisan issues or issues that are made very partisan. But in fact, what most voters want, most residents want is an elected official who understands their day-to-day needs and who’s going to help them navigate those and fight on their behalf.
I think that Stephanie Chang and Rashida Tlaib and Raquel Castañeda-López are really exemplary public servants as much as they are elected officials, and they all, by the way, represent districts that don’t look entirely like them.
So I think this idea that has really held back a lot of people of color from running, not because they don’t see what they have in common with other Americans, but frankly, party leaders often hold them back by saying, “Well, this district doesn’t look like you or your community doesn’t vote.”
But Raquel and Rashida and Stephanie show that it’s possible to run and win by being an advocate for your community residents and by reaching out to voters of all background. To me that is really where we want to get to as a country that anyone can represent any community as long as they’re willing to fight on behalf of the needs of their residents.
Peter B. Collins: You also profile on the West Coast, Carmen Méndez who is on the city council in Yakima, Washington, and her district is 90% white. So that’s a remarkable development there.
Sayu Bhojwani: Yeah. What I was trying to show in the book is that people who are… That there are a lot of myths about our democracy and the way that it’s working. I started writing the book before 2016, so I wasn’t expecting the outcome that we did have of the 2016 election. And I think what happened as a result of the 2016 election is that a lot of us got awakened to the problems in our democracy.
Part of what I’m trying to illustrate with the book is that these problems begin at this… or at least, I don’t know if they begin there but they spread across the country at all levels of office. And then we really need to make changes, not just to the systems but also to the practice. And the practice of looking at someone and saying, “You can only present members of your ethnic community,” is very problematic.
And actually I think in the stories I tell, I prove that it’s possible for anybody to run and win if they work hard enough and they listen to voters and they engage with people on their everyday concerns.
And Carmen is a great example of that. She got elected in 2015 along with two other Latinas after Yakima was redistricted. But the other two women were elected in districts that were majority Latina or Latino, sorry. Whereas Carmen was, as you said, elected in a district that’s 90% white. They’re fighting on behalf of everyone in Yakima. They’re not just representing Latino residents.
Peter B. Collins: Now, one of the reasons the doors are opening is that the ACLU has led a series of lawsuits invoking a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to require redistricting of state and local elections to reflect the dramatic shifts in the demographics of the population.
This is enabling people to run instead of on a broad basis across an entire city, as you pointed out, in a district, which makes it more affordable, more achievable to knock on doors and introduce yourself to voters. And so by operating on a more micro-scale, resourceful people have been able to open up doors to new representation.
Sayu Bhojwani: You describe that beautifully, Peter. It is… Most of us want to be able to know who is representing us, right? I mean there is a reason why “all politics is local” is such a common phrase because when we think about what we want for ourselves, for our safety, for our kids, for our education, it’s fairly localized at least even if it’s not this all decided locally, the experience is very local.
So I think having redistricting, we’ve seen a lot more of it at the city council level. I think that there are places in the country where there are school boards that have students that are a majority students of color and the people representing them and making decisions about how those students are receiving their educational opportunities are being made by people who don’t share the experience.
If you’ll allow me, I want to emphasize how important it is that this is really about shared experience and less about shared ethnicity. I tell the stories of first and second generation Americans because I think that, as we talked about earlier in the show, that these are, we are some of the most optimistic, informed, and enthusiastic Americans and I think we have a particular relationship to American democracy.
But unless we share the experiences of our voters, we can’t be good representatives. I think it matters less that I’m Indian and more that I’m a woman of color, more that I’ve experienced marginalization, more that I’ve navigated a complicated school system, more that I know what it’s like to try to figure out a job that has a long-term career trajectory. Those are the things that I bring to the table.
My Indian-ness I think is part of the experience, but we don’t compartmentalize in that way when we are representing our constituents. And we certainly have plenty of examples in 2018 where people who are Asian-American or Latino are not advocating on behalf of their community. So I just want to underline that it’s ethnicity but it’s also shared experience that we’re bringing to the table.
Peter B. Collins: I take your point, and I think that identity politics and ethnic unity can help people get elected. But unless the district, as you point out, is dominated by that group, the elected official very quickly learns that she or he has to address the needs of all the constituents in that community if they hope to be effective and retain office.
Sayu Bhojwani: Yeah, I mean, and I think that the … You know, one’s identity contributes to how we run campaigns and govern. But ultimately winning a campaign is about building a strong coalition.
That might include people who share ethnicity with you but often it includes people who share a whole other set of experiences whether that’s gender or sexual orientation or residency as we talked about, or age, frankly.
