Reshma Patel, a first-generation immigrant from Gujarat, India, is running to be New York City Comptroller. If elected, she would be the first South Asian woman, and second woman overall, to serve in the position. She would replace current comptroller Scott Stringer, whose two-term limit will be up this year. He is now running for Mayor of New York City. Stringer’s move is well-precedented, as only one of the past nine city comptrollers did not subsequently run for mayor, though most were unsuccessful.
Patel, a Democrat, has built her career in public finance, working on over $40 billion of financings for New York City. She spent eight years at a firm that served as a financial advisor to the Comptroller’s office. She describes the Comptroller’s role as “essentially the CFO of New York City.” The Comptroller conducts audits of city agencies and oversees the city’s five public pension funds, serving as a “fiscal watchdog” over the mayor and the city budget. While the Comptroller wields the power to make direct policy recommendations, only the City Council and mayor can actually implement reforms.
Patel entered a crowded field, with 10 candidates having filed paperwork to run as of Feb. 7. Her competition includes state Sens. Brian Benjamin and Kevin Parker, City Council Member Brad Lander, Assembly Member David Weprin and former Marine and mayoral race dropout Zach Iscol. Also in the running is Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the 2020 Democratic congressional primary. Patel believes her professional experience and proximity to the Comptroller’s office coupled with her involvement in the local community sets her apart from her competitors.
“I’ve been the person behind the scenes doing the work on a lot of the areas that the Comptroller’s office should be focusing on,” Patel said. “And at the same time, I’ve also been grounded in community and have been working on the ground with organizations but also have been involved in many different parts of the city.”
Patel points out that while many of her competitors either understand the needs of the city after serving as elected officials or bring experience from the financial services industry, she is the only candidate with knowledge in both realms. She serves as vice-chair of Budget and Government Affairs on Manhattan’s Community Board 6, president of the Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club and co-chair of the Chhaya Community Development Corporation board, which serves immigrant communities in Queens that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. She decided to run for office after seeing through her community involvement how COVID-19 had affected poor and middle-class communities in New York City.
“Despite having such a large budget, $92 billion this year, if you ask most community groups, almost everybody says that they’re not getting the services that they need from the city,” Patel said. “And this was before COVID. Now with COVID, obviously, those needs have just increased.”
The next New York City Comptroller will face an expected $5.25 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year alone. Most Democratic candidates in the race agree with Mayor Bill De Blasio that the city cannot make up this deficit without additional assistance through federal funds. One core tenet of Patel’s policy platform is refinancing the city’s outstanding bonds in the current low interest-rate environment, which she estimates can save the city around $100 million. She touts investing in infrastructure as a potential solution to the City’s long-term financial woes, arguing that doing so would create high-paying middle-class jobs. Both proposals fit into her belief that New York City should use any federal funding it receives to build a more sustainable economy in the wake of COVID-19.
Oversight of the city’s public pension funds is one of the comptroller’s most salient responsibilities. The comptroller guides allocation of $240 billion across the funds alongside trustees. Under Comptroller Stringer’s oversight, three of the five pension funds have begun divesting from fossil fuels. Patel supports divestment, saying that she believes that what is good for our environment is, in the long run, going to deliver the highest returns for pensioners who rely on the funds. She also believes that pensions can play an important role in spurring local economic growth and in pushing for more diversity on corporate boards of the companies in which pensions invest.
Candidates are also debating the city’s plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with four new borough-based jail facilities. The proposal would cost roughly $8.2 billion. Patel supports closing Rikers, saying that bringing jail facilities closer to the boroughs would help keep families together and deter further crime. However, Patel believes the city needs to do a better job of liaising with the community about building the new facilities.
“We have a lot of community upset about where these prisons are coming up, and we have to do a lot of education. We have to have community buy-in which the city hasn’t done. The problem is that when the city doesn’t do that, then we’re stuck in a perpetual lawsuit. And that’s costing us money, which we don’t have right now,” Patel said.
Patel’s background as an immigrant has informed her decision to run for office and her platform. She is a product of public schools in a blue-collar town, after which she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She says that her familiarity with poverty both in her travels to India and in her early upbringing after coming to the United States motivated her to get involved.
“I’ve seen personally, and through the work I’ve done, the way society treats you when you don’t have resources. I think that a lot of people [who have] grown up with privilege don’t have that experience of seeing what it’s like to struggle,” Patel said.
She encourages women who want to get involved in their communities to run for office.
“I have been interested in government and been working on campaigns as volunteers for a long time, but I’ve never really thought I’d actually [run]. I still can’t believe that I’m doing it. The first friend who asked me to run said, ‘when you’ve asked a woman seven times to run before she will, but men will run the first time,” Patel said. “That was definitely true for me.”
While Patel’s race will certainly be competitive, she hopes her candidacy will ultimately shed light on important issues facing New York City.
“I am not sleeping and eating because there’s that much that needs to get done,” Patel said. “But at the same time, it’s a good learning experience, personally, and I also think it’s a good platform for me to then bring out issues that impact my community.”
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).
Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting.
In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance eventcentered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.
In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships.
Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality.SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.
While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.
Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular