By Alex Distefano
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Patel, a physician who serves as chief of medicine at Mt. Sinai's hospital in Queens, is one of a handful of prominent Indians who are poised to make serious runs for office. They're being proudly groomed by Bobby Kumar, a Syosset entrepreneur who is a vice-chairman of the Nassau Republican Party. Under Kumar's leadership, the rookies are fast becoming seasoned veterans of advisory boards and political conventions.
Kumar is also teaching them a thing or two about the importance of reaching across party lines. Lockstep loyalty to Republicans or Democrats is not part of the Indian agenda, for candidates or voters. "It makes them now the most important group because they're not labeled as a Republican group or a Democratic group," Kumar says. "They're educated voters, that's what I like to call it. They're not monkey after monkey."
Most of Kumar's protégés have decided not to vie for small-time municipal posts like town boards, preferring instead to aim for slots on Capitol Hill. Patel explains that his generation spent their 30s and 40s building financial security for their families and an Island community of 26,000, so they don't have decades left to piece political résumés together.
Patel says younger, American-born Indians can take careful steps up the governmental ladder. Patel's generation will open the door by kicking it down.
"We are a force to be reckoned with, because of our contributions," says Patel, who despite his Democratic party label has hosted a fund-raiser for GOP Nassau County Executive Tom Gulotta. "It's time for the Republican Party to invest in us and give us a seat. In another five years, 10 years, you'll definitely see one of us go to Congress."
Some Indians aren't waiting that long.
Ashok Pradhan, a wealthy Huntington Station marketing executive who serves as president of the Indian Association of Long Island, says he may run for the House as soon as 2000. If GOP Rep. Rick Lazio ever is allowed to make a real move for the seat being vacated by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan next year, Pradhan will be ready to try to replace Lazio.
Pradhan, a Republican, estimates he'll need to spend at least $5 million to win, and possibly twice that amount. He's not afraid to cover much of that expense himself, but he says his peers will be ready to contribute. "I have the desire to run," he says. "The community would stand behind someone who really wanted to go for it."
Sheer financial power may not be enough to overcome deep-seated prejudice against Indians here. Glen Cove Mayor Tom Suozzi, a veteran Democratic leader, says he thinks an Indian candidate could soon win office, but not without having to counter racism. He compares their situation to that of other immigrants, like Italians, who used tight-knit social groups to break into politics and beat back attempts to keep them down.
"They are very well-organized, and when you're well-organized, you have clout," Suozzi says. "Will they face hurdles because they look different and their accents are different? Of course, just like everybody did."
Kumar admits that LI may not be ready to send an Indian to Congress, but he says the wait won't be long. "It's a matter of a couple of years and we are not far from a couple of years," he says. "The base is already built. It's just a matter of introducing the base."
Despite its reputation for conservatism, Long Island may be an ideal launching pad for America's first Indian member of Congress. Rockland County Legislator VJ Pradhan, Ashok's younger brother, says he thinks an Indian could win office on the Island especially if the candidate is willing to begin a career by running for local, county or state positions.
After losing attempts at the State Senate in 1994 and Clarkstown Town Council in 1995, Democrat Pradhan captured his county legislative seat in 1997. He says running those races gave him a chance to convince voters that he cared about the concerns of all constituents. The failed runs also provided him ample time in the spotlight, where he showed that his accent was not a barrier to communication.
VJ Pradhan says the strong, affluent Indian community on the Island makes it likely a candidate could win. "Long Island is the place where people should come out, where there are Indians who could support their candidate," he says. "Somebody should take more steps and go ahead and do it."
Anyone who has even a casual acquaintance with Mineola can see the village's Portuguese roots. And for the rich heritage that goes far beyond the Iberian eateries along Jericho Turnpike, you can thank a humble delivery man named Antonio Paes.
Paes was living in the Beira Alta region of Portugal in 1919, working for a cheese maker, when he decided to go to New Bedford, Mass., to try to stake out a better life for himself and his new bride. New Bedford was already a long-established center for Portuguese immigrants, but jobs weren't plentiful at that time. Paes heard there was construction work in a place called Long Island, so he and a friend checked it out.