So I think it’s all of that, that very few campaigns can win purely on the basis of votes from one ethnic group. It’s really about building a coalition, both to win the election and then to govern successfully.
Peter B. Collins: So Sayu, the term redistricting has many meanings to different types of people. To some it means gerrymandering, where in a back room with computers, political actors will draw a map that advantages the party that is in power in that state or jurisdiction. Even in non-partisan areas, they can control the district lines in order to favor incumbents or perhaps a white majority.
So, redistricting does have other meanings, and before I get into that and before I forget, I just want to mention that voters in Michigan have an initiative to consider on the November ballot, it is called 18-2. And it would set up a citizen’s redistricting commission similar to the one that we have here in California.
Ours was instituted in 2010, it took effect in remapping the state after the 2010 census and the 2012 redistricting, and it has had a remarkable effect of really giving voters’ confidence that the district lines were drawn fairly and not to favor an individual or a political party.
When we look at the redistricting of cities, we’re seeing that that is being driven by, as I mentioned, the shifting population breakdowns and the need for representation of people who have been long locked out. And here in California, we passed the California Voting Rights Act, and it is what is driving many of the local redistricting efforts here in my state. Talk a little bit about how these have an impact on allowing new people to represent voters.
Sayu Bhojwani: Sure. I’ll start with California actually. One of the stories I tell in my book is about Jose Moreno who won a city council seat in Anaheim in 2016. Jose actually, along with other community members, served as a plaintive in a lawsuit that the ACLU helped with against the city of Anaheim for being in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
And in Anaheim, what … So two things about that. First is that once Anaheim went to district based elections, Jose was able to run and win his seat for District 3 of the Anaheim City Council. Prior to that, when he ran in 2014, he had to run a city-wide race and it was just very hard for him to be, as it would have been for any candidate who came from a middle class background to run and win a competitive election.
In the book, and I don’t want to get into this in too much detail, but I do talk about the role of the Disney corporation and its incredible influence in elections in Anaheim to preserve its own corporate interest. But I don’t know if Anaheim-
Peter B. Collins: Well let’s just mention though that there have been some recent significant victories that Disney has agreed to a $15 minimum wage, that it has responded to efforts by Jose and with the support of Bernie Sanders to address long-term issues of the workforce of the magic kingdom. I think that this is a remarkable shift because the city of Anaheim has generally been captive to Disney and done its bidding over the years and I think this deserves a moment of mention.
Sayu Bhojwani: Yeah, and I think it gives … there’s credit that’s due to Jose and his fellow council members for pushing that along. But the other aspect of this is that because Anaheim went to … because this issue went to a lawsuit, the neighboring cities of Anaheim in Orange County have started to move to redistricts, to single member district elections, which I think in order to avoid a lawsuit and in recognition of the importance of representation. So we’re seeing this kind of knock-on effect.
But I want to also go back to what you mentioned about Michigan and highlight the fact that the idea of redistricting when it is done by an independent commission of citizens, rather than the people who are sitting in office, is redistricting does allow for representation by people of different backgrounds, of different political parties and different ethnicities, and often is an important process that comes out of the census years, right? So a lot of the activity that we saw was post-census.
I talk in the book particularly about single-member districts and redistricting in that regard. But I do think as we’re moving into a census period and the time that … the period that’s going to come after that where we’re going to see where populations have changed and in the fight for independent redistricting commissions at the state level is an important one. And fewer than half of United States use redistricting commissions.
Peter B. Collins: Right.
Sayu Bhojwani: So that means that more than half of the states have legislators who are drawing their own districts or choosing their own voters.
Peter B. Collins: And the Supreme Court has repeatedly refused to take up the substance of gerrymandering cases, preferring to dismiss them with technical responses instead of really dealing with the issue before the court. I don’t expect that to change but I’d like to see it change.
One of the other areas, Sayu, that you address in the book, is the way candidates in Arizona have been able to use the public funding, the clean money apparatus, to fund campaigns that allow people who live above the poverty line or near it and middle class people who can’t fund their own campaigns and don’t have connections to corporate and wealthy donors to launch a new campaign, that this has been an important way to open new doors.
Sayu Bhojwani: Right. I think there’s a growing interest in public financing in certain parts of the country. Seattle has instituted democracy vouchers recently to some level of success in terms of engaging. It not only helps people who would otherwise not be able to run for office, but in the democracy voucher program, it engages people who might not otherwise have contributed to make a contribution, right?
So public financing, as I call it and as it’s commonly known, manifests itself in different ways in different parts of the country. In New York City there is city council members can run and receive up to $175 contribution from someone, and have that contribution matched 6 to 1.
