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May 28, 1999
Indian Businessman Seeks To Contest NJ Assembly Seat
A P Kamath in Princeton
When Republican voters go to the primaries on June 6 in New Jersey's Middlesex county, they will have an opportunity to choose a businessman who could become the first Indian-American to be elected to the state assembly.
"I have two opponents, but I doubt if they can beat me," says Sylvester Fernandez, who is seeking the seat in the 18th district.
"For more than 15 years I have been active not only in the Indian-American community but also in the mainstream," he adds.
Fernandez's election district includes Edison, the hub of Indian-American businesses. About 30 per cent of the voters in Edison are of Indian origin.
Fernandez, a professional engineer and information technology consultant, says one of his primary goals is to get the Indian-American community involved in the Republican Party. "We have a dynamic community here, and it cherishes the Republican values, especially of self-empowerment. But most of them vote for the Democrats," he says. "And that would be one of my contributions to the Republican Party. I could help it make it more diverse."
Fernandez, 50, a former marketing manager for Exxon in Bombay, is an economics and mathematics graduate of the University of Bombay. He has a master's degree in logistics engineering from the New School for Social Research.
Four years ago, Governor Christine Todd Whitman appointed him commissioner on the Prosperity in New Jersey Commission. Two years ago he accompanied her to Israel as a member of her business delegation.
Fernandez is deeply concerned about education in the state. He wants to spearhead legislation that will mandate that classes do not have more than 25 students. He does not believe in a permanent tenure for teachers and principals. "There should be greater accountability," he says. "Otherwise, public education is going to suffer more."
The tenures of teachers and principals should be retained only if, in two consecutive years, a school's academic standard meets those set by the department of education, he says.
He also believes in incentive. "If any teacher can voluntarily take on the coaching of a weak student with a grade point average of 2.5 and under and get that student to score in nationalised tests, the teacher should be honoured with a $ 5,000 annual bonus by the department," he says.
Fernandez will soon know if he will be the first Indian-American to contest an assembly seat on a Republican ticket. Only one other Indian has run in the assembly elections. In the early 1980s, Kanak Dutta, a high-school teacher, campaigned vigorously, often in a saree. "But that year there was such a big Ronald Reagan wave that a newcomer like me could not win," says Dutta, now retired. She has been involved in many grassroots activities for the Democratic Party, including the voter registration drive.
There are two Indians -- Kumar Barve in Maryland and Satveer Chaudhary in Minnesota -- who are members of state legislatures. Both are Democrats. Several others who tried to win the nominations have been defeated. Last year Asha Knott, a Republican, unsuccessfully contested for the Senate seat in California.
At the national level, the two-time victory of Dalip Singh Saund in the 1960s has not been matched. Saund was elected to the House of Representatives from a California district. At least three Indians -- all Democrats -- have been defeated at the primary level for a House seat in the last 10 years. Peter Mathews, a California professor, has been defeated twice by his Republican opponent.
If Fernandez is elected, he will become the first Indian-American among the Republicans to win a seat.
"I believe there is a great merit in contesting local, assembly-level elections," he says. "We should be realistic in our aims. There are greater chances of us winning state-level elections than winning a seat in the Congress in Washington."
His victory could spur younger candidates in other states to contest local and state-level elections, he says.
Contact: Sylvester Fernandez, 54 Myrtle Avenue, Metuchen, NJ 08840; (732) 549-6934
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