(January 1, 2022) Neal Walia, Democrat for Congress. In as much as it describes this Indian-origin American Politician, Colorado resident’s nom de plume with gusto, it leaves much unsaid.
“The good news is that in our first quarter, we raised upwards of $100,000, which was only $40,000 off from what my opponent was able to raise!”
It does not tell you about an Indian American who wants to give back, who is passionate about politics of equality, and has tread on the lonesome path of crowd funding in an era where corporations make and break deals. Nor does it tell you about the deeply grounded son, husband and brother who has imbibed values from his teacher-mother, and finance-spurred politically righteous father, and an effervescent Punjabi culture. If elected, US politician Neal Walia will be the first person of colour to represent his district. He is also the first politician to have crowdfunded his Democrat campaign without corporate support.
I walk the #grassroots path because I prioritize people over party, profit, and politics. Can I count on you to donate $5-10 dollars before 12/31 to help us continue our people powered movement to bring real representation and change to our communities? Link to donate in bio! pic.twitter.com/SbbmRgSFWT
— Neal Walia (@NealforCD1) December 30, 2021
Choosing public life is betwixt with an unknown variable, yet Walia speaks up, believes, and cares implicitly. It all began on the day he saw former US President Barack Obama at a Democrat convention. “President Obama was the first person I truly felt I could relate to and understand. He was the first politician I saw myself in, and (he) made me believe in the power of being your authentic self. So many politicians conform to an image that is so disconnected from the working class, especially immigrants. President Obama taught me that it’s possible to be yourself, stay true to your values, and inspire people from your own lived experiences,” Indian-origin American Politician tells Global Indian.
Walia believes in the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a housing guarantee, federal jobs guarantee, and an end to the war on drugs. An advocate for a safer AAPI community after the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, Walia’s alma mater, University of Colorado – Denver, is where he did master’s in criminal justice, then he interned with former Congressman Mark Udall. This is probably where he went beyond observing, to focus on what ails America. His stint with (then) Governor John Hickenlooper saw him focus on homelessness, and with the National Governors Association, he started imbibing a deeper understanding. You would think this would have given Walia the impetus to go into politics. But, no. First, he worked for a startup, but unsatisfied, a change was imminent.
Public life and Walia have been fast friends through college, and in effect harnessed his unequivocal support for the marginalised. At college as President of the South Asian Student Association (SASA), it prepared him for what is to come.
“Being able to intern for a former member of Congress gave me the privilege of witnessing President Obama accept the Democratic nomination in person back in 2008 in the Mile High City. The main leadership skill I took away from undergrad was the value of standing with and supporting communities different from my own. In undergrad, CU Boulder’s student population was 95 percent white Caucasian. With such a small diverse student body, it’s impossible for any student organisation to succeed by only leading in their own community.”
“Leaders from other student groups and I focused on serving marginalised communities as a united collective. My ability to empathise and use my power to fight for people of all backgrounds is directly rooted in my college experience,” says the Punjabi boy, who grew up listening to Punjabi and Bollywood music.
A government of the people
Walia derives energy and inspiration from those around him, and is a complete people person. His chosen career has brought him closer to the diaspora. “By joining the movement for a green economy detached from the influence of oil and gas, and fighting for healthcare and housing (to) be treated as human rights, we can not only save ourselves from environmental and financial destruction, but build a great future,” says the Indian-origin American Politician.
Punjabi by nature, this son of immigrant parents who left Punjab for an American dream, his early childhood was influenced by his late nanaji (mother’s dad), Gurdev Singh Ahluwalia, an Indian Army officer, and his Dadaji (father’s dad), Rajinder Paul Ahluwalia, a government of India official. His mother, former President of the India Association of Colorado and father, who brandishes his political ideologies, also meant that the observant and eager Walia was privy to volleys of political discourse as a child.
Walia, the first in his family to be born in the US, is deeply immersed in Punjabi culture, so much so that he captained the college Bhangra team! His wife Naveen is also a Punjabi, raised in a large Sikh Punjabi community in Colorado, who he met at CU Boulder. Prod him, and he sheepishly admits to have been rejected by her for over a year before she finally gave in.
Learning on the job
The pandemic has been tough for an extroverted energiser bunny like Walia. “Honestly, COVID was hard. I get energy and inspiration from being around people, so being forced into a virtual existence had a profound impact on my mental and physical health,” admits the Indian-origin American Politician, who has been spreading awareness about masks and vaccinations.
On the government relations team at the National Governors Association (2017-2016), homeland security, public safety, health and human services were his key focus areas. Lessons on how the Congress and the federal government work, has however erased faith in the national Democratic Party, something Walia hopes his campaign will restore. Walia feels Democrats and Republicans are (today) equally at fault for accepting money from corporations and special interest groups which compromise real impact. For Walia, this became a eureka moment when he decided to start a grassroots campaign which rejects corporate contributions. “When I win, I want to be able to act on my values and make choices that make a difference. I refuse to just talk the talk, I want to walk the walk,” he says of the importance of fundraising which saps so much energy as a grassroots candidate. Out to prove that grassroots candidates can still win elections by fundraising, he adds, “The good news is that in our first quarter, we raised upwards of $100,000, which was only $40,000 off from what my opponent was able to raise!”
Active on social media about important issues – the Rittenhouse incident, Ahmaud Arbery, senseless gun violence and white supremist agenda, Walia is committed to an equal America. When elected into Congress, working on equal rights is intrinsic to his beliefs. As the inherent nature of racism embeds itself in societies, he believes, “As Indians, battling white supremacy means battling our own culture’s addiction to racism, xenophobia, and religious extremism. If Indian Americans are unwilling to acknowledge that caste and colonisation are deeply ingrained in how we perceive and oppress people with darker skin tones, what right do we have to say anything?” asks the politician unafraid to take the bull by the horns.
Had a wonderful time engaging with my fellow #progressives at the @DenverYoungDems holiday party at the Colorado Governor’s mansion. Feeling incredibly humbled by how far we’ve come on our journey. The movement continues!
— Neal Walia (@NealforCD1) December 15, 2021
Walia sees the community as allies in this fight. “It starts by doing the hard work in our very own homes and communities by challenging our own racist demons,” advices the ardent Liverpool fan, who loves a good game of table tennis or pool.
The apple, that didn’t fall far from the tree
We are all products of our upbringing, his mother Isha, a public school teacher ingrained in Walia the tenets of leadership. “Mom is extremely active in our community’s Hindu temple and has in the past been the President of the India Association of Colorado. In fact, there isn’t a South Asian in Colorado who doesn’t know my mom,” reveals Walia, who believes her strength glues the family together. “She is the primary reason we’ve been able to overcome our toughest chapters in life. I sometimes joke that she’d probably have an easier time running for office than I do. I hope she does one day,” the Indian-origin American Politician smiles.
Even today, societal clichés show men at work, while women form emotional bonds. Thus, it is heartening and pleasantly surprising to see his father bust this norm. “My dad taught me how to love, to never give up. He is always uplifting people around him with his love and energy. Although he spent most of his life working in finance, my dad’s true passion is politics rooted in justice and revolution. He has a profound ability to make politics more than just a dialogue about policy and party,” says the son, who admires his father’s resilience – through unemployment, serious surgery, a near-heart attack, and a life threatening car accident.
If his parents and wife are the bedrock of his aspirations, his sister, a leading civil engineer in the Bay area inspires with her zeal for public service and leadership, who Walia jests could easily be the Secretary of Transportation one day.
As Walia and Naveen approach their 11th year, he is grateful that both their families are deeply rooted in community spirit and local politics. “It’s had a major impact on our commitment to sewa and public service. Naveen is among the main reasons I am in the position I am in. She’s helped me through the hardest chapters and has never stopped believing in me and my dream. Her love, encouragement, and personal drive to be a force for good continues to inspire,” says the Indian-origin American Politician.
The aspirant Democrat loves Manga comics, and is wholly invested in family, community and ideals. A typical Denverite, Neal loves “a delicious bowl of pho and basking in the sun.” That almost elusive “me” time sees Walia catch an episode of Succession with Naveen, or gobble home-cooked meals at his parents. Then, its back to trying to create history.