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New Jersey's next gen of politicos question the norms

The youngest candidate is 19, and he's a Republican.

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New Jersey's next gen of politicos question the norms

Ayush Nallapally, left, and Amber Murad, third from left, pose at a community event in Monmouth Junction.

Ayush Nallapally, left, and Amber Murad, third from left, pose at a community event in Monmouth Junction. (Photo courtesy of Ayush Nallapally)

Mirza, Nallapally, Murad, Ansari. Drive around central Jersey and the names on the campaign signs along the roadways tell the story of a community gaining its voice.

In 2016, the nonprofit Jersey Promise counted 90 Asian American elected officials in New Jersey — about 1% of the total for all local, county and state offices. Given that Asian Americans make up about 10% of the state’s population, it’s clear that this group has been vastly underrepresented for years.

While the handful of South Asian American candidates running for local office around the state this cycle aren’t enough to make a significant dent in that discrepancy, candidates like 19-year-old Ayush Nallapally and 21-year-old Alisha Khan do signal a changing tide.

Both Generation Z politicos are undergraduate students at Rutgers University who, in addition to attending classes and enjoying college life, have decided to step into local politics. Moreover, Nallapally, who is running as a Republican candidate for the Montgomery Township Committee, is a rare conservative among the Asian American politicians in this state.

"When you see someone who looks like you doing the work you aspire to do, your goals seem much more attainable."

- NJ State Sen. Vin Gopal (D)

Conservative stances prove popular

“Asian Americans, regardless of whatever party you are, feel strongly about ideas of fiscal conservatism,” said Nallapally, whose platform focuses on reducing government spending, improving transparency and hitting the brakes on high-density developments that he says are raising concerns about traffic and crime in the township.

“When it comes to social issues, I don’t think that really becomes too pertinent at the local level,” he added. “We really believe in respectful government, respecting whatever your beliefs are.”

Nallapally has teamed up with another South Asian American Republican, Somerset County Commissioner candidate Amber Murad. On Friday, the two were in Warren together for a Diwali event hosted by the Somerset County Republican Organization.

Ayush Nallapally

Ayush Nallapally

Murad, a 33-year-old Watchung resident who currently serves on the local school board, said she wishes there was more solidarity among South Asian Americans running for office — regardless of party.

“The notion that, if you are South Asian, you should only be a Democrat is outdated,” she said. “We’re underrepresented, we don’t have a voice at the table, and to assume there are only liberals or conservatives is outlandish. We all have our own opinions.”

Murad has two young children and was drawn to politics by issues concerning young families like hers, including road safety and taxes. As a Muslim American, she says her community needs to learn more about local issues such as school curriculum changes to understand where their values align.

“We should not blindly agree to every proposal that comes to us, just because we want to associate ourselves with a party,” Murad said.

Khan, the other Rutgers student running this cycle, is also Muslim but differs from Murad on this issue. The candidate for the South Brunswick School Board welcomes the changes in school curriculum around health and gender identity. She told Patch that she believes parents should continue to have the option to opt out of sex education, but, “In my personal view, children should learn about gender identity at an earlier age.”

Alisha Khan

Alisha Khan

Candidate received threats

Such pluralism in viewpoints may be a sign that the South Asian American community in New Jersey may be gaining more political voice. Still, the campaign trail and the scrutiny and criticism it invites can be challenging.

Saad Toor, a 31-year-old private school teacher running for the Bridgewater-Raritan School Board, had his residency questioned when he ran for Bridgewater Council last election cycle. He had voted in Connecticut during the pandemic, even though he was living in New Jersey. Toor also received threats at work that he had to file with the Basking Ridge police department.

Saad Toor

Saad Toor

“They made it hard for me for no reason,” Toor said, adding that he lives in a very Republican part of New Jersey, not far from where Muslims won a religious-discrimination lawsuit in 2017 after being prevented from building a mosque.

Toor lost that race against the Republican incumbents on the Bridgewater Council but came close enough to make another attempt at office, this time with the school board.

“I believe I’m the most qualified candidate. None of the others have backgrounds in education like me,” Toor said. In terms of representing the local Muslim community, Toor said he hopes to push for Eid as a school holiday and making halal food available to students with that dietary restriction.

He said he hopes to win but realizes the odds are against him.

“When the local papers run my profile on Facebook, I get a lot of hate. They had to remove it, but it was like, ‘I don’t want to vote for this guy, he looks like a hijacker,’” he said.

Extra hurdle for female candidates

Murad had her second child last year, while she was running in a county race. She took her baby with her to campaign events when she would be on the road for long periods, and she jokes that her daughter has more name recognition than her.

But having her daughter with her was also a way of signaling her commitment to being a good mother, a scrutiny Murad feels as a female South Asian candidate.

Amber Murad

Amber Murad

“Everyone sees that this is an individual that’s not giving up on her family. She’s working with her family, and then representing them and their families and their future generations," she said of herself.

Suchitra Kamath, co-founder of Inspiring South Asian American Women, a nonpartisan organization launched in 2017 to encourage Desi women to get involved in politics, says that is a common challenge.

“To South Asian men and the partners of these South Asian women, be a partner and support when women want to run, because I think that has a long way to go,” Kamath said.

A promising sign of growth

Although all the candidates interviewed are relatively young — nationally, the average age of a council member is 46 — they bring past political experiences to the table and appear interested in continuing in politics. For South Asian Americans, who have seen their number grow rapidly in New Jersey since the 1970s, it’s a welcome sign.

Democratic State Sen. Vin Gopal, the most senior South Asian American in New Jersey politics, said he has seen an “outpouring of young people who have reached out to me because they too want to run for office.”

“Visibility is extremely important because when you see someone who looks like you doing the work you aspire to do, your goals seem much more attainable,” he said. “I look forward to the generations of leaders that I see coming behind me and I am proud to have been able to open that door.”

Kinn Badger, the coalition’s director for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, moved to New Jersey in 2017 to work on Gopal’s campaign. She said he made a point of inviting her and other staffers to key meetings where they could network and find professional opportunities. Badger went on to work for Gov. Phil Murphy’s reelection campaign in 2021 before taking on the coalition’s role with the state party that includes outreach to South Asian voters.

“That’s why it has taken this long. It requires putting folks in those spaces, whether it is running for office, a staffer on a campaign, an intern, or even a volunteer to come help knock on doors,” Badger said. “We’re half to halfway point when it comes to our community’s political and civic engagement, but we can do so much more.”

Despite his conservative viewpoints, Nallapally said he owes a debt of gratitude to Democratic politicians in the state. Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer, a Democrat, founded a nonpartisan youth leadership program when she was mayor of Montgomery Township that Nallapally describes as an important stepping stone.

“The opportunities paved for me were done by Democrats,” he said, noting that the program included members of both parties. “They didn’t mind that I had different views. They just wanted to see a young person have that opportunity.”

This article was produced in collaboration with NJ Spotlight News.

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