san ramon mayor

In an unprecedented moment for diaspora politics, five South Asian American candidates are in a fierce battle for the mayor’s seat in San Ramon, California. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. There are higher levels of our community’s engagement across the country,” Varun Nikore, Indian American executive director of AAPI Progressive Action, told India-West. The candidates, clockwise from top left: engineer Sanat Sethy, San Ramon Vice Mayor Sabina Zafar, small business owner Aparna Madireddi, business owner and engineer Susmita Nayak, long-time San Ramon city councilman Dave Hudson, and physician Dinesh Govindarao. (all photos courtesy of the candidates)

In an unprecedented moment for diaspora politics, five South Asian American candidates — including four Indian Americans — are on the Nov. 3 ballot in the San Ramon, California, mayor’s race.

The candidates are: engineer Sanat Sethy, San Ramon Vice Mayor Sabina Zafar, small business owner Aparna Madireddi, business owner and engineer Susmita Nayak, long-time San Ramon city councilman Dave Hudson, and physician Dinesh Govindarao. Surprisingly, an equal number of men and women are running in the competitive race to replace Mayor Bill Clarkson, who will step down this fall, after serving in that role for eight years.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’m pleasantly surprised to see so many South Asian Americans stepping up for higher political office. There are higher levels of our community’s engagement across the country,” Varun Nikore, executive director of AAPI Progressive Action, told India-West.

Nikore credited the racially divisive politics of President Donald Trump in motivating people of color to “get off their couches.”

“People are now realizing that they have to engage. We have gone beyond economic survival in a new country,” the Indian American said.

The suburban town of San Ramon, in the San Francisco East Bay Area, has a rapidly-growing population of Indian Americans. One out of every seven residents in the town of 75,000 people is Indian American.

In interviews with India-West, many of the candidates expressed concern over the rapid pace of growth: San Ramon has grown 105 percent in the past two decades. The new “City Walk Master Plan” will add an additional 4,500 homes over the next 25 years, increasing the population by at least 11,000.

Sethy, who ran an unsuccessful race against Clarkson in 2018, told India-West the two high schools in town are designed for a maximum capacity of 4,000, but currently have 6,000 students. “The student/teacher ratio is terrible,” he said, adding that school-related drop-offs and pickups are terrible.

Moreover, teachers themselves cannot afford to live in San Ramon, said Sethy, who has lived in the town for 13 years and raised his children here. He said he is running on a simple platform of preserving open spaces and curbing rapid development.

Madireddi, who is chair of San Ramon’s Open Space Advisory Committee and serves as its liaison to the Planning Commission, alleged to India-West: “A lot of monied interests are playing a role in our development.”

On Aug. 4, Madireddi sent a letter to the City Council, opposing the new master plan. In her letter, the long-term resident said the plan includes only 675 units of affordable housing, each priced at an estimated $600,000. She expressed concerns about water shortages, and sewer infrastructure, which, she said, was insufficient to handle the increasing load.

In an interview with India-West, Madireddi also expressed her concern about the city’s $36 million pension debt, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. She also discussed the lack of public transportation for students and seniors, and shared her plan for alternatives to big buses, including mini-vans and partnerships with rental car companies. The candidate said she was shut down on the issue by the City Council. “They said they were going to build more bike lanes. Can you imagine a 75-year-old riding a bike?”

Nayak also opposed the new master plan. “It is not at all prudent to build on earthquake and flood zones,” she said, adding: “We need leadership who represent the residents of San Ramon, not developers.”

The candidate, who has lived in the town for 18 years, said, “San Ramon is one of the safest cities in California. It has great schools, lots of jobs, lots of open spaces with beautiful views everywhere.”

“But if the City Walk plan goes through, everything will fall apart. We need a leader who can secure a better future in San Ramon,” she said.

But Vice Mayor Zafar, who won her city council seat in 2018, defended the new master plan in an interview with India-West. Thirty years ago, developers came to the council with a proposal to build housing. The City Council voted against the proposal. Contra Costa County stepped in, and the developments were built.

“We can either build housing in a planned way, or the county will step in and do it their way,” said Zafar, noting that the new master plan protects open spaces by filling in existing areas, particularly downtown. The plan includes lakes, bike lanes, and parks, she said.

The new plan also calls for more affordable housing in the form of smaller one- and two-bedroom units. “We need to have housing for all age groups,” said Zafar.

The Islamabad native, who has lived in San Ramon for 15 years, views her candidacy as the cusp between Hudson, who has served on the city council for 22 years, and four relative newcomers to politics. “I understand the lay of the land, but also bring a fresh pair of eyes,” she said, noting that she has shadowed Clarkson, and attended the Mayor’s conference in Washington, DC last year when Clarkson could not attend.

Zafar has been endorsed by Reps. Eric Swalwell and Mark deSaulnier, California state Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, Assembly District 16; and San Ramon city council member Phil O'Loane.

Govindarao told India-West: “Our city is currently experiencing the biggest health crisis of a lifetime, and non-medical people are making medical decisions.”

The physician, who serves as Chief Medical Officer for the State Compensation Insurance Fund, said he would bring his expertise to manage San Ramon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, working with both county and state officials to “find a data driven approach.”

“The science is being disregarded,” said Govindarao, who has lived in San Ramon for 41 years and raised his family here. “How do we keep our economy open, without compromising the health of our residents?” he said, noting that the approach has been piecemeal, with, for example dentists allowed to open while barber shops remain shuttered.

Three Indian American candidates are also running for the District 3 seat on the San Ramon City Council. They are: Sridhar Verose, Varun Kaushal, and Sameera Rajwade.

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