New Jersey elects UC Berkeley alumnus as nation’s first turbaned Sikh mayor

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UC Berkeley alumnus Ravinder Bhalla was elected the first Sikh mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey last week.

In addition to being the first Sikh mayor of Hoboken, Bhalla is also the first turban-wearing Sikh politician to be elected mayor in U.S. history.

“I think the most important thing to recognize is that his election was a watershed moment for the Sikh community in our history in the United States,” said Gurwin Ahuja, executive director and co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign. “It showed to young Sikh Americans that our potential in the country is limitless.”

Bhalla’s election victory is accompanied by a number of other noteworthy political victories across the country. Virginia elected Danica Roem as the nation’s first openly transgender legislator, while Charlotte, North Carolina elected Vi Lyles, the city’s first female Black mayor.

An Indian American civil rights lawyer and city politician, Bhalla entered the mayoral race after incumbent Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s decision not to run for re-election and her endorsement for his campaign.

Bhalla graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in political psychology before receiving a master’s degree in public administration and public policy from the London School of Economics. He then ran for city council in New Jersey, winning and serving two terms as a city council member.

According to Bhalla’s campaign website, his primary campaign platforms involved balancing budgets, retrofitting mass transit, education, responsible development and open-space initiatives. Bhalla also emphasized work with affordable housing and environmental sustainability.

Bhalla beat out five other candidates for the position, including fellow Hoboken City Councilmembers Mike DeFusco and Jennifer Giattino.

“We’re proud to see him have his turban and his beard, knowing that people will misinterpret it. … He knows that he’s standing for the values of religious tolerance, racial equality and gender equality,” Ahuja said.

The Hoboken mayoral race did not happen without controversy. Flyers labeling Bhalla as a terrorist were circulated days before the election, claiming to be “paid for by Team DeFusco for Hoboken.” DeFusco has publicly condemned the flyers and alleged that they were not associated with his campaign.

“I think that there’s generally a large lack of understanding around who a Sikh American is, what a Sikh American looks like, what it means to be a Sikh American, and because of a lot of that lack of knowledge, ignorance tends to also manifest in hatred,” said Anumita Kaur, a fellow for the National Sikh Campaign.

Bhalla will begin working on his proposed policies when his term begins in January 2018.

“I am personally really excited to see what Ravi Bhalla does as mayor, but even more largely, what Ravi Bhalla’s election means for Sikh Americans across the country,” Kaur said.

Contact Phil Zhang at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @philzhangDC.