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Panel Discusses Power of Newcomers to Reshape Politics

"People Like Us" author speaks about immigrants running for elected office at event organized by CLPSA

April 10, 2019

Immigrants arrive in the U.S. with a keen appreciation for the nation’s democratic principles, often making them strong political candidates, said Sayu Bhojwani, a political scientist who is grooming leaders to run for public office, during a discussion on April 9.  

“Stories of optimism are particularly prevalent in immigrant communities, because a lot of us have come here because of democratic opportunities,” said Bhojwani, the founder of the nonprofit, nonpartisan New American Leaders and author of “People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door.”  

The panel, moderated by Professor Anil Kalhan, was organized by the Center for Law, Policy, and Social Action, which Professor Rose Corrigan directs.  

Former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Nina Ahmad, a Penn-educated microbiologist, said her upbringing in Bangladesh gave her sensitivities to life as a “second-class citizen” and fueled an interest in disrupting the complacency of those in power. 

In part, Ahmad said she had been inspired by the 2004 presidential candidacy of Howard Dean, a physician and political outsider who became governor of Vermont. 

Ahmad described the challenges of running against entrenched political interests when she opposed longtime First Congressional District Rep. Bob Brady in 2017. When the district map was found by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to violate the constitution and quickly redrawn, Ahmad scrambled to run instead as lieutenant governor. With just 11 weeks to mount a primary campaign, Ahmad defied the odds and managed a second-place showing.   

Bhojwani, whose book offers case studies of 11 immigrants who won in diverse races prior to 2018, said the key is to build a broad base of support and that knocking on doors—though essential—is not enough. 

Without extensive relationship-building, Bhojwani said, it’s easy to develop unrealistic expectations.  

“Now everybody thinks they’re going to be the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” Bhojwani said, referring to the charismatic congresswoman who became a media star since winning her 2018 race in the Bronx, New York.   

The discussion, Corrigan said, highlighted connections between the legal issues that drive lawyers into the courtroom and the policy issues decided in the voting booth.