Monday, November 19, 2018
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U.S. Political Landscape Changing as Increasing Number of Immigrants Run for Public Office

Interview with Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of New American Leaders, conducted by Scott Harris

In an era when the Republican Party has resorted to a brazen election campaign message scapegoating immigrants and people of color for America’s economic problems, crime and an uncertain future, there are hopeful signs that an increasing number of Americans of diverse ethnicities and heritage are stepping up to run for public office. Although elected officials in local, state and federal office remain overwhelmingly white, there is a growing consciousness among America’s minority communities that in order to have a seat at the table and a voice in making critical decisions that effect their lives, they can choose to engage as political activists and candidates in the electoral system.
The 2018 midterm elections are likely to be historic for a number of reasons, including the record number of women, immigrant and first generation candidates who have chosen to run for office. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned both political parties when she won her Democratic primary against 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Rashida Tlaib (TaLeeb) of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota could both become – and did – the nation’s first Muslim women to be elected to Congress. 
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of New American Leaders, the only national organization focused on preparing immigrant and first generation citizens to run for public office. Here, she talks about her new book, “People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door,” an examination of how immigrants are changing America’s political landscape.

SAYU BHOJWANI: Yeah. We have about 50 people that new American leaders has trained over the last couple of years on the ballot in places like Arizona and Michigan and New York, California. And that momentum that has led to those 50 is not just our work, but of course this political moment. What New American Leaders does is recruit and train immigrant leaders to learn how to run for political office and to encourage them to run as they are, with their stories front and center, using their stories and their commitment to their communities to expand the electorate by inviting new and what we call low-efficacy voters who often get ignored by traditional candidates and, frankly, by the political parties inviting them to participate in the campaign. And so, you know, as much as one aspect of our work is about training people to run for office, the underlying goal is to expand the democracy party so that more people feel like they can be part of it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Could you run through some of the institutional obstacles that stand in the way of people from diverse backgrounds – whether it be race or ethnicity or language – what are some of the things that are real difficulties that need to be overcome for these folks to come forward and run for office?

SAYU BHOJWANI: Some of the barriers are societal, if you will, or part of the system. And one of those, of course, that we hear often about is incumbent advantage – that it’s very hard to challenge someone who’s been in office for a long time. And to really help run a competitive campaign against them, you need to get the support of other party leaders or endorsing institutions. And those folks tend to want to stick with the devil they know, right? So even if the incumbent’s not all that good, there’s a tendency to keep endorsing him or her at the expense of a newcomer.

And of course, we want a democracy where there are more open elections and more people challenging incumbents. But that’s really hard for newcomers to do. Another, I think, big challenge that newcomers face is the issue of money and I’m sure that your listeners hear that quite a bit about the cost of the campaign, but also our system has not really been set up to work for modern America.

So we had a time when founding fathers could decide that government worked well enough if a few people went to the state Capitol for a certain period of the year and made the laws. But in today’s America, you know, we want our legislators to be representing us year-round, Want them to be fighting for us year-round.

But the salaries that we pay, state legislators are anywhere from $17,000 to $24,000 for jobs that are considered part-time. And how that becomes an issue is that if I am someone who is trying to raise a family, pay off student debt, I really can’t afford to be a legislator. So even if I could run a great campaign, it’s hard for me to sustain my family and engage in public service in a meaningful way if I can’t pay my bills. And so, that incumbent advantage and the salary structure in state legislatures in particular are a couple of the obstacles that people face.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What can you say about some of the newer candidates that have emerged since you wrote the book? Certainly one of the most prominent candidates from New York City, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated a very powerful Democrat, Joe Crowley in New York City, who was, I think third in line for the House speakership among Democrats. But there are many others that we don’t hear a lot about. What’s your general sense of how many people have stepped up and run this year and are unexpectedly running very strong candidacies.

SAYU BHOJWANI: We tracked our organization, tracked the number of foreign candidates, and there were nearly 200 in the primaries. And about 100 of them are headed into the general and that’s at all levels, you know, from Congress to school board. I would be spoiled for choice if I was writing a book now. There’s so many more people.

But as it relates to Alexandria and others, you know, even in her congressional race or Rashida’s congressional race in Michigan, I think what we’re seeing is this very specific set of strategies. One is the candidates who are running authentically, running by telling their story and owning who they are, whatever that might be. I’m not trying to fit some sort of traditional candidate mold. The second is talking to voters and especially the types of voters that tend to get ignored. People who are newly registered citizens; people who are not registered; people who are not used to going to vote in every single election.

I think those two things are really, really important. And we’ve seen that in Alexandria’s ad campaign. It’s at the core of what we teach at new American leaders. You know, I say this in my book that we have this political quandary that we’re in because the parties are churning out the usual type of candidates and voters are saying, we don’t want the usual type of candidate. We want someone who we can trust to fight for us. And I think that’s what we’ve seen work over and over again this election cycle. We all are in this together, whether we like it or not and it it will I think work much better if we all accept that we have a shared goal for our country and for ourselves and our family.

Sayu Bhojwani is author of the new book, “People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door.” Sahu Bhojwani’s website is

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