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In Hoboken, Humility Proves Stronger Than Hate

July 16, 2018
by Martin Snapp
Image of Ravinder "Ravi" Singh Bhalla being sworn in

Hoboken, New Jersey: birthplace of Frank Sinatra, modern zippers, the edible ice cream cup and, if some historians are to be believed, baseball (although the good people of Cooperstown, New York might beg to differ).

And on November 7, 2017, Hoboken’s voters scored another first, electing Ravinder “Ravi” Singh Bhalla ‘95—who proudly calls himself “everything Donald Trump hates”—as the city’s 39thmayor and the first Sikh mayor in the city’s history.

“It shows you how far we’ve come,” says Yashraj Dhillon, his college roommate at UC Berkeley, who is now an artist, musician, cinematologist, and graphic designer in Los Angeles. “Sikhs were among the first targets of hate crimes after 9/11, and it hasn’t really stopped. The fact that he still wears a turban is important for the Sikh community. We’re proud to see that.”

As a student at Berkeley, Bhalla never used class discussions as an opportunity to show off.

Devoted as he is of his religion, Bhalla resists being defined by it. “I didn’t run as the Sikh candidate,” he told the New York Times. “I ran as the candidate who happened to be Sikh,” echoing John F. Kennedy, who famously told a suspicious council of Protestant ministers in Houston during the 1960 election, “I’m not the Catholic candidate for president; I’m the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens to be Catholic.”

Bhalla first made headlines in the New York Times in 2003, long before he ever thought of running for electoral office, when, as a young lawyer he was denied entry to talk to his client, an inmate in the Federal Detention Center in Brooklyn, because he refused the guards’ demands to take off his turban. He took the matter to court, citing his rights under the First, Fourth and Sixth Amendments, and forced the Bureau of Prisons to except not only turbans but also Jewish prayer shawls and yarmulkes from routine searches.

“That’s Ravi,” says Gerald Krovatin, the attorney who gave him his first job in private practice. “He didn’t get mad, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He didn’t sit in corner and pout about it; he went out and did something about it. And he did it not only for his own community, but for other communities, too. He’s a great bridge builder.”

“He was that way in college, too,” remembers Emmanuel Dela Paz, chief administrative officer of the Department of Educational Studies at UC San Diego, who lived in the same freshman dorm. “Extremely dedicated to his Sikh community, but also someone who took time to understand other communities and their life struggles. I would be introduced to his culture, and vice versa.”

“I knew from the start that he would be successful in the law,” says Krovatin. “He had that kind of optimism and enthusiasm you want.”

Bhalla’s favorite teacher, Berkeley political science professor Rita Maran, remembers him as a student who didn’t use class discussions as an opportunity to show off. “He was one of those people who sits quietly, with a great sense of self, without a need to make himself known. But when he talked, he definitely had something to say. I was surprised when he went into politics; I thought he was going to be a scholar. But he stayed true to himself and added questions for himself as he went, getting answers in places where he could, including my class.”

When he wasn’t working, he led frequent late-night forays to Blondie’s or Fat Slice on Telegraph Avenue for pizza and Top Dog on Durant for tube steak. And, according to Dhillon, he was the resident expert in East Coast hip hop.

“He’s the one who turned me on to all those East Coast rappers I had never heard of, being a West Coast guy,” says Dhillon, calling Bhalla the roommate “who opened my ears.”

After graduating from Cal in 1995 Bhalla completed his M.S. in Public Administration and Public Policy at the London School of Economics, then went on to Tulane Law School in New Orleans, where Dhillon would visit him for Mardi Gras.

“Typical Ravi, everybody knew him,” he says. “He took us to a restaurant, and there on the menu was ‘Ma Bhalla’s chicken.’ He never cooked, so his mom would send him frozen meals of buttered chicken, which was legendary. The chef was close friends with Ravi and he tried his mom’s chicken, and he was like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to get the recipe!’ It’s still on the menu.”

“If America is ready for its first black president, maybe Hoboken is ready for a Sikh councilman,” Bhalla remembers thinking after the 2008 election.

From New Orleans Bhalla moved back to New Jersey, not far from his childhood home in Woodland Park. There he got his first job at a private law firm.

“He was the first associate I hired,” says Krovatin, who had just left a large law firm to set up his own practice. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but I knew from the start that he would be successful in the law. He had that kind of optimism and enthusiasm you want. He was single at the time and looking for a place to put down roots, and I urged him to check out Hoboken. And he did.”