Whereas in Arizona there is a baseline amount that is given to candidates who are able to raise a small amount of money from their constituent. So they get $5 donations up to a certain amount and they file those and then the state of Arizona funds their campaign at a certain amount. I’m not mentioning those amounts because they change over time or they change periodically.
So there are a number of different ways to do it. The goal of those programs is both to allow people who would not otherwise be able to run for office, but also to bring more people into the democratic process, which at its core that is what democracy should be, a process that engages as many residents as possible in order to create a robust and working democracy.
Peter B. Collins: Sayu Bhojwani, and I want to read from a passage here in the conclusion of your book. You write, “In addition to dismantling the system that is rigged in favor of rich white men on both sides of the aisle, we must also shift the culture within politics about who can be an American leader.
Ironically, voters are frustrated with the usual political insiders but the system only works for insiders. Voters want authentic new voices but politics is designed to protect incumbency. New Americans can be those voices but only if those who anoint and appoint are willing to change their preconceived notions of who can have access to power.
This shift requires a transition from identity politics to coalition politics and from representational politics to intersectional politics. The case for New Americans to be recruited and supported for local office might seem itself rooted in identity politics, but it is in fact a case for coalition and intersectional politics.” Explain that a little bit for our listeners please.
Sayu Bhojwani: Sure. We were talking earlier about coalitions and how people win when we give the examples of Stephanie Chang and Raquel Castañeda-López and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, go back to those. They have all run and won campaigns not just on the basis of Latino voters or Arab-American voters or Asian-American voters, but by building a successful coalition of voters of all backgrounds in each of their districts.
Then they go on to serve in office and have to use coalitional politics to develop strong coalitions to introduce… Sorry, not to introduce, but to help any legislative bills pass. What I’m emphasizing in coalition politics is that you can’t run and win solely on the basis of your identity. And that if we are to have a truly representative and working democracy, we need to create these coalitions for our campaigns but also for governance.
When I talk about intersectional, I’m really talking about how we show up as not as single-issue voters or as single-issue candidates. When people show up to the polls, they are really showing up with their full selves. They’re bringing all aspects of their identity and all aspects of their experience to the polls, just as we are bringing all aspects of our identity and our experiences to our campaigns and to our governance.
So I’m not governing solely on the basis of my identity as a woman or on my identity as an immigrant or as a person of color or as a first generation college student. I’m bringing all of those to the table and I’m wearing all those hats when I’m making decisions about what is right for my district and my constituents.
I think to reduce me to a single identity or to reduce any candidate to a single identity really does us a disservice and it’s something that we tend not to do to white men, frankly. We don’t look at a white man and think he’s only going to represent the interests of white men, even though that’s often the case. We look at a white man often and think about him as a leader, frankly. That is what we’ve been conditioned to do.
So, what I’m asking for in the passages that you read out is that we look at everyone in America with the full potential that they have and see our neighbors and our teachers and our janitors and our bartenders as being able to understand and represent us when they get into office.
Peter B. Collins: Sayu, as we wrap up, please give us a quick description of New American Leaders, and if a listener to this podcast is intrigued with the idea of becoming a candidate, tell them what they should do.
Sayu Bhojwani: Well so, I’ll say that New American Leaders is at newamericanleaders.org and our goal is to build a more just democracy that is inclusive of all voices and helps to make our democracy stronger by ensuring that everyone can participate.
On our website there’s information about trainings. But I would say that the very, very first thing that anybody who’s interested in running for office needs to do is to start showing up in their community, to start showing up to their city council meetings or their school board meetings and really understanding what the needs of residents are, and really showing up before they decide to run, because too often people wait until they want to run to start building relationships.
And ultimately, I think we’re tired of transactional politics and we really want people who know what their community needs. So that’s the very, very first thing.
Then you can check out our website at newamericanleaders.org, sign up for our mailing list, make a contribution if you can, and join one of our trainings and help us to make America be more representative and inclusive.
Peter B. Collins: That’s hard to fit on a baseball cap, isn’t it?
Sayu Bhojwani: Yeah, it is. Way more complex than baseball caps. But I would say if we remember that all of us are working towards a more just democracy where everyone can participate.
Peter B. Collins: Indeed. Sayu, thank you for joining us today. Sayu Bhojwani is the author of the new book, People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door. It’s been a pleasure.
Sayu Bhojwani: Thank you, Peter.
Peter B. Collins: Thanks for listening to this radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. Send your comments to Peter at peterbcollins.com. And if you got some extra cash in your wallet, consider a donation to the independent investigative journalism here at WhoWhatWhy.

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