Thank you, Senator Booker. I am truly honored to have you here with us today, and am proud to call you not just my senator, but a colleague, and a friend.
Thank you to my good friend Gerry Krovatin for encouraging me to enter the public square in Hoboken when I was a young attorney in my mid-20’s. I could not have asked for a more fitting emcee for today’s ceremonies.
Thank you to the members of the faith community, for your spiritual guidance today, and every day. Thank you to Dr. Johnson for your leadership in educating and shaping the minds of Hoboken’s young students. Thank you to County Executive Tom DeGise, State Senator Brian Stack, and United States Senator Bob Menendez for your remarks, your leadership, and your commitment to public service in our county, our state, and our country.
Congratulations to the newly sworn in City Council Members, Emily and Vanessa, I am looking forward to working with you in the coming years, and Jim, I look forward to continuing the work we began together.
And to my colleagues who currently sit on City Council, although I’ll miss seeing you every other Wednesday night, I am as committed as ever to our partnership and the work we will do together.
Thank you to the countless people that volunteered on the campaign. The door-knocking, the phone calls, the events were instrumental in getting us here. This was truly a community-wide effort, and I thank each and every one of you for your time and dedication.
And most importantly, to my family, Bindya, Arza, Shabegh, my parents, my brother and sister-in-law: thank you. Your support and willingness to share me with the City of Hoboken, while yourselves working so hard in this election means more to me than I can really say. For the Bhalla family, elections are always a family affair, and this one was no exception. So I am very grateful.
I must give a very, very special thank you and express my gratitude to Mayor Dawn Zimmer. Without Mayor Zimmer’s guidance, hard work, resilience and persistence, I would not be standing here today. Mayor Zimmer, over your decade of public service in Hoboken, it’s truly incredible and historic what you have accomplished. I speak on behalf of thousands of residents in saying how grateful we are for your sacrifice to our City. Our gratitude to you remains close to our hearts and will not be forgotten. So thank you, Mayor Zimmer.
Although I was born and raised in New Jersey, I never heard about Hoboken until I was in my early teens. Unfortunately, my first impression of Hoboken was not a good one. As a teenager in the 1980’s, I heard about a hate movement in Hudson County against Asian Indians known as the “Dotbuster” movement. Indians in Jersey City and Hoboken were being subjected to vigilante assaults and other forms of harassment simply because of their race. Indian Americans were being beaten, verbally harassed and physically abused on the streets throughout Jersey City and Hoboken.
The rising tide of hate and bigotry culminated with three incidents, all occurring in close succession in the month of September 1987.
The first case involved Syed Hasan and Vikas Aggarwal, from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken on September 12, 1987. Syed and Vikas left Stevens to go to East L.A., a restaurant at 5th and Washington, a restaurant we all know and love here in Hoboken. At the scene, Vikas was punched in the face and struck with a metal bar. Syed managed to escape but Vikas collapsed to the curb on Washington Street, brutally injured while his assailants chanted racial epithets at him.
Exactly two weeks later, on September 24th, an Indian physician, Kaushal Sharan, was nearly killed in a racially motivated attack on Central Avenue in Jersey City Heights. Dr. Sharan was beaten with a baseball bat, going unconscious and suffering from multiple skull fractures.
The third incident came only three days later, on September 27th, involving Navrose Mody, a Cal-Berkeley grad who came to Hudson County to take a job at CitiBank in New York City. On this fateful day, Navrose encountered youths who began taunting him, right at the intersection of 9th and Willow, which is just outside this Auditorium, only about a block away from where I stand before you today. Navrose was then assaulted by the teenagers with blunt objects, including bricks. After Navrose fell to the ground, unconscious, he was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital, where he passed away a few days after.
Reaction to this incident from Hoboken and Hudson County political leaders, along with Indian community groups, including YAR, or Youth Against Racism, was inspiring. South Asians mobilized to bring about official recognition of hate crimes as civil rights violations that can potentially affect anyone. And, they approached one of our own, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, then a State Assemblyman for the 33rd Legislative District, who stood up to hate by sponsoring the first anti-hate crime legislation in New Jersey. Then Assemblyman Menendez was joined that summer in 1988 by Hoboken’s own Assemblyman at the time, Bernard Kenny, who joined Assemblyman Menendez at the steps of the Hudson County courthouse to introduce the hate-crime bill.
The intense and relentless efforts by the Indian community for passage of the Menendez-Kenny anti-hate bill resulted in bi-partisan support by both Democrats and Republicans, garnering nationwide attention, including a particular interest by gay rights groups, who asked that gay Americans be protected by this legislation as well.
Now, at this point, Republicans actually withdrew support for inclusion of an amendment that would also protect gay people, and the Indian community, led by Youth Against Racism, was left with a choice – to accept the bill as is, which would protect themselves but not gay Americans, or to drop the bill.
It was a true act of selflessness and solidarity back in the late 1980’s that the Indian community, confronted with this choice, refused to advance this bill that would protect their own racial interests, because they felt it was morally wrong to refuse to support gay people as well. As a result, the bill did not pass in December 1989.
Fortunately, the following year a new legislature came into office and the Menendez-Kenny bill was revised and strengthened in many ways, including a provision for the inclusion of bias crimes based upon sexual orientation. On August 9, 1990, Governor James Florio signed this historic bill into law, stating “this legislation says something about who we are and the ideals to which this state is committed.” The New Jersey law served as a national model for state and federal anti-hate laws across the country.
