April 5, 2001

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Jersey Republicans woo Desis

S Mitra Kalita

They stood mostly in the back of the room, observing the hundreds seated before them decked in elephant gear and American flags.

For many of the Indian-Americans attending last week's GOP convention here, it was their first venture into politics.

But this was a night of firsts. At its annual convention, the Republican Party threw its support behind Pradip (Peter) Kothari, the first Asian-American to run for a countywide seat in Middlesex that boasts the highest number of New Jersey's Asians.

As his nomination was announced, Kothari was at the back of the room giving an interview to TV Asia, one of several ethnic media outlets covering the event.

Visibly nervous and gripping an acceptance speech, Kothari politely excused himself and walked briskly to the front of the room.

The other two candidates, Woodbridge resident Joseph Paone and former South River councilwoman Tina Martins Cruz, had already been nominated and accepted less than a half-hour into the event.

But it became clear that Kothari's process would be different when his nominator, Assemblyman Sam Thompson, took the crowd back to 1492.

"Our country was discovered by a brave man sailing for the seas of India," he said, referring to Christopher Columbus. "Were it not for India, we might not be here today."

Quickly, though, he brought the crowd up to modern-day America. Asian immigrants comprise 13.9 percent of Middlesex County (estimated population 900,000), the largest minority group, he told them. And just in case this audience didn't understand the significance of numbers, Thompson mentioned his own doctor is Indian, as is his wife's.

Then, came the kicker: "We send a message to all minorities. This is the party of opportunity and we welcome you."

Rhetoric aside, the local GOP appears to be shedding its stigma as anti-minority, anti-immigrant and anti-poor. (New Jersey has two Indian mayors in small cities, both are Democrats.)

Indeed, it must to survive in New Jersey, said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

"Both parties in New Jersey are dominated by white males," he said. "The Census is confirming that the racial and ethnic composition has changed pretty dramatically. There are groups with ethnic heritages that have not been represented in politics. There are sizable populations that have the potentialto vote in fairly high numbers."

In Middlesex County, it's not for lack of trying that Asians have not been able to snag a single one of the hundreds of elected seats throughout the county and its 25 municipalities.

In Old Bridge Township, for example, Kiran Desai once expressed interest in running for the township council, but was passed over for a better-known candidate.

Desai, still a loyal Democrat, said he agreed with the decision, but hopes to try again soon.

"My daughter, my son, my niece, they will have a chance to run for general election," said Desai, the appointed chairman of the town's zoning board. "They are still not ready for us."

And in 1999, the GOP backed Baljit (Bill) Singh and Andrew Wu for Edison council positions. They lost, each receiving almost half the votes of the four Democratic winners.

For Kothari, once referred to as the "Godfather" of the New Jersey's Indian community, the entry of Indian-Americans into politics was certain, it was just a question of who and when. The 54-year-old and president of the Indo-American Cultural Society has been friends with politicos across the spectrum for a long time.

During fall weekends, a bipartisan lineup graces the stage of the annual Navratri festivals, a 10,000-person celebration Kothari has spearheaded for 11 years. And last year, Kothari traveled with Woodbridge Mayor James McGreevey to India.

McGreevey, a Democrat running for governor again this year, allegedly spent four hours in Kothari's Iselin travel agency to persuade him not to run.

His plea came too late. When Census 2000 figures showed Asians 78 per cent growth statewide, Kothari decided it was time to demand more than plaques and handshakes from politicians.

Arguably, nowhere is the mark of South Asians' arrival in suburbia more present than Middlesex County.

Along Oak Tree Road, sari shops, groceries and music stores thrive. Inside biotechnology, computer and pharmaceutical firms on the Route 1 corridor, software consultants from India have been imported by the planeload. And a perusal of any high school yearbook in the county will surely yield a page of Patels.

Middlesex County's political scene reflects none of this diversity.

"Democrat, Republican, I don't think it matters," Kothari said in an interview in the weeks before he was nominated. "We need to get individually involved and play an active role in politics."

As it turned out, the Republicans made room for him first.

At the GOP convention, many Indians who turned out were not even from Middlesex County. Mercer County resident Smita Patel drove 45 minutes from Princeton Junction to support her friend Pete.

And then there was Shailesh Vyas, who passed out business cards with his Ahmedabad garment factory's address.

Vyas, not a citizen, not even a permanent resident, said he just wanted to show a fellow Indian his support.

Yet Kothari made clear to his community and others that the GOP's message of inclusion needs to be met halfway: "I will play as a teammate. I will work with everyone," he concluded.

One by one, members of the GOP, many whose silver hair and spectacles gave them away as long-time party faithfuls, rose to their feet. Suddenly, the Indians in the back were no longer the only ones standing.

S Mitra Kalita is a reporter for Newsday in New York City. She is working on a book about immigrants in suburbia told through the migration of Indians to Central New Jersey. Under contract with Rutgers University Press, the book is tentatively titled Our Amrikan Dream.

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