Bhalla moved into a house two doors down from the home where Sinatra lived as a teenager, married Navneet Patwalia, had two children—a daughter named Arza, now 10, and a son named Shabegh, now 6—and settled into what looked like a long career as a trial lawyer. But fate had other plans.

In 2000 he met future U.S. Senator Cory Booker, then a Newark City Councilman, and a friendship blossomed. Bhalla recalls volunteering for Booker’s mayoral campaign and, after starting his own law firm, being retained by two council members who were suing the mayor. “That was my first exposure to local politics.”

Booker’s mayoral campaign was successful, and when he supported Barack Obama for president in 2008, Bhalla followed suit.

Ravinder "Ravi" Singh Bhalla on stage with Corey Booker

Bhalla with U.S. Senator Cory Booker / Brown Girl Magazine

“After [Obama] won the Iowa caucus I shut down my law practice for a week and drove up with my brother to New Hampshire and spent a week knocking on doors in the middle of winter. It was my first experience with grassroots politicking…And when [Obama] won, I said to myself, ‘If America is ready for its first black president, maybe Hoboken is ready for a Sikh councilman.'”

Not that he was depending on a huge turnout from the local Sikh population. Says Vijay Chaudhuri, his campaign manager in the 2017 mayoral race, “Whenever people ask him how many Sikhs there are in Hoboken, he likes to joke, ‘Well, there’s me and my wife and kids, and my brother and his wife, and not too many others.’”

In 2009, Bhalla was elected to the Hoboken City Council and then was re-elected four years later. He became a close ally of popular Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who had led a successful electoral revolt against the old, entrenched, developer-friendly interests who had dominated the city for decades.

As a councilman, Bhalla quickly became the go-to guy for local nonprofits who were having a hard time getting help from City Hall.

“I tried contacting other council members, but he was the one who went above and beyond,” says Shirael Pollack, founder of the Hoboken Public Education Foundation. “He said, ‘I will support you and connect you with every stakeholder that I know.’…He will use whatever power he has for the public good.”

In February of 2017, Mayor Zimmer, who was considered a shoo-in for another term, stunned everyone by announcing her retirement. She endorsed Bhalla as her successor, saying, “I wouldn’t trust anyone but Ravi to keep the city moving forward.”

“We go to great pains to make sure our kids…understand there is no conflict between their identities as Sikhs and as Americans,” says Bhalla.

“That ruffled a lot of feathers,” says James Doyle, one of Bhalla’s strongest supporters on the city council. “One of the other three candidates was part of our ‘reform’ faction on the council, and this created a schism. The other side, the dark side—the old school, developer-friendly thugs—had two candidates, too, and you only needed a plurality to win. So there was real concern that if our votes split 50-50 and their votes split 90-10, one of them could sneak in.

Just four days to Election Day, Bhalla was awakened at 2 o’clock in the morning by a call from the police who said flyers were mysteriously appearing on automobile windshields around the city featuring his picture and, in big block capital letters, “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town!”

“I’ll be honest with you, it was a kick in the gut, hearing the news in the four corners of my family room, with only my wife and kids around,” he says. “Almost immediately, my 10-year-old daughter was able to catch on to what was happening, and that was her first experience with racism. She was asking, ‘Why are people using that word because Dad wears a turban?’ So it was very hurtful to me on a personal level because of the impact it had on my daughter.

“Second, we go to great pains to make sure our kids are proud of who they are as Sikhs and understand there is no conflict between their identities as Sikhs and as Americans. To denigrate a faith contradicts what we are trying so hard to instill in our children, which is pride in who they are.”

Still, Ravi “kept his cool,” says campaign manager Chaudhuri. “Instead of lashing out, he went on TV and said, ‘This isn’t what Hoboken is all about; Hoboken is better than this.’ And at the end of the day, he was right. People voted on the issues. Given the history of corruption before Mayor Zimmer, they wanted someone they could trust not to give in to the developers and special interests that plagued Hoboken in the past.”

Waiting for him on his desk that first day was a full-blown crisis, a parting shot from outgoing New Jersey’s outgoing Republican Governor, Chris Christie.

“He’s always been like that,” adds Councilman Doyle. “They try to taunt him, but he never takes the bait. When he chooses to be indignant about something, he does it strategically, not recklessly.”

Bhalla explains, “I’ve dealt with different forms of hate my entire life, and through that process I’ve learned that taking a more magnanimous approach is generally more effective. I didn’t think it was appropriate to sink to the level of what was being asserted. The controversy grew over the weekend, and after that the cycle hit a peak, so we sent an email to our supporters headlined ‘Turning The Page.’ I wanted my campaign not to get caught up in the morass and stick to the discipline of knocking on doors and talking to people. I didn’t want it to be a distraction from my main goal, which was to be the winning candidate.”

