Volume 81, Number 20 | October 20 - 26, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Jenifer Rajkumar.

District leader is blazing a new
path in politics and for women

By Khiara Ortiz

For the past few months, Jenifer Rajkumar has been walking around shaking so many hands that she totaled two pairs of shoes.

“I traversed the district, knocked on doors, stood on street corners and had an army of volunteers,” she said. “I climbed so many stairs, crossed so many sidewalks, broke two pairs of heels and met so many different types of people.”

Rajkumar was recently elected Democratic district leader for the 64th Assembly District, Part C, which stretches from the Financial District to the Lower East Side and up to the East Village. She trounced her opponent, Linda Belfer, on Sept. 13 with 70 percent of the vote after having been told she was too young and too new to hold political office.

“What was remarkable was that almost every elected official endorsed my opponent, an entrenched incumbent of nearly 20 years,” said Rajkumar. Not only did she win against a candidate who was being supported by the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, but she also overcame prejudices against being a young South Asian-American woman who was new to the city.

Her campaign strategy was simple.

“We focused on reaching people by person-to-person contact,” said Rajkumar. “What kept me going was my faith that people decide elections at the ballot box and not the powerful interests — so I believed in reaching people and that being what would win this election.”

Rajkumar was brought up in the home of her two immigrant parents who emigrated to the U.S. from India in 1975 with not a penny more than $300 and one suitcase. To honor that immigrant spirit, she launched her campaign this summer in front of the Statue of Liberty.

“My parents taught me the value of hard work. Through hard work, they were able to build a life,” she said. “When I look out across my district and see the Statue of Liberty, I think of dreams, hope and opportunity — the three things that allowed my family to thrive in our great country and the reason I am here today.”

Besides having mom and dad to thank, Jenifer’s greatest influence is Alice Paul, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement that led to the 19th Amendment’s passage giving women the right to vote.

“She’s a remarkable story of courage and bravery in the face of stigma and pressures, and because of her, more than half of our population can now vote,” said Rajkumar. “There aren’t many people like that.”

After majoring in humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, Rajkumar attended Stanford Law School and concentrated on domestic-violence issues and the consent of reproductive rights. She dove straight into civil rights as a lawyer with a firm that sued large companies for discriminating against women in so-called “whistle-blower” lawsuits. Upon moving to Manhattan and passing the bar exam, she became a licensed attorney in New York. She’s now working to integrate social justice and women’s issues into her district in her new role as leader.

“I’m very excited to have a foot in politics and to bring a social justice angle to politics,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the innovative initiative that I can take in this position.”

Her nonprofit startup organization, W-SPIN, aims to catapult women into leadership positions around the world. In the spring, she plans to hold a citywide event that will bring women out, including city officials, to organize community-service projects.

Her other current projects include playing an active role in selecting judges for the New York Supreme Court and bringing high school women from all across the district to a special leadership training at Barnard College to bring them into politics. Rajkumar is also launching “Jenifer on Your Corner,” where she will stand at street corners all over her district, listening to people’s concerns.

“The Downtown Manhattan population has increased by 91 percent since 2001 and we need new energy that’s going to keep pace with the new growth,” she noted. “We need people who are going to put social justice above personal interest, above getting re-elected.

“I hope other young people make their voices heard. I’m also very proud of the young people at Occupy Wall Street.”

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