Sapana Shah: If elected Mayor of Edison, my goal is not to be a ‘South Asian’ mayor

Sapana Shah
Sapana Shah

Indian American attorney Sapana Shah is vying for nomination of township’s Democratic Party, which is set to pick its nominee on February 23.

Indian American Democrat Sapana Shah is running for the Mayor of Edison, New Jersey. The Edison Democratic Party will pick its nominee at a virtual convention on February 24. Shah, an attorney, is seen as the strongest candidate in the fray.

A former member of the Edison Township Council and Board of Education, Shah is well known in the community. In 2012, she was instrumental in Edison Public Schools recognizing Diwali an annual holiday.

She has also lead several campaigns to make Edison more diverse, including pushing the Edison Police Department to hire more qualified minority officers, among them three South Asians.

In between her hectic schedule ahead of the nomination, Shah spoke to the American Bazaar. She spoke about the importance of her candidacy for Edison, which has one of the highest concentrations of Indian Americans in the United States. Here are the excerpts:

You are running for the position of Mayor of Edison, one of the largest Indian and Asian American population hubs. How significant is your candidacy for the Indian American community, and why?

I have been politically active in Edison Township (and throughout New Jersey) for over two decades. Edison, NJ, is quite distinctive: It is home to multi-generational waves of South Asian and East Asian immigrants.

As a community leader, I have made a tremendous effort to teach new residents how our democracy works and how vital it is for them to get involved and be active in our political process. I consider myself an American candidate of Asian-Indian heritage.

I have worked steadily toward my goal of becoming Mayor of Edison with political involvement that spans two decades. I served as an elected member of the Edison Township Council and, prior to that, on the Board of Education. I am ready to rise to this exciting new challenge.

New Jersey has in the recent past also seen a historic moment, when the first Muslim South Asian woman candidate, Sadaf Jaffer, was elected as mayor of the Montgomery Township. Do you think New Jersey is now ready for more representation and diverse portfolios?

Politically, New Jersey has been slow to embrace diversity. Both political parties have been slow to appoint or help elect more diverse candidates to state, county and local offices. I believe that our representative system of government works best when our elected and appointed public officials reflect and can relate to the constituents they serve.

Change began to happen earlier than 2017, where I live in Central New Jersey. It is here, for example, where Upendra J. Chivukula became the state’s first Indian American ever elected to the N.J. Assembly in 2002. He served for 12 years before being appointed to the state Board of Public Utilities. Candidates from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds have made modest strides. But, more change must happen as New Jersey’s diverse constituent-base continues to grow and becomes more politically-aware and active.

What will be your immediate concerns for your community and for the county in general?

If elected Mayor of Edison, my goal is not to be its “South Asian” mayor. I will be a mayor who can bridge the cultural divide; who understands and serves the needs of all its residents.

In Edison or anywhere else, an Indian American or a Chinese family’s needs and concerns are largely the same as any other family. They want clean water from their faucets; they want affordable property taxes; they want police and firefighters to rush to any emergency at their homes; and they want clean, safe streets and parks.

My immediate priorities will be to address concerns that are specific to Edison: Its water quality, its property taxes and its aging infrastructure. I will do as much as possible to help our small business community recover from COVID-19 pandemic and bring new corporate and commercial investors into Edison, creating more jobs for our residents and offsetting residential taxes.

You campaigned successfully to make Diwali an official annual holiday for Edison Public Schools, beginning 2012. That seemed to be a huge nod toward America’s diversity. Take us through that process and then what do you suggest can be done to make it a national holiday?

Making Diwali an official holiday on the Edison Public School calendar took significant effort. It met with reluctance and some backlash, including harassment and a few threats. I am thankful that I was able to persuade my school board colleagues to recognize Diwali and it remains a school holiday.

My efforts in Edison helped inspire similar movements in other New Jersey towns where people of Indian heritage convinced their public school districts to do the same. It also helped other the Asian communities to push for Chinese New Year become an official holiday and Muslim communities to get Eid al-Fitr similarly recognized.

We like your thought that you don’t want to be a South Asian mayor, but want to bridge the cultural divide. Tell us more about the inclusion and the need among South Asians to recognize it.

As I previously said, South or East Asians have many of the same needs and concerns as most other residents of any New Jersey municipality or elsewhere.

To move forward, they should not isolate themselves. They should become politically-aware and more active in their communities. Of course, not everyone has the time or the desire to run for elected office — but they should register to vote and routinely vote in greater numbers. That is a positive path to inclusion.

Edison is also home to a large population of Indian nationals who are on work-related visas. With President Biden’s immigration reform bill underway, what do you think about its impact on those on H-1B visas and those awaiting green cards?

The Biden Administration has presented an immigration reform bill to Congress that would relax green card requirements and H-1B visas for thousands of hard-working Asians, many in the technology industry and a host of other jobs.

Yes, this would positively affect many Edison residents and people throughout New Jersey and across the U.S. This is a significant reversal of the unfair Trump-era anti-immigration policies that turned my stomach. I support President Biden’s measure. It offers hope to people with employment-based visas and it would address the unfair wait for green cards that many experience. I reserve my final judgment until the President’s measure becomes a law.

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