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What NJ's top Desi politician learned from failure

Vin Gopal first ran for office at 26. He learned a hard lesson.

It's a Monday morning in November, and I hope that this newsletter finds you with a cup of pumpkin spiced chai in your hands, a blanket draped over your lap as you pound away at emails from your home office. Or maybe you're out and about in your layers, in which case, I hope that a warm beverage is in your near future. We're diving deep into food for our next issue, and I hope you're ready for a whole lot of cardamom and spice and everything nice as we cozy up for the season when everyone in New Jersey asks, "Why do I live here?!"

With the midterm elections just behind us, we visited with NJ State Sen. Vin Gopal for this issue. At 37, he holds the most senior role of any South Asian politician in the state. The Democrat first ran for office at 26, so he has a lot in common with the young politicos we featured in our last issue.

Some good news on that front! That article is making the rounds and was picked up by Gothamist. This is central to what Central Desi aims to do: raise awareness about the South Asian community in New Jersey. As one NJ editor said about that piece, there has been nothing else like it reported out of this election cycle.

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What NJ's top South Asian politician learned from failure

Vin Gopal

Sen. Vin Gopal (Courtesy of Vin Gopal)

The first time Vin Gopal ran for office in New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie was governor. As Gopal, a young Democrat, campaigned around his home county of Monmouth — where he ran a business and volunteered with several civic organizations — he faced a challenge that will surprise none of our Desi readers: questions about his background, religion and the extent to which he belonged in a role representing a largely white district.

TLDR: He lost to his Republican opponent.

Gopal persisted, and, in 2018, he became the first Indian American to join the state senate in New Jersey. (Note that this milestone came just four years ago, despite the state's significant Desi population.) His victory was a big upset in the county with a large conservative base. Though he was a rare Desi politician in that position then, Gopal has seen more South Asian youth get involved in politics in the years since — both as candidates and as staff.

That's in part because of politicians like Gopal who have used their positions of power to help others rise. Kinn Badger, an Indian-American who moved from Georgia in 2017 to help Gopal with that race, is now the coalitions director for the NJ State Democratic State Committee. She credits Gopal with helping her get to that role, saying he always took his staff to key meetings so they had a chance to network and find opportunities to get more engaged.

When he took office, she noted, "He started to hire South Asians to be part of the process on the government and political side. He had internships that brought folks in to learn more about the process." At one point, Gopal even invited a group of young people visiting from India to go door knocking and learn how differently politics operate here.

"Why has it taken us this long? It's making sure we are putting folks in those spaces, whether it's running for office or a staffing a campaign or even volunteering," she said.

As we reported on the young politicians who campaigned in this cycle, Central Desi interviewed Sen. Gopal to get his thoughts on the political power of New Jersey's South Asian community. Here is that interview, slightly edited for clarity:

Sen. Gopal, we are seeing a rise in South Asian American candidates for local office around the state, including township committee and school board seats. This cycle, there were even 19 and 21-year-olds running. Do you think South Asians in New Jersey are becoming more engaged in politics, whether it's voting or running for office, and why might that be?

V: I have certainly seen a shift in the involvement of South Asians in politics. It isn't unusual for young men and women across the state to reach out to me looking to get involved, whether that is through an internship or looking for general guidance. I think there is a shift because they are seeing more and more people who look like them getting involved, which makes politics seem more attainable than it used to be.

How differently were South Asian American political candidates perceived when you first ran for office in 2011? Do you think your background has hindered or helped you in any way during your political career so far?

V: When I first ran for office, I faced a number of issues, particularly from those who I knew and trusted. It was not uncommon to hear "I'm not racist, but..." or insinuations about my religion. I really had to prove myself and rely on my network of South Asian supporters and others to get to where I am today. I think my background is unique in that I ended up running in a county I knew and loved. My network is diverse, and I have had a lot of experiences and built a lot of relationships.

Why did you first decide to run for office? (If my math is right, you were 26!) What motivates you to keep going today?

V: I ran for office because I wanted to be able to contribute to my community. I had worked a few races and felt that I would be able to win an Assembly seat here in Monmouth — I lost.

I learned that it takes more than a few fliers and a few knocked doors. After I ran the first time, I hunkered down and really got to know the community. I got involved with local organizations and nonprofits and learned what issues were plaguing residents here and used that when I ran again in 2017.

While I have been able to accomplish a lot in my time in the Senate so far, I have a lot more work to do. The changing landscape of New Jersey, coupled with the pandemic, showed that there many more policies that need to be enacted to help our most vulnerable residents — especially around mental health.

You spoke up against the recent resolution in Teaneck labeling certain Hindu organizations as hate groups. As the only South Asian American in the state senate, how important do you think it is to have someone in the room who can advocate for the South Asian American community in moments like this?

V: I think it is incredibly important to have South Asian representation. I do not support hate in any manner, I don't care what religion, race, or age you might be. I think it is also important to recognize that South Asians are not a monolith, and it's important not to place labels on one group that is made up of vastly different people.

Just for fun: What's your favorite Desi restaurant in New Jersey? What do you order there?

V: There are so many great ones. In my district, I am lucky enough to have three amazing places to choose from — Bombay River in Red Bank, Aarzu in Freehold Boro, and soon to be opening Mauka in Eatontown. I also take trips to Dosa Grill in North Brunswick. My go-to dish is dosa.

Yum! Thank you, Vin!

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You'll receive the next edition of Central Desi in two weeks, a tasty food issue for the Monday after Thanksgiving.🦃Whether you roast a turkey or make vegetable biryani, celebrate with family or with friends, embrace the holiday with gusto or order Chinese and binge watch on the couch, we wish you a very restful and regenerative long weekend. Some reminders:

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