Gujarati ex-Obama aide contests NY seat for US Congress


NEW DELHI: Democrat Suraj Patel called himself “a hipster coffee shop between two Starbucks” as the 38-year-old with roots in Bardoli near Gujarat’s Surat city is pitted against two veteran lawmakers in the race for the New York seat in the US Congress. Patel, who worked on President Obama‘s presidential campaigns and in his White House, is up against two of New York’s longest serving members of Congress in an August primary: Democratic Party stalwarts Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney.
Patel has unsuccessfully challenged Maloney in the past, but is unfazed now. “What we are trying to do here in New York in the next 38 days would be historic. I’d be the first non-white person to represent a majority white district in Manhattan,” Patel said in an email interview to TOI. “I have to believe that a lawyer who is the son of immigrants can be a Representative in the immigrant capital of the world: New York City.”
Patel said he is trying to increase representation of South Asians in American politics. “I get an average of five messages a week from people who say they want their son or daughter to turn on the TV and see a South Asian in the Halls of Congress making arguments and fighting for those less fortunate than ourselves. It certainly drives me.” Patel is not new to struggles bigger than him. “The pronunciation of my name, the bullying from people who didn’t understand us and the welcome from people who did… The things I felt acutely as a child I’m aware now were only fragments of what my parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles faced,” said Patel, who is an alumnus of Stanford University, Cambridge University and New York University.
Patel recalled that his father was held at gunpoint three times during his front-desk job at a motel outside Philadelphia. “My brother and I didn’t go to band camp because we would spend our summers on construction sites, once assembling 600 coat racks for motel rooms, and sometimes kids would tell you at school that you ‘smelled like Indian food’ because the living room was my bedroom until 9th grade,” he said.
Patel traced his roots to Surat district – his grandfather was from Bardoli and grandmother from Nagod. His great-uncle Maganlal was the first to reach the American shores in the 1960s. Rest of the family followed and eventually got green cards. His relatives back home termed the attorney, businessman and adjunct faculty as humble and grounded to roots. Patel has maternal grandparents in Bardoli and he visits them frequently.
Talking about his childhood, he said that like all first-generation Indian kids, he struggled to keep one foot rooted in culture and another in the new world of schools and activities. “I think, like many of us, the goal is not to acquiesce, but still fit in: I found myself living in two different worlds and eventually asking for the same thing: to be understood and represented fairly and comprehensively. The immigrant story is universal and universally untold,” he said. But the US has moved on from the time when they were greeted by voices of Apu on the Simpsons, he said.
Terming Gujarati as his mother tongue, Patel still gorges on ‘desi food’ four times a week and “nothing gets his morning like aloo paratha”. During his campaign, he reads Mahabharata, Ramayana and Siddhartha. “I mean, if I applied the lessons of the Arthashastra to this race, it might make Machiavelli blush. We come from a rich historic and cultural tradition and have much to offer to the world,” he said. He has sought to be “a zealous advocate and representative” for the people of his district. “I find so much commonality in the stories of my neighbours. Many of these folks can trace their lineage to having escaped Nazi Germany and eastern Europe as Jewish refugees from WWII. I see so much commonality in our stories. People are looking for representation and for someone who is in touch and understands their stories,” said Patel.





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