And he and his family were the hardest workers of all.

“When he sets his mind to something like this, he’s indefatigable,” says Krovatin, a longtime observer of the local political scene. “He worked his tail off, and his wife and his brother and his brother’s wife did, too. They pounded the pavement and didn’t take anything for granted. And the nice thing is that once you meet him in person, all the scales fall off your eyes. He becomes Ravi: Someone who not only listens to what you say, but responds to it in measured tones. He’s just a nice person. Even if he didn’t have all that trailblazer stuff, he’d still be a successful politician for that reason alone.”

On Nov. 7 Bhalla was elected with 32.75 percent of the vote, more than enough to win by a plurality in a six-person race (four of whom were major candidates). He was sworn in as Hoboken’s mayor on January 1. Right out of the gate, his first acts were to declare Hoboken a “fair and welcoming city” in which no city resources would be used to enforce federal immigration law. He also ordered all single-use restrooms to become gender-neutral, including those in private businesses.

“[Bhalla’s] approach is ‘I’m not going to worry about the politics; I’ll just govern. The politics will take care of itself in due time,'” Krovatin says.

Waiting for him on his desk that first day was a full-blown crisis, a parting shot from outgoing New Jersey’s outgoing Republican Governor, Chris Christie.

“You know the last scene in On The Waterfront, when Marlon Brando gets beaten up by thugs on the docks?” says Councilman Doyle. “That was filmed in Hoboken, and those dry docks are still there, now serving as a gas station for ferryboats. The rest of our waterfront is beautiful parks end-to-end, and most people want the city to seize the property via eminent domain and turn it into parkland, too. But the day before Ravi was to be sworn in, Christie ordered New Jersey Transit to buy the property from the ferry operator, NY Waterway, and lease it right back to them.

“Now, you have to understand that eminent domain does not flow uphill. The city can’t seize property that belongs to the state. The new governor, a Democrat named Phil Murphy, wasn’t due to be sworn in until January 19; so on his last day in office—the Martin Luther King holiday, of all days!—Christie had New Jersey Transit vote on the measure. But Ravi got some buses, and a hundred Hoboken residents went to the state capitol and jammed the room while he spoke outside to the media. He completely took charge, and the vote never happened.”

Bhalla, quick to share the credit, explains, “It wasn’t me; it was residents of Hoboken leading the charge. This was people power, not Mayor Bhalla’s pet issue…The difficult thing was that there are different competing interests. The state has a legitimate interest in supporting mass transit, including ferries, and we have an interest in supporting it, too. But we also have an interest in preserving our waterfront. NY Waterway has very high-powered lobbyists, and we need Governor Murphy’s help to fight these hired guns.”

With both of New Jersey’s senate seats possibly up for grabs in the not-too-distant future, higher office could beckon. But would Bhalla go for it?

Next step: The City Council has to vote to give Bhalla the authority to condemn the property for public use.

“The problem is that the other people who ran against Ravi are still on the City Council,” says Councilman Doyle. “And they—I think the technical term for them is ‘sore losers’—are ganging up and giving him trouble every step of the way. His predecessor had a rubber stamp for everything she wanted; now he has 7-2 against him. It’s going to be a real fight for him, but he’s done a pretty good job of maneuvering around their obstruction.”

Krovatin concurs. “Look, the sooner they realize that their agenda is Ravi’s agenda and get over it and stop whining, the better. But I don’t know that’s going to happen. Now he’s announced he’s going to run council candidates against them. If they showed even the slightest willingness to work with him I’m not sure he would, but they’re not leaving him much choice. His approach is ‘I’m not going to worry about the politics; I’ll just govern. The politics will take care of itself in due time.'”

So what’s next for Hoboken’s favorite son? With both of New Jersey’s senate seats possibly up for grabs in the not-too-distant future—Bob Menendez might decide not to run for re-election following a federal corruption indictment that resulted in a hung jury, and Cory Booker might end up on the 2020 Democratic presidential ticket for president or vice president—higher office could beckon. But would he go for it?

“Even back in college, I always thought he could go for the highest office in the land—ifhe wants to put up with the fight,” says Dhillon. “I still think he could pull it off.”

But Krovatin’s not so sure. “He’s such a natural as a public official, there’s no limit to how high he could go if he wanted to. But I don’t know if he’s even thought about that. This job has been all-consuming for him.”

As for Bhalla, he says he’s immune to Potomac fever.

“How can I do that?” he says. “I intend to live the rest of my life in Hoboken. It’s part of my identity now.”

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