If there is an American elected official who is the opposite of Donald Trump, it could well be Ravinder Bhalla. A Sikh-American lawyer with a record of fighting discrimination, Bhalla says, “I’m everything that Trump hates. A brown man wearing a turban, and a proud American with the know-how to stop his assaults on our country’s values.”
And while Trump is losing, Bhalla is winning. On Tuesday, when voters across the country rejected the president’s Republican allies in what political analysts referred to as “nothing less than a stinging repudiation of Trump on the first anniversary of his election,” Ravi Bhalla was elected mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey. The win in the city of 55,000, located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, was celebrated by the Sikh community in the United States, which has frequently been targeted by racists who know little about the 500-year-old religion that has produced many political leaders in India and Canada.
“Given how much we’ve endured in this country, and frankly the fact that we have been here for more than a century now in the U.S. and have felt largely ignored and neglected as a minority community, this is for us a signal shift, where we feel like we’re getting on the map. This is a major development for us,” declared Simran Jeet Singh, a religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition. “And it comes in a context where, like many minority groups, we’re facing xenophobia.”
Bhalla’s victory came on a night of breakthrough victories for women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, democratic socialists, and others who have been the targets of Trump’s crude slurs and discriminatory policies. Like many of the candidates who ran on the state and local levels, in partisan and nonpartisan contests, Bhalla was blunt about his disagreements with the president, telling interviewers, “I am the son of two Indian immigrants and I’m willing to stand up against President Donald Trump whenever his policies are not in line with the U.S. Constitution, and in this case the New Jersey State Constitution.”
“My job as a mayor would be to identify both areas of cooperation with federal government,” said the attorney. But he added that his job would also be “to defend our rights as immigrants and minorities whenever they come under attack. It is my obligation to defend our rights as Americans.”
That’s an appealing message that paralleled the campaign themes of many of Tuesday’s winners.
But the Hoboken breakthrough did not come easily. Though Bhalla has degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, the London School of Economics and Tulane Law School, though he is a two-term at-large member of the Hoboken City Council who has planted deep roots in his adopted city, and though he is a former chairman of the Hoboken Democratic Party and ran with the support of outgoing mayor Dawn Zimmer, he faced a multicandidate contest that finished with racist attacks.
In the final days before voters went to the polls, anonymous flyers appeared in Hoboken with the message: “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town.” The message was next to a photo of Bhalla wearing the turban that is associated with his religious faith. (The Sikh religion is distinct from Hinduism and Islam, but many racists and xenophobes confuse Sikh men with Muslims.)
Bhalla responded with a personal note to Hoboken voters that focused primarily on the issues he was campaigning on—especially upgrading the waterfront city’s infrastructure and “tackling flooding and climate change head on rather than wishing it away.” But he concluded by reminding his neighbors that “you know who I am, and the principles for which I will stand. I have never run from who I am and what I believe, and neither should you. I will be the Mayor who will stand with you when you need it.”
The voters agreed. Ravi Bhalla won with relative ease—beating his closest rival by more than 600 votes. On Tuesday night, as the nation was recording an electoral repudiation of a cruel and divisive presidency, the man whose campaign acknowledged that he was “everything that Trump hates” claimed his victory with a message of reconciliation and hope. “Thank you for having faith in me, for having faith in our community, faith in our state, and faith in our country; this is what America is all about,” he told cheering supporters. “We’ve been through a bruising campaign…but now is the time we come together and see who we can work with to bring this city forward.”