Newly Elected Women of Color Look to Blaze Path of Their Own

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Assemblymember-elect Jenifer Rajkumar (L) and Assemblymember-elect Jessica González-Rojas. Photos from jenifer4ny.com and votejgr.com

Two insurgent Democrat women of color coasted to victory on election night, their wins assured this past summer during primary election upsets. They are now poised to follow through on campaign promises to bring the voices of their communities into their policy proposals, such as taxing the wealthy at higher rates and improving social services for their constitutents, as the first non-white elected women in their districts in years. 

State Assemblymember-elects Jessica González-Rojas and Jenifer Rajkumar solidified their wins on Tuesday after unseating two men who’ve held the office for more than a decade, Assemblymember Michael DenDekker (D-Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Woodside) and Assemblymember Michael Miller (D-Woodhaven, Ridgewood, Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and Glendale), in the June Democratic primaries. 

“I stand on the shoulders of giants in the South Asian community that have been working for representation for a long time,” said Rajkumar, an Indian-American lawyer who will be taking over Assembly District 38 for Miller. “And now we finally have it.”

González-Rojas, who is the daughter of a Paraguayan father and a Puerto Rican mother, said she saw her win as a long overdue victory. 

“For the last 44 years, we’ve had white men,” she said. “This district is 88% people of color.”

González-Rojas, who ran with the Democrats and the Working Families Party, spent election night standing on the corner of 80th Street and 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights with her team of volunteers. Armed with stacks of flyers on a fold out table, they expected to see lines near the polling place at I.S 145 Joseph Pulitzer School. But in the end, they spent as much time talking amongst themselves and playing music as they did handing interacting with voters. 

González-Rojas saw this as a plus.

“I think right before we got here was a little bit more crowded,” she said. “I’ve seen steady engagement, but not lines. So that’s good. And it’s a testament of how important it is to have early voting.” 

González-Rojas started the day at 6 a.m. watching lighthearted videos on YouTube to relax. She was out with her team by 8 a.m. They went to poll sites in the district to drum up support from voters. 

Many of the volunteers were out on their feet all day. 

“It’s campaign life, you gotta deal with it,” said Melina Grisalas, 32. 

Rajkumar also had an early Election Day. She woke up at 4:30 a.m.

“The first text was, ‘You awake?’ And Jen, she says, ‘Yes, I’m ready.’ That’s all I need to hear,” said Arvind Sooknanan, Rajkumar’s campaign manager.

Gonzalez-Rojas (R) campaigning in Jackson Heights on election night. Photo by Eddy Martinez

Rajkumar and her team shuttled between polling stations scattered from Woodhaven to Ridgewood, meeting with Bengali and Latino voters. 

The 38-year-old attorney and Lehman College professor was shocked at the scene at a polling site in Woodhaven. 

“At 5:30 a.m., there was a very long line in Woodhaven. I have never seen such numbers,” she said. 

Rajkumar and her 100 volunteers made their way throughout the district, speaking to voters along the way. 

Not everyone out agreed with their politics, said González-Rojas. 

“There was a decent amount of Trump supporters in the neighborhood, which was quite surprising,” Gonzalez Rojas said.

She fears a Trump reelection and feels a Biden presidency would necessitate work from the left. 

“If Biden wins, I feel, we’ll still have to push him to be honest, he’s not totally aligned on all our issues. He wasn’t the first choice amongst most progressives,” she said. “If Trump wins, well, it’s fighting for our lives and our livelihood.”

González-Rojas and her team wrapped up on the corner of 80th Street and 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights around 8:40 p.m. It was clear that they had done all they could so they gathered up their flyers and table walked as a group to Diversity Plaza. González-Rojas thanked her volunteers for their time then they mingled, talking about the campaign and everything else. González-Rojas mentioned she wanted to get some momos to eat.

Rajkumar finished her night at a celebration at Pop’s Restaurant on Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven. She found out she’d officially been elected as the first South Asian woman to the New York State Assembly on her way to the restaurant. 

Rajkumar at Pop’s Restaurant on election night. Photo by Eddy Martinez

“I found out about 10 minutes before I came,” she said. 

Rajkumar posed for photos with supporters while the TV’s aired election results on CBS and Fox News. She hugged and held Rose Kaur, 46, Rajkumar’s senior campaign advisor who’d also told her fellow congregants at her Gurdwara, a house of worship for adherents to Sikhism in Richmond Hill, to vote for her. 

“We all united because of Jenifer,” Kaur said.

Rajkumar worked the bar, hugging people, joking around and taking photos by the brick wall with her volunteers. She had on a red face mask to match her sleeveless red dress. The fashion choice was a nod to someone who saw something in her candidacy, she said. 

“This mask was homemade for me by one of my first supporters in Woodhaven, who believed in me from day one. And when the pandemic hit the district, he said, ‘You must have a red mask, because red was the color of this campaign,’” she said. 

Her campaign made 200 and gave them all out. 

Rajkumar watched the results for a bit as news outlets declared Arizona in Biden’s favor. 

Now that she’s won, Rajkumar planned to take the next day off. 

“I’ll spend the day taking it in and thanking everybody. And then I look forward to getting to work,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story did not include that Rose Kaur was Rajkumar’s senior campaign advisor

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