It’s funny as I was just in Hoboken yesterday musing about how I left the city, after living an buying property there, to live somewhere more diverse than this very white-washed mile squared town, just outside NYC.
So I was so pleased to read that Hoboken, and its population of 55,000, have elected Councilman Ravi Bhalla – “the first Sikh elected mayor in New Jersey, and one of only a few Sikhs to become mayor of an American city“!!
Great job Hoboken in embracing a greater diversity!
More from The NY Times!
“I feel exhilarated,” Mr. Bhalla, 44, said in an interview on Wednesday. “I didn’t have any expectations one way or another of victory or defeat, I was prepared for both. And I feel very grateful to have the opportunity to serve Hoboken.”
Mayor-elect Bhalla, a 17-year resident of the city, had won elections in 2009 and 2013 to the City Council and twice served as its president. He was endorsed for mayor by the incumbent, Dawn Zimmer, who announced in June that she would not seek re-election. Mr. Bhalla and Ms. Zimmer are both Democrats, though Hoboken’s mayoral elections are nonpartisan.
But even his deep roots and prior success among the city’s voters did not make Mr. Bhalla immune from racist attacks. On Friday night, doctored campaign fliers appeared on car windows in Hoboken featuring a picture of Mr. Bhalla, who wears the turban that is traditional to his faith. Above his picture was the message: “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our Town!”
The implication was one that is familiar to many Sikhs, who are part of a separate, monotheistic faith that is neither Hinduism nor Islam, but who are often mistaken for being something that they are not. Particularly after Sept. 11, Sikhs have found themselves the target of hate crimes that often appear to be based in a belief that they are Muslim.
Mr. Bhalla said that the public reaction to the fliers was largely a desire to refute the hate they represented. The police are investigating the matter as a bias incident.
“It is not what Hoboken is about, it is not reflective of our community,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate.”
He went on to win Tuesday, with 34 percent of the vote in a six-way race. Of the 14,000 votes cast, he received 4,781, according to the Hudson County Board of Elections. There are no runoffs so a plurality was enough to win.
“Is there something special about his victory? Without a doubt,” said Chief Kenneth F. Ferrante of the Hoboken Police Department. “This is already an exciting city. His victory just gives it more character.”
Mr. Bhalla, the child of Indian immigrants who was born and raised in New Jersey, said that his victory was because of his stance on the issues: pushing for more open space, holding the line on taxes, and working to solve the flooding problem, particularly after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy five years ago.
It certainly wasn’t because of a Sikh voting block. There is only a tiny Sikh community in Hoboken of about 15-20 families, he said, including his brother, whose family lives next door to Mr. Bhalla. (The Bhallas live on the same street where Frank Sinatra grew up as a teenager.) Mr. Bhalla and his wife have two children, ages 5 and 10, who attend a local charter school.
While Mr. Bhalla, who is a lawyer, was humble in talking about his victory, it has resonated well behind Hoboken. His campaign was covered by newspapers as far away as India. And his victory brought a surge of joy on social media from some of the approximately 500,000 Sikhs in America.
Sikhs, who largely hail from the Punjab region of modern-day India and Pakistan, have lived in America for about a century. In that time, they have often felt frustrated because they are “constantly perceived as people that they are not,” said Simran Jeet Singh, senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization based in New York City.
Still, Sikhs have risen in public life, particularly in Canada, where the current defense minister is Sikh. In the United States, there have been at least two Sikh mayors in recent years, according to the Sikh Coalition. In 2009, Kashmir Gill was elected mayor of Yuba City, Calif., but he did not wear a turban. In 2012 and again in 2014, Satyendra Huja, who wears a turban, was selected by the Charlottesville, Va., City Council to be mayor.
But Mr. Bhalla’s election felt like a milestone because it is believed to be the first time a turban-wearing Sikh has been directly elected by voters to lead an American city, Mr. Singh said.
“This, in many ways for the community, marks a signal shift,” he said, “that now we can maintain our distinct identity, we can practice our faith, and still be seen as part and parcel of the American experience.”
In Hoboken on Wednesday, Mr. Bhalla was stopped by a steady stream of well-wishers. Some said they considered his win a victory for multiculturalism, and a rejection of the forces that propelled President Trump to victory a year ago.
“People are upset, but we now have a medium, the electoral process, to express that,” said John Bredlin, 54, a college professor. “They are rejecting Trump.”
Mr. Bhalla said that while he is happy to talk about his faith, he is a mayor for all Hoboken. He has big plans for the city after he officially starts his term on Jan. 1, particularly to improve its infrastructure and public transportation.
“I didn’t run as the Sikh candidate,” he said. “I ran as the candidate who happened to be Sikh.”