Nithya Raman has many firsts to her credit. First South Asian elected to the influential 15-member Los Angeles City Council. First Asian woman in the office. First, in 17 years, to eject an incumbent councilmember – David Ryu. A little bit off field but, the first member of the Democratic Socialists of America elected to the seat. While the Indian American’s history making success has largely escaped the attention of the Indian media, it has been noticed by the U.S. press, and for India-West to land on her calendar took a bit of time.
Born in India, Raman grew up in the Boston, Mass., area attending public school while her father did the tech thing and her mother worked for the state. She returned to India as an adult for what turned out to be an unexpected stay of several years learning about poverty, homelessness and how basic services like toilets and running water can make a difference. It drew her to get a degree in urban planning from MIT.
Raman met her husband Vali Chandrasekaran in college, an editor of the “Harvard Lampoon,” who was to eventually become a sought-after comedy writer. She followed him to Los Angeles in 2013 where he was to attach his name to shows like “My Name is Earl,” “Modern Family” and “30 Rock,” and she, while working for the city, to a report she wrote showing how millions of dollars were being spent to address homelessness but with little effect. Raman has said she finds the whole system painful and cruel.
When her now 5-year-old twins Karna and Kaveri were born, she took time off from work and founded a homeless coalition in her neighborhood. She networked with the like-minded. A registered Democrat, she was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America; the non-profit Ground Game LA, which aims to build a progressive LA along with marginalized communities; the East Valley Indivisibles, and many other local progressive organizations. Progressive values are heavily reflected in her platforms that shaped her run for office for the city council’s sprawling District 4 seat.
There happens to be glam, too, in Raman’s circles. Tina Fey dropped some money while Natalie Portman, Jane Fonda, Busy Philipps and Adam Scott publicly backed the 39-year-old.
Raman spoke with India-West stating she was new to the game and sounding a bit green, but also seeming gloriously ready to surmount the system and make a difference. Edited excerpts that aims to capture her voice:
Q: Given that you back a Green New Deal, how do you feel about the new John Kerry nomination?
A: You know, my best friend growing up in the suburbs of Boston, Nadia called me crying with joy. She couldn’t believe climate change was being taken seriously again by the federal government. We have seen devastation but now I honestly feel we could work our way out of this.
Q: Why was it important for you to run?
A: Two things. I felt it was really important for the progressive element in California to be represented. There aren’t too many Indian Americans in my district but I was excited as an Indian American and as a woman …the city government lacks people of our gender.
Q: You drew a lot of the youth vote. Did the fact that this was a forced digital campaign bring the youth out and that worked in your favor?
A: We always took the youth seriously and made space for them including in the primary, before COVID. Even those not of immediate voting age helped us organize, phone banked and told their parents to vote. We organized a comedy show at El Rey Theater and had 500 people laughing at municipal politics. I spoke at a music concert by Wolf Parade and got heckled but still got voters and volunteers. Young people in apartments are often ignored but we reached out, dropping off fliers there. All this was to try to meet them where they were. Of course, social media was also used effectively.
Q: Were you made to feel like an outsider by the political establishment?
A: Since Los Angeles has a history of supporting incumbents, I got no support from the Democratic Party establishment. In some ways, it is okay because I was insulated from their concerns. After looking at the race against the best funded incumbent in the city, they would have told me not to run against him at all. It was long odds.
Q: What were the challenges as an Indian American candidate for you? Did the voters feel you were an outsider since you moved here recently?
A: I never felt like an outsider. L.A is so multicultural, so accepting. Neither my being Indian American nor my growing up in the suburbs of Boston was an issue. I really value Los Angeles and its welcoming environment, which is why I have chosen to raise my children here.
Q: What is your relationship with LA Mayor Eric Garcetti?
A: I met him a few years ago. After my election he has reached out and offered advice as have other elected officials. I am grateful for this as I am new and don’t know the protocols and procedures in City Hall.
Q: You had the endorsement of Senator Bernie Sanders. Did that help with donors and voters?
A: The Working Families Party had endorsed me along with several others in local races in CA to advance their agenda, and they worked to get him to endorse their slate of candidates. I was part of that slate. It helped with donors. LA city voted for him and for Elizabeth Warren, so for voters it became clear that I was the progressive candidate. Many speak a similar language but are not.
Q: What’s happening in CA? We have people like you and Ro Khanna and we also have the Kevin McCarthys of the world.
A: It’s a small, but powerful GOP base in CA. After all, it was the state of Ronald Reagan. But Democrats are a big majority at the state level and there is a rush for clean candidates. More and more are rejecting PAC money and noting the impact of lobbying on policy making. They are looking at banning fracking, single use plastics…
Q: From the experience of your work in India, what will you bring to LA?
A: I worked in Chennai and Delhi. I remember 100,000 people lost their homes in weeks in Yamuna Pushta. I was taken aback by the scale of demolition and the lack of response by middle class Delhi and the English media. I went for a protest and wound up getting a job to work with a social justice NGO. It was transformative. I ended staying in India for seven years. I bring to this seat an urgency to solve the problems for lower income citizens. Even when people seem to agree on issues it still doesn’t show on the ground. I want things to move faster in the way services are provided.
Q: You have a high-powered degree, were there concerns at all when you chose public service over the corporate or tech world?
A: (Large pause). I think I am just now learning. So far, work has been on my own terms. Even when work was intense, I was able to maintain balance with personal life. That balance was lost during the campaign because a part of it is you have to meet people where they are and when they want. This will continue when I am in office. Stating this makes me have more respect for those who have been in public service.
Q: Tell us about juggling your role as mom, wife and candidate. Superwoman maybe?
A: I am no Superwoman. My husband took on most of the child care duties. If he was not visible on the campaign trail it is because he was with the kids! I could not have done it without our families. During the primaries my parents came and during the general elections my in-laws stayed with us. I am so grateful to them.
Q: What would you have the Indian American community do to help you in your causes like homelessness?
A: I plan on setting up a volunteer corps, it would be great if they want to join in (email@example.com). I have not had a large South Asian community here in LA and would love to grow my local community.