For the first time in a generation, the swing state of Virginia went completely blue and this is partly thanks to the strong showing of two Indian-American candidates – Suhas Subramanyam and Ghazala Hashmi. It goes to prove how important immigrants and the children of immigrants are in the reshaping of America.
Ethnic tongue-twisting names like ‘Suhas Subramanyam’ and ‘Ghazala Hashmi’ did not deter mainstream Americans from casting their ballots for them, making Suhas the first Indian-American in the state house of Virginia and Ghazala the first Muslim woman to be state senator. As
The New York Times wrote, “In helping to flip the General Assembly to Democrats, Ghazala Hashmi became part of a wave of Muslim women winning public office.”
That seems to be the beauty of America, that voters can be independent and intelligent and can bring about change through the ballot box.
Suhas Suramanyam and wife Miranda at Vedic Temple of Virginia.
Subramanyam won by 62 percent of the vote defeating Republican Bill Drennan who got just 38 percent. He said, “We made history and sent a message that the solution to our divisive politics is to raise the bar, not lower it.”
Forty years ago his mother Geeta had travelled from Bengaluru to Richmond to join her immigrant husband. As Subramanyam recalls, “Never could anyone have imagined that 40 years later, I would represent the area in Richmond.”
His success is due to his grassroots work with the community from the time he was in college. While attending Tulane University in New Orleans he got involved in volunteer efforts to rebuild communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.He later worked as a healthcare and policy aide on Capitol Hill before earning his law degree with honours at Northwestern University School of Law. He also clerked for the US Senate Judiciary Committee, where he helped re-introduce the DREAM Act and worked on criminal justice reforms. Subramanyam served as a White House technology policy advisor to President Obama, working on issues like cyber security and IT modernisation in the public sector. After leaving the White House, he started his own consultancy company and is married to Miranda Pena Subramanyam.
Ghazala Hashmi came to the US at the age of 4. Growing up in Georgia she was very inspired by the public service ideals of President Jimmy Carter. She and her husband Azhar moved to the Richmond area in 1991 and have a long history with the local community. In fact, both their daughters Yasmin and Noor were born there and attended local public schools.
Education is vitally important to Hashmi, 55, who is a college professor and has worked in the Virginia Community College System for over 17 years. In 2013, she was named a member of the statewide Strategic Plan Taskforce and helped to develop Complete 2021, a six-year vision for Virginia’s community colleges.
Hashmi was endorsed by many Democratic leaders including President Obama and vice president Joe Biden. On her victory, she said, “After flipping the Senate, I’ll have Democrats by my side to fight to protect Virginians from the climate crisis and senseless gun violence, and work to expand our access to affordable health care and funding for public education. I can’t wait to work together in the state Senate.”
Raj Goyle is co-founder and chair of Indian American Impact Fund, a political action committee which endorsed both these candidates, and is continuing to support Indian-Americans running for office. Asked about Subramanyam’s success in Virginia, he said: “The growing Indian-American population in northern Virginia had an important role in Suhas’ victory, and we’re thrilled to see him reap the rewards of our community’s political engagement.”
He also believes that “Ghazala Hashmi’s victory is a powerful sign that voters in Virginia, and across the country, will rebuke the divisive politics of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.”
Asked how difficult it was to have won in a red state like Virginia, Suhas Subramanyam says, “I am proud to have run a positive campaign focused on issues like education, healthcare, and safety. My team worked incredibly hard, and I personally knocked on more than 13,000 doors to ensure that people had a chance to hear my message one-on-one. It wasn't easy, but that is what won us the election.”
Suhas Subramanyam and mother Geetha.
Does he see Indian-Americans finally getting a place in the political arena? “I hope that my candidacy encourages more Indian-Americans and people in general of all backgrounds to run for office,” he said. “The opportunity has always been there for Indian-Americans to run, but only lately have great community leaders of Indian background started seizing that opportunity.”
As America has become a nation divided, the challenges of coming together have been further complicated. Asked how Democrats can get their message across to the country, Subramanyam observed, “I believe we as Democrats have the right ideas and policies, but we can do more to clearly articulate a vision for the country's future and restore people’s trust in our ability to govern and solve problems.” He pointed out that means reaching out to all voters, including those that may not vote regularly, listening to their issues, and demonstrating that their issues will be addressed.
Ghazala Hashmi with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.
Subramanyam sees positives in the political scene of today for as he finds people are more engaged than ever, especially in Virginia. He said the voter turnout has been at record highs and continues to defy expectations. Ask him about his plan of action for Virginia, and he says: “I will work tirelessly for the people of Loudoun County and Prince William County to address issues they face every day like education, health costs, and traffic. I will empower people by pushing for fair redistricting, campaign finance reform and an end to politics as usual.”
The results of the November 5 elections were so promising that even former President Barack Obama tweeted, “Proud of all the Americans who showed up to vote yesterday, electing a set of hopeful, forward-thinking leaders primed to protect Medicaid, draw fair voting maps, and reduce gun violence. A great night for our country - one that’ll leave a lasting legacy.”
As America gears up for the upcoming presidential elections, victories such as the one in Virginia will help lay the blueprint for the America of the future. Says Raj Goyle: “We are looking forward to engaging our community in 2020 which will be one of the most important election cycles in recent memory.”
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read Lavina Melwani's columns