Two Indian American political novices are challenging Fremont, California, incumbent Mayor Lily Mei in the Nov. 3 election.
Businessman Vik Bajwa Singh and Naz Mahika Khan, a native of the Fiji Islands with ancestral roots in India, join data scientist Chris Hampton; Professor Justin Sha; and Marlene Sentilli, a corporate safety assurance officer, in challenging Mei for her seat.
Singh and Khan both told India-West they have never previously held elected office, but the town’s economic crisis amid the COVID-19 pandemic, its rising homeless population, and the nation’s inflection point on racial justice sparked their decision to run.
Fremont, on the edge of Northern California’s Silicon Valley, is home to one of the largest populations of Indian Americans in the nation. It is also home to several other South Asian American communities.
Singh, who has lived in Fremont on and off for six years, told India-West that he made his decision in June, when hundreds of local residents marched to Fremont’s City Hall to express their anger over the death of Minnesota resident George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer. The incident sparked off nationwide protests drawing attention to police brutality meted out by white officers against Black men.
Singh and other protestors “took the knee,” a symbolic gesture memorializing Floyd, who was killed as the police officer pressed his knee against the victim’s neck for almost nine minutes. The candidate alleged that Mei would not take the knee.
“This put me in a cycle of thought. Mayor Mei’s parents are Chinese immigrants, but she does not support equality and justice for people of color,” he said.
Singh also criticized Mei for her handling of an issue which deeply divided the Fremont community: where to place a homeless navigational center, funded by a $2 million grant from Alameda County. The deep divide over the issue saw residents in fierce combat at overflowing City Council meetings. Some Indian American residents of the Niles district, where the shelter was first to be placed, expressed their anger that the facility would be placed on the only route to the local elementary school.
The 8,000 square foot facility, which currently houses 25 people, was finally placed in the parking lot of City Hall. Singh questioned the expenditure, noting that $2.9 million would be spent by the city each year to house just 25 individuals. The facility is temporary; it is funded only until 2023.
Fremont currently has 608 homeless people, according to the 2019 point in time survey, a 27 percent jump from 2017.
Singh characterized Mei’s fast-tracking of the project as an “election year gimmick to showcase her human rights record.” He advocated for a permanent solution: building a six-story structure on purchased land, which could house as many as 500 people. The initial outlay would be about $50 million, including mental health and substance abuse services delivered on site, but the city would recoup its investment via equity building on the $15 million land purchase, he explained.
Singh is also running on a platform of temporarily halting business taxes, as small and large businesses attempt to regain their footing in a post-COVID economy. “Everyone is hurting badly,” he told India-West, noting that 18,000 residents of Fremont have been laid off during the pandemic, as the state imposed shelter-in-place orders which restricted most workers to their homes.
He also supports creating an additional 12,000 units of housing.
Khan told India-West,“A lot of irresponsible development has resulted in traffic congestion and overcrowded schools.” She supports “smart communities,” including small, affordable, one-bedroom units that can be used to house homeless people and also elderly residents, who are increasingly being pushed out of Fremont because of the high cost of housing.
The single mother, whose son attended Fremont schools and now serves in the U.S. Air Force, said she wants to see more schools built, including new high schools and even a university.
As Fremont mayor, Khan told India-West her top priorities would be forging a post-pandemic path to economic recovery, with better jobs for people within the city, lessening the need to commute. She also supports creating a start-up environment which would attract early-stage businesses to the city.
The city must also create a rainy day fund. “We were not at all prepared for COVID, but we need to be prepared for future disasters,” she asserted.
Khan also supports creating more locations for free COVID testing and better maintenance of Fremont’s 52 public parks. Most of all, the candidate supports creating a local environment supportive of racial justice.
“There are plenty of areas of opportunity,” she said.