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October 16 - 22, 1997
|SINGH: "If I give up my identity and values, I'll not be an Asian. I'll not even be an American. I'm a nobody."|
Making history in Illinois
BY BERT ELJERA
He went to college to become a doctor, just like his father. But an audacious--and successful--candidacy as student-body president of Valparaiso University in Indiana changed his life forever.
Now, Ravi Singh, who admits he's hopelessly hooked on politics, wants to take his political ambition further: he wants to be the first Asian Pacific American elected to the Illinois Legislature.
The 25-year-old Singh is vying for the Republican Party nomination for Illinois' 42nd Assembly District, which encompasses Aurora, Geneva, Batavia, North Aurora, Montgomery, and St. Charles, an industrial and residential enclave outside of Chicago.
A staunchly Republican district, it has about 60,000 registered voters, just 2 percent of whom are Asian Americans. A Republican has held the seat for the past 30 years. The incumbent, Susan Deuchler, is not seeking re-election.
"People ask me, 'Are you crazy? What are you doing?'" Singh said. "I say to them, I'm an American. I was born and raised here. I'm also Asian and our community needs to be involved [in the political process]. We pay so much in tax dollars, what do we get in return? Maybe I'm crazy. But being the first in anything is crazy. I love to make history on behalf of our community."
This penchant for making history spurred Singh to announce his candidacy last month at the Grand Army of the Republic building in Aurora and the Old Court House in Geneva--both used by John F. Kennedy in a speech 37 years ago when he ran for president.
"Kennedy asked the voters to overlook his age and his religion and vote for him on his qualifications," Singh said. "I'm asking voters to do the same."
Singh smiles wryly of the irony that Kennedy, a Democrat, is his political idol. But in the same breath, he stressed that Abraham Lincoln started his political career in the Illinois Assembly. The GOP prides itself as the party of Lincoln.
But Singh identifies more with Kennedy, the first Catholic and, at age 43, the youngest to be elected president.
Singh, whose parents emigrated from India in the 1960s, is a "Sikh," a religion founded in the late 15th century in the Punjab region in India. The word is derived from Pali or Sanskrit and means "disciple."
Sikhs are known for their turbans, beards, uncut hair, and distinctive dress--practices Singh religiously follows. Singh, which means lion, is a common Sikh last name. According to the 1990 census, there are about 200,000 Sikhs in the United States out of an Asian Indian population of about 815,000.
While waffling and hedging seems to be a virtue in politics, Singh is steadfast in his beliefs and will not compromise his principles to get votes.
He continues to wear a turban and beard, defying the advice of some Republicans to remove his turban and shave the beard to present a more familiar and less "foreign" image during the campaign.
"If I do that, I will not be true to my faith and will not be true to my work," Singh said. "This is who I am. If I give up my identity and values, I'll not be an Asian. I'll not even be an American. I'm a nobody."
He credits his father, Pavitar, a radiologist at Rush-Copley Memorial Hospital in Aurora, but more so his mother, Jasbir Kaur, a homemaker, for his fierce pride in his heritage.
In the 1980s, his mother fought for legislation, later signed by President Reagan, that allowed Sikhs and Jews to wear religious headdress while attending military academies in the United States.
Although still in his 20s, Singh has racked up impressive credentials. He was the first Asian Indian to be elected student-body president of a major American university while at Valparaiso University.
After completing his master's degree in political science at Northwestern University in 1995, he worked as a legislative assistant to Illinois Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra.
In April 1996, he went to work for state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, serving as liaison to the Asian Pacific American community. He has taught political science and sociology at Lincoln Land Community College and political science at Community College of DuPage County, where he remains a part-time professor.
"The Asian American community is noted for being good in business, in education, and the medical profession," Singh said. "It's time to get involved in politics."
He said that successful APA politicians, such as Washington state Gov. Gary Locke, Rep. Jay Kim of California, and others inspire the community.
"Every time we see someone in our community do well, others do well," he said. "When an APA succeeds, others succeed. If Locke or Kim can do it, why not here in Illinois?"
He said he believes there is room for minorities in the Republican Party, which he said shares some of the values Asian Americans hold dear, such as strong family values, better education, less taxes, and personal responsibility.
"The Republican Party needs to diversify, and now it has a great opportunity," he said. "They like this challenge [of having a big tent]. I like that challenge."
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