Bhojwani: Prepping Immigrant Candidates for Office

Sayu Bhojwani (Photo by Sean Zanni via Gotham Gazette)

Sayu Bhojwani, New York City’s first commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, named by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, has since spent years training young leaders from diverse and immigrant backgrounds to become candidates for public office. Chelsey Sanchez writes in Gotham Gazette about Bhojwani’s efforts, and the book Bhojwani penned, “People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door,” that was recently released by The New Press.

Bhojwani, an Indian immigrant from Belize, arrived in the U.S. at age 17 to attend college. She spoke about some of the challenges that immigrant candidates must deal with.

So often, immigrants running for office face what Bhojwani calls “our own glass ceilings,” a psychological barrier that keeps candidates from believing that they are ready to serve in public office. But there are also systematic setbacks, like a lack of financial means to run a competitive campaign, that keep people from entering the political arena. Candidates of color often do not have the same access to wealth as white candidates, they are often not part of the same networks of power.

“We don’t realize that it’s a system. That’s the problem,” Bhojwani said. “We think, ‘Oh, it’s us. If only I had more networks. If only I studied more.’”

Bhojwani mentions that New York City dismantles several institutional setbacks present in other places or levels of government. The city has term limits and a public financing system for municipal positions, pays good salaries, and is home to single-member districts – all of which help to prime the political arena for newcomers.

Among the people who benefitted from training sessions offered by Bhojwani’s New American Leaders (NAL): City Council member Carlos Menchaca, who represents the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, and Catalina Cruz, the “Dreamer” who’s running for the State Assembly seat to represent the Queens neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst.

At a weekend-long conference hosted by NAL, Cruz gained crucial insight on how to run a campaign and to navigate different elements of the political system. The path to political office is a trail she says is tread upon differently by women of color and, particularly, those from low-income backgrounds, than by traditional politicians. Asking for campaign donations, for example, was a psychological barrier she had to overcome. “When you grow up poor, like a lot of us did in [NAL’s conference], you have a very different relationship with money,” Cruz said. “So asking for donations is not the easiest thing to do because you are taught that nobody outside your house was supposed to know you’re having money issues.” For Cruz, NAL’s training session helped to unpack this key campaign component.

Go to Gotham Gazette to read what Bhojwani had to say about continuing challenges to machine politics in New York.

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