Despite an 11th hour racist attack which depicted him as a terrorist, Indian American Ravi Bhalla emerged victorious late Nov. 8 evening, as he was elected the first Sikh mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey.
“I’m very humbled and honored to represent a great city and the Indian American community,” Bhalla told India-West the morning after his historic win. The evening emerged as a backlash against the Trump administration, as several progressive Democrats throughout the country were elected to office.
Some publications have reported that Bhalla is the first Sikh mayor in the U.S. But California’s Central Valley has a long history of Sikh mayors, including Kash Gill, the former mayor of Yuba City; Gian Singh Rakkar, mayor of Kerman, who may have been the first turbaned mayor in the nation; and Soni Dhaliwal, who currently serves as the mayor of Lathrop.
Next year, Preet Didbal will be the first female Sikh mayor of Yuba City.
Bhalla – who served two terms on Hoboken’s city council – said he has drawn inspiration from the Sikh politicians who came before him.
The politician declared victory at 10 p.m. East Coast time when the second-place finisher, Hoboken city councilman Michael DeFusco, called to congratulate him. Bhalla garnered 4,781 votes – 34 percent – in the crowded race. He was endorsed by former Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer.
Speaking about the racist flyers which emerged just five days before voters in Hoboken went to the polls, Bhalla told India-West: “This was a very unfortunate incident and completely out of bounds. This is not what Hoboken is about.”
“We are a welcoming and diverse community,” he said, noting that the incident is being actively investigated by police, and that he and his campaign staff are fully cooperating with the investigation.
“Don’t let terrorism take over our town,” proclaimed the flyers, which stated they were paid for by Team DeFusco, and listed the candidate’s campaign Web site, as well as his social media handles.
DeFusco has denied any knowledge of the flyers. "Hoboken is far better than this and whoever made this flyer is not only insulting one of my opponents in a despicable way, they are also painting me as a racist, which, as the only openly gay elected official in Hudson County and a progressive Democrat, simply could not be further from the truth," he said in a press statement.
Asked whether one of his opponents in the six-person race was behind the flyers, Bhalla said he did not know. “I hope they find the culprits behind this,” he told India-West.
Allegations of terrorism were also lobbed against the Sikh American in 2016, on his twitter handle.
One of the first projects Bhalla will take on as mayor is the “Rebuild by Design” initiative, which will use a $230 million federal flood protection grant to protect residents of the “square mile” city from severe weather events, such as 2012’s “Superstorm Sandy,” which left more than 80 percent of the town’s 55,000 residents in standing water.
The severe storm wreaked more than $100 million in property and infrastructure damage.
A 2014 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that more than half of the coastal city’s residents live in areas that are below five feet above-average sea level, placing them at great risk for flood damage.
The flood protection initiative has four components, explained Bhalla: Resist, Delay, Store, and Discharge. The city has acquired eight acres of green space, and – through a novel scheme – has incorporated storm water collection tanks underneath the park that can store up to 500 million gallons of water. The water is pumped off the street during flooding and stored in the tanks until it is treated properly, then discharged into the nearby Hudson River.
Bhalla said he hopes to be the “infrastructure mayor,” especially in the mass-transit sector. Approximately 58 percent of the city’s residents use public transport on a daily basis. The mayor-elect said he hopes to add more frequent bus and train lines, and to make ferry travel to New York less expensive.