By Carol Kuruvilla, 1/31/19 (formatted for clarity)
New Jersey’s First South Asian Woman Mayor Is Breaking Boundaries
When Sadaf Jaffer first moved to Montgomery Township in 2012, the five elected officials on the affluent New Jersey town’s governing body were all white Republicans.
But the town itself was becoming increasingly diverse and Democratic, and she came to feel that its top committee no longer represented the community as a whole. In 2016, Jaffer decided to take a big leap: She was going to run for political office herself.
Years later, Jaffer, a Muslim American woman of Pakistani heritage, is now the mayor of Montgomery Township. The significance of Jaffer’s appointment as mayor on Jan. 3 reaches far outside the boundaries of her small town. She’s the first South Asian American woman to serve as a mayor in New Jersey, according to multiple reports, and one of the first in the entire country.
The 35-year-old told HuffPost she entered politics to break exactly those kinds of barriers.
“If I think we need more women in politics, I should be willing to stand up and do it myself,” Jaffer said.
A Scholar Dreams Of Running For Public Office
Jaffer said she’s long had a desire to run for public office. Born in Chicago to Pakistani Muslim immigrants, Jaffer said she grew up listening to NPR in the car and discussing the news of the day with her family. She remembers her dad staging mock presidential debates between her and her brother.
“My parents were always interested in what was happening in the world and encouraged us to express our own ideas,” Jaffer said.
Jaffer eventually pursued a career in academia, becoming a scholar of South Asian, Islamic and gender studies. She now works as a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, part of Princeton University.
Soon after Jaffer and her husband moved to town, she started noticing the disconnect between the racial and religious diversity there and the lack thereof in the Montgomery Township Committee. The committee is composed of five elected officials, one of whom is chosen by its members every year to serve as mayor.
The last time a Democrat was elected to the Montgomery Township Committee was 2010, according to CentralJersey.com.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, Jaffer said some residents of the town began expressing concerns about his rhetoric toward minorities. She said she personally also began to hear stories from neighbors about a rise in bias incidents.
Weeks after Trump issued the first iteration of his travel ban, a resident asked the committee during a meeting to make a statement showing support for Montgomery’s diversity. Jaffer said she felt the township committee didn’t properly respond to those concerns. While the mayor at the time acknowledged the town’s diversity, he told the resident his approach was to “just focus on Montgomery.”
“It made me feel like they were not willing to listen,” Jaffer said. “When you come from a minority background, you might hear stories that other people don’t hear. That’s why it’s so important to listen to each other. We can’t assume we know what other people’s experiences are.”
Jaffer said she also felt as if leaders in her town were talking about affordable housing as if it were something the upscale community needed to be “saved” from ― a position she felt stigmatized people who need affordable housing.
“I didn’t feel that my political perspectives were being represented in my town,” Jaffer said. “There are lots of ways that political ideologies have an impact on a local level.”
“At some point I realized that even if you’re an advocate, if the people you’re advocating to, the people who are elected officials, have very different values than you, you hit a wall,” she added.
A South Asian American Political Awakening
Jaffer is part of a new wave of politically active South Asian Americans in her state. As New Jersey’s South Asian American population increases, many U.S.-born young professionals from immigrant families have started campaigning ― and winning ― positions as mayors, state legislators and township council members.
Jaffer’s appointment as mayor is particularly is significant against the backdrop of South Asian women’s history in the U.S., according to Amy Bhatt, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County, professor whose research focuses on immigration, gender and South Asian American communities. Bhatt is also a key leader at the South Asian American Digital Archive, which strives to document South Asian American history.
Beginning in the 1870s, Congress passed several laws aimed at restricting immigration from Asia. One of the ways politicians tried to block newcomers from staying in the U.S. was to make laws targeting the migration of women in particular. Simultaneously, anti-miscegenation laws prevented Asian workers from marrying people outside their own communities. Ultimately, these restrictions made it difficult for people of Asian descent to permanently settle in the country.
These discriminatory laws largely stayed in place until 1965, when national-origin quotas were abolished and Asian-Americans started immigrating to the U.S. in larger numbers.
Despite their increasing population, South Asian immigrants have historically been reluctant to become politically active in the U.S., Bhatt said, preferring instead to try to “blend in.”
But there’s been a “sea change” in recent years, Bhatt said, especially among women.
For Jaffer, the tipping point came in 2014, when she was part of the inaugural class of Emerge New Jersey, the local chapter of an organization that trains Democratic women from diverse backgrounds to run for public office.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a group of South Asian American women in New Jersey started meeting informally to encourage each other to run for office and serve on local boards. Since then, the group, known as Inspiring South Asian American Women (ISAAW), has held networking events and panels.
Developing those connections were essential, Jaffer said, noting that many people in elected office already have parents or other family members who have run.
“For immigrant communities, that’s probably not going to be the case,” she said.
Along with New Jersey, Washington state has also produced a number of rising South Asian American women political leaders, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian American woman to ever hold a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. And then there are prominent leaders like former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and U.S. senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who is half-Indian.
“I think South Asian American women are and have been a very strong force in their communities. They’ve already been holding positions of importance in all of these other venues, as community educators and in cultural institutions,” Bhatt said. “So it’s becoming important for them to be part of the political discourse, too.”
Attacks On The Campaign Trail
Jaffer first ran for a spot on the Montgomery Township Committee in 2016 as a write-in candidate, but lost that race. She ran again in 2017, this time on the ballot ― and that’s when she says biases against her came to light.
During her campaign, Jaffer said that a mailer that claimed her ideas were “dangerous” and “extreme” was sent out to some registered Republicans and independents in her town. She said the mailer, which featured a photo of her, also took some of her past comments out of context to present her in a negative light.
“It makes me anxious to think about that thing being in the public,” Jaffer said. “‘Dangerous’ and ‘extreme’ are not words I want to be affiliated with.”
Jaffer claimed the mailer was paid for by the Montgomery Township Republican Organization. HuffPost has reached out to the organization for comment.
Jaffer wasn’t alone in facing these kinds of attacks. In 2017, three other Asian American candidates in New Jersey were targeted with racist flyers, NBC reported, including Ravi Bhalla, a Sikh candidate for Hoboken mayor. They all went on to win their races.
Also in 2018, Bergen County’s sheriff was forced to resign after making racist remarks about Gurbir Grewal, America’s first Sikh American state attorney general.
“I think it’s just xenophobia,” Jaffer said about the attacks on Asian Americans in politics. “It’s just a fear of people who are different than you and not liking seeing people of different races gain prominent positions.”
Despite this climate, Jaffer won the 2017 election to the Montgomery Township Committee. The next year, two other Democratic candidates were elected to the committee. During the body’s annual reorganization meeting on Jan. 3, members selected Jaffer as mayor. She was sworn in by Grewal.
She’ll stay at her post for one year, after which she could be reappointed at another reorganization meeting of the township committee.
As the year progresses, Jaffer said her goals are to increase transparency, establish more robust communication efforts with her community, and increase diversity and inclusion in her town’s various boards.
Jaffer hopes her appointment inspires other South Asian Americans ― particularly women ― to get politically active in their local governments.
“Our voices are valuable because we bring really important perspectives,” Jaffer said. “We need to take our seat of power at the table.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Amy Bhatt is a professor at the University of Maryland. She is at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.