And it all began right here in Hoboken. While the death of Navrose left a deep psychological scar on the Indian community, the response from Hoboken’s leaders to stand up to hate rather than remain silent, is truly a Hoboken tale, untold until today, that informs what this City is about and why I am proud to call it my home.
And what a long way we have come. Nearly 30 years after Navrose’s brutal death just blocks away from where I live, Hoboken elected an Indian and Sikh American as its Mayor. This past election was a model of diversity, which showcased for New Jersey and America, what happens when a city cares less about where you came from, what your gender is, So while the arc of the moral universe may be long, there is no doubt that here in Hoboken, it has bent firmly towards justice.
In honor of Navrose Mody, earlier today, as my first act in office as Hoboken’s Mayor, I signed an Executive Order designating Hoboken a Fair & Welcoming City. This order is intended, among other things, to reflect the values of our community and to affirm our beliefs as Americans that we are all equal and entitled to dignity and respect, no matter our immigration status.
And this is only the beginning. People often ask me, “what are your main priorities as Mayor of Hoboken?” Here are a few I’d like to share today. First, although it may not be exciting, I firmly believe that residents expect from municipal officials to get the core functions of local governance right – that means everything from paved roads and clean sidewalks, trash collection, traffic management, pedestrian safety, fiscal responsibility, snow plowing during winter storms, and the like. There is no Republican or Democratic way to fix a pothole, as they say, and there is no ideological way to run an effective and efficient local government. But this is the bare minimum that is expected of local officials from our residents. And getting that right is my number one priority.
To this end, I announce here today that I will be opening an Office of Constituent Services at City Hall in the coming weeks, which will be solely dedicated to providing efficient and enhanced local government and constituent services to Hoboken’s residents. This will be a fully staffed office near the entrance of City Hall that will be open during and after business hours so that all residents have a place to turn to ask for help. No matter the problem, big or small, residents should turn to City Hall knowing we are here to help.
Second, as many of you heard me say in the campaign, I plan on being Hoboken’s Infrastructure Mayor. While there are many infrastructure challenges ahead, the restoration of Washington Street is paramount. We must return it to the glory of its past as a bustling hub of commercial activity, safely enjoyed by pedestrians, cyclists and motorist alike. Let me repeat: I am fiercely committed to getting Washington Street done as soon as possible.
Third, last December saw the annual return of the “Santa-con” bar crawl. I find it completely – completely unacceptable for people to come into Hoboken and trash our City; put our police officers and emergency management personnel in harm’s way; obstruct the ability of local business to thrive during the busiest retail season of the year; and prevent residents from safely carrying on daily life. All of this at the expense of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money, for no purpose other than to enrich the profits of a few bar owners. As Mayor, I will not let a commercial enterprise like Santa-con, Lepre-con or whatever ‘con’ ruin our City for a day, or even an hour.
To address this issue, I am hereby forming a Task Force comprised of police, fire, and emergency management officials, who together with local business leaders will develop and execute strategies to put this menace to an end, once and for all.
And finally, a major priority for me is managing urban growth to ensure it is preceded by infrastructure improvements, and in a way that retains the small town feel that makes Hoboken so special. Mayor Zimmer has laid the foundation for Hoboken’s future by securing aid for Rebuild by Design, through the passage of the Hudson Railyards and Western Edge Redevelopment Plans, and the Southwest Redevelopment Plan. Hoboken’s economic future is bright – we are booming and our potential is limitless, but it must be managed responsibly with the interests of our residents as our singular priority. These wonderful projects will be anchored by our final frontier in Hoboken, the North End, which has remained in a blighted state for decades. Under the Bhalla Administration, this will be no more. We will develop and implement a historic vision for the North End which will create jobs, spur economic growth, incorporate mass transit infrastructure, and have a lasting impact on the face of Hoboken for generations to come.
In closing, I’m reminded of my father, who began his journey to America as a young immigrant from India in the mid-1960’s. My Dad landed at JFK airport and was driven in a car to Pennsylvania to begin studies at Penn State University. He tells me the story of how, when they approached campus, the person driving him there said that, before arriving on campus, he must stop at the barbershop.
“Barbershop?” Why, my father said.
His friend said that he should remove his turban and cut his hair before any of the students see him on campus. Essentially, he was being told that he must sacrifice his articles of faith in order to succeed in the United States.
My father made a fateful decision NOT to do this because he came to this country to seek the American Dream, which to him meant that there is no conflict between how you worship and your ability, if you work hard, to succeed in American life. My father resisted that choice – what former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall called that “cruel choice” between your religion and your livelihood that no American should have to make, even though he was living in a trailer park with my mom and little money at the time. Yet, the fact that he went on to live the American Dream, with his articles of faith proudly intact, is what this country is all about.
And I would not be the person I am, standing here today as the first Sikh Mayor in New Jersey’s history, but for my father’s faith in the promise of our country. So for that, Dad, I thank you, and most importantly, I thank the citizens of Hoboken for the privilege to lead this city to greater heights. As Frank Sinatra once said, here in Hoboken, the best, truly is, yet to come. Thank you.