he Indian-American community around the country is rooting for New Jersey Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, the Democratic candidate for Congress from the state’s 7th District. Since May this year, an average of three fundraisers a week have been held for Chivukula, and according to his campaign, at least 60 percent were hosted by Indian- and Asian-Americans around the country and in New Jersey.
Chivukula, who is the only Indian-American in the New Jersey State Assembly, faces incumbent Republican Leonard Lance in his congressional race. By October Chivukula had raised more than $740,000, the Journal reported, to Lance’s more than $1 million.
According to Lance supporters, the redrawn District 7 has a large wealthy and Conservative voting bloc which would work in favor of the incumbent. District 7 consists of parts of Essex, Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Union and Warren counties. Its ethnic breakdown includes 11 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Black, 11 percent Asian, with Indian-Americans making up some 7 percent, according to Chivukula’s estimates.
The assemblyman’s supporters point out that he has been re-elected several times from a mostly Caucasian district and is not a newcomer to politics. Before he was elected to the state Assembly, Chivukula served as mayor of Franklin Township.
Shoring Up Support Keeping up the momentum, the money and the voter turnout are critical to the Indian-American candidate’s victory, noted Kris Kolluri, a Democrat and former head of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority. And while an incumbent always has a fundraising advantage, Chivukula has hardly done shabbily and the amount revealed the depth and breadth of his support, Kolluri opined.
Add to that a difficult year where even if the economy is improving, people don’t have that much discretionary funds to write checks for campaigns. “And remember, the community is being asked to fund everything from local freeholder candidates to congressional candidates,” Kolluri said pointing to the range of Indian-American candidates running for public office.
His campaign has recruited more than 500 volunteers to make calls and get out the vote, at least 40 percent to 50 percent of the volunteers are Indian-American, Chivukula told Desi Talk.
His wife Dayci, a Hispanic of Cuban origin, affectionately called “Desi Dayci” by Indian-Americans, accompanies Chivukula when he frequents Hispanic-dominated localities. Along with Asians, Hispanics are estimated to be one of the largest ethnic groups in the district.
But, according to Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, ethnic groups are, by and large, split like any other. While Hispanics tend to be more liberal, he said, Cubans in fact, tend to be more Republican, he told Desi Talk.
Though there have been no independent polls of District 7, Chivukula’s campaign says it has seen significant progress in its outreach to undecided voters. “District 7 has 46 percent unaffiliated voters and 24 percent Democrats and 30 percent Republicans according to the County Board of Elections data,” Chivukula said. “And while it may be fiscally conservative, people are socially liberal on issues such as marriage equality, gender equality, gun control,” something he is banking on and has emphasized during the candidate debates and wherever he campaigns.
On the Issues In their second of three debates held Oct. 21, Chivukula and Lance had a lively exchange covering a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues, during which the Democrat continued his attack on his opponent for espousing Tea Party positions.
Sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, the debate was held at the Jewish Community Center in Scotch Plains, N.J.
“Congressman Lance has pursued an extreme Tea Party agenda in Washington and has a shameful record on issues impacting seniors, women, workers and families,” Chivukula contended during the debate. “He voted to end Medicare as we know it, stood in the way of creating jobs, and voted to deny funding for women to have access to preventative healthcare services including clinical breast exams, cancer screenings, prenatal care and contraception.”
He accused Lance of being part of a do-nothing Congress and promised to reach across the aisle if elected. “They haven’t passed any legislation, and they are in gridlock,” Chivukula is quoted as saying on NJ.com. “They think compromise is a dirty word.” But he added, if elected, he would help grow the economy, reduce the debt and help those who are unemployed and underemployed as well as protect the rights and benefits of women, seniors and veterans.
“I will work across the aisle to solve the people’s problems. … We need to take a pragmatic, practical approach. The finger-pointing of the last few years cannot go on. It’s an enormous burden on taxpayers,” Chivukula said. Lance agreed on the sorry state of the economy but countered that he had voted for a compromise between Democrats and Republicans in Congress on cutting the deficit.
“I had 25 town halls over the last two years and the universal concern is the state of the American economy,” he is quoted saying on NJ.com. He said small businesses were struggling and agreed with Chivukula’s support for senior citizens and funding care for them. He countered accusations he was against Medicare and Medicaid and said Social Security can be continued by raising the retirement age.
“We must preserve and protect Medicare not only for this generation but into the future,” Lance is quoted as saying in media reports.
But Chivukula did not let up. “Lance votes 90 percent with the Tea Party,” and wants to “balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable,” Chivukula insisted. “I stand for seniors who are afraid of Medicare being turned into voucher care, and I stand by small businesses that have seen their funding cut.”
He also accused Lance of voting against women when he voted against funding for the Violence Against Women Act in Congress. In a weak response to that, Lance said he voted on party lines following Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., according to NJ.com.
Both concurred on foreign policy issues such as preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, getting rid of President Bashar Assad in Syria, and keeping Israel as the United State’s closest ally in the Middle East.
If Chivukula wins, the community hopes he would be joined by a couple more Indian-Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives: Dr. Ami Bera from California’s District 7, and Dr. Manan Trivedi from Pennsylvania’s 6th District. There is also a long-shot possibility that another Democrat, Syed Taj, running from Michigan’s 11th against Republican Kerry Bentivolio, could defeat his opponent, making it an unprecedented banner year for Indian-Americans. Republican “Young Gun” Ricky Gill is also running for the House from San Joaquin Valley’s District 9 against longtime Democrat Jerry McNerney.