HOBOKEN, N.J. — During his first campaign for Hoboken City Council in 2009, Ravinder Bhalla knew his turban and beard would not go unnoticed. But the 44-year-old New Jersey native told NBC News he was determined to not let his identity become a liability, and instead focus on the issues.
The citizens of Hoboken agreed: Out of 12 candidates competing for three spots, Bhalla received the highest number of votes, making waves as the first Sikh to hold elected office in New Jersey. Now, after serving for eight years, he’s ready to expand his advocacy by running for mayor of Hoboken.
“I’ve seen all the progress we’ve made as a community,” Bhalla said. “This is an opportunity to take Hoboken to even greater heights. It’s also an opportunity as an Asian American to uplift our community in a collective sense as well.”
Bhalla was born and raised in New Jersey, but decided to branch out for his education. But although he attended UC Berkeley for his undergraduate education, pursued his master's at the London School of Economics, and earned his Juris Doctorate from Tulane Law School, Bhalla said he's always felt that New Jersey was his home.
“I always knew in my heart that I would be back here in New Jersey, because this is where my roots are, as an American,” he said.
Growing up as a Sikh American in 1970s New Jersey wasn't always easy, Bhalla acknowledged. School bullies threw racial slurs at Bhalla, and he said his childhood influenced his current political beliefs.
“That always gave me a sense of standing up for the underdog, standing up for minorities… whether it’s immigrants, African Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, Asian Americans,” Bhalla, who is also a civil rights attorney, said. “Anyone who’s underrepresented, in any sphere of our society, deserves to have their voices heard, deserves to have a seat at the table.”
Bhalla cites the 2008 presidential election cycle as his first inspiration for public office, describing how he closed his law office for one week so he and his brother could campaign for then-Senator Barack Obama. The pair drove to New Hampshire in the middle of winter and knocked on doors to get out the vote.
Even after trudging through the snow, his volunteer work sparked his love for grassroots campaigning. “That was a very inspirational election cycle for me. I thought if we can elect an African-American president, we can certainly elect a Sikh-American councilman,” he said.
The year before he ran, Bhalla said he saw a “complete mismanagement” of his local government, due to an increase in property taxes and an overspent budget. Bhalla and his wife felt the devastating economic impact, and knew they had two options: retreat to the suburbs like many of their friends had, or “try to get off the sidelines and make an impact,” he said.
“When I first ran for office, people asked me, ‘How are you going to get your votes? Are there any Sikh Americans in Hoboken?’ There was my wife and I, and my brother,” he said.
Through his two terms on city council, and serving as council president for one of those years, Bhalla cites decreasing taxes and saving jobs at a local hospital as some of his proudest achievements. Still, he felt pressure to set a precedent for others in his religious community.
“When you are a visible minority, as a Sikh, you have an obligation not to just do a good job and represent yourself, but you’re also representing your community,” he said. “It’s very similar to being a police officer. When you put that uniform on, you represent not just yourself as an officer, but you’re representing the entire department.”
Bhalla added that he hopes to not only build on the foundation his parents laid out for him (his father immigrated from India in the 1960s to pursue his Ph.D. in physics), but to surpass those expectations.
The Hoboken mayoral election will take place in November. Despite a crowded field, Bhalla has already received the endorsement of current Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who is not seeking re-election.
Though there’s still progress to be made in political representation, Bhalla said his two children are growing up in a vastly different era, where diversity is taken seriously.
“I think it’s imperative on the younger Asian Americans to not just look towards your own career, but make that connection between what you’re doing… in your own professional life and in the community,” he said. “Your block, your neighborhood, your city, your town, really get involved in whatever way inspires you.”