The new face of politics is an old face with a white beard.
Jagir Singh Bains has served in the Indian and Zambian armies, discussed hate crimes against his Sikh community with the late Pope John Paul II and currently represents Democrats as a county committeeman in Queens.
The 76-year-old man may sound like a career politician, but Tuesday marked the first time he exercised his most basic political right–the right to vote in an American election.
Bains walked into Public School 154 in Queens wearing a gold turban that matched the yellow leaves lining the streets. He followed “vote here” signs through the school’s corridors to the gymnasium. There he found none of the dramatic lines he had been warned about, just a few tables of poll workers who led him to a gray booth under a basketball hoop. After only a minute or two behind the black curtain, he exited with an almost undetectable grin beneath his mustache.
“That was quick, right?” he asked, as if he expected more fuss.
And who could blame him? Bains spent 34 years as a green card holder in the United States without the right to vote, before he became a citizen in June.
“No matter how long you’re in America, if you’re not a citizen you have to stand in a different line,” Bains said. At polls on Tuesday, he didn’t have to wait in line at all.
“I’m glad that I voted, because I’m part of this election,” Bains said. “I have the power to vote for anyone, and every vote counts.”
Now his mission is to reach out to other Sikhs in Queens whose experience mirrors his own and whose vote could make a difference in close local elections.
The Sikh vote could add up to a powerful bloc, according to the Sikh Coalition, a community-based organization with offices in New York and San Francisco. It estimates that there are about 50,000 Sikhs who call New York City home. Its survey of Sikh houses of worship, known as gurdwaras, show that 86 percent of eligible Sikhs are registered to vote in New York and that nationwide, the average is about 70 percent. Richmond Hill is home to between 7,500 and 10,000 Sikhs, according to Harpreet Singh Toor of the Sikh Cultural Society.
“He wanted to become a citizen so he could participate in the American political process,” said Marc Haken, community liaison for state Assemblyman Rory Lancman, whose district includes Richmond Hill — a center of New York’s Sikh community and one neighborhood Bains hopes to reach as a Democratic committeeman.
‘Exercising Their Political Sovereignty’
Sikhs have a history of internal and spiritual sovereignty, said Sundeep Singh, community organizer for the Sikh Coalition. “A lot of people see voting as a way of exercising their political sovereignty,” he said. “Even in their houses of worship, they hold elections.”
Bains seems energized by his own political involvement, though his five children — two bankers, a lawyer, a CPA and a psychologist — think it’s time for their father to slow down.
“My kids tell me, ‘Dad, you should stay home. Why do you get up at five o clock?’ ” Bains said.
Many would ask the same question, given that Bains seems to have achieved the American dream. He owns a beautiful home in Queens, as well as the one across the street, and has a Mercedes Benz in his driveway. Bains gets up early every day to work for the U.S. Postal Service overseeing vehicles, a job he did for both the Indian and Zambian armies.
So empowered is Bains by his U.S. experiences that he is considering taking his politics one step further.
“If there is any vacancy, and I see my chances are good,” he said, “then I am going to run.”