How the first Indian-American NY State Senator won a surprise victory

NY State Senator-elect Kevin Thomas with his wife Rincy.

Kevin Thomas, the newly-elected Democrat to the New York State Senate, exemplifies how a dogged door-to-door campaign against a veteran politician can bring victory despite limited financial resources and little name recognition. Thomas, 32, became the first Indian-American in the state to represent his constituents in Albany. His Nov. 6 victory in Senate District 6 unseated longtime incumbent Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) who had held the position for nearly three decades.

Thomas captured 51,635 votes to Hannon’s 50,327, an upset victory with a slim margin that surprised many observers. Elected to the State Senate in 1989, Hannon was repeatedly re-elected even though he sometimes seemed to be losing against his opponents in earlier contests.

Analysts say that’s why Hannon’s defeat took so many by surprise.

“Every year, the polling said Kemp could lose. And every year, Kemp would pull it out. So, we got used to it,” said Michael Dawidziak, a Long Island political consultant who works mostly for Republicans. “But this year, it happened. The ‘blue wave’ made it happen,” he was quoted as saying in a Newsday report.

How did Thomas manage to win?

The Levittown lawyer, born in Dubai to Indian-American parents, has lived in New York since he was 10. He credits many factors behind his victory, the most important being that he knocked on every possible door, explaining to voters the campaign issues and why they were important.

“I remember when I knocked on the door of a house in a Republican pocket in my district and told the owner about the opioid epidemic in the district,” he said. “He said he was going to change his voting choice for me as he was opposed to opioid misuse. At that moment I knew I was connecting to people by talking about the real issues although I didn’t have the same degree of name recognition,” Thomas said.

He told Newsday he worked especially hard to get voter turnout in parts of East Meadow which have emerging populations of Indian-American and Bangladeshi-American families.

Thomas also utilized the social media, including Facebook and Twitter, effectively to reach out to all sections of the electorate and to reinforce his message of the need for an immediate change in leaders representing voters in Albany.

Thomas worked for the NYPD as a civilian after his graduation from the University of Michigan in 2006. He also worked in New York as a free legal counsel for the underprivileged while running a clinic called Volunteer Lawyer for a Day run by New York Legal Assistance group. “Giving back to the community has always motivated me to work for the poor and underprivileged and Trump came to power and started messing up all the policies, I decided to jump to real work to help people protect their interests,” Thomas said.

Thomas, who spent only $110,000 he raised and had no other outside funding for his campaign, was one of six Democrats to unseat the Republican majority on Long Island. The only favor that he got from the Democratic leadership, he said, was that they gave him their headquarters in Garden City for use as campaign office. That, he said, saved him money on office space and resources like signage and literature.

“It is true that I did not have much money to spend except only $110,000 that I raised, and I didn’t have any help from Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in terms of funding because they had other priorities on the island, but I managed to win because of my door to-door-campaign, help from volunteers and a spirited social media campaign,“ he said.

“I think my victory proved that while money is important in an election, equally or more important is manpower resource that I got by way of volunteers from Harlem Indivisible,” referring to the group that helped many Democratic representatives. Thomas’ campaign was one of them, seen as one of “vital importance” in flipping the State Senate Seat to blue.

“That’s how I was able to outmaneuver my way even with less money,” Thomas said.

One of the key lessons that Thomas learned was from the race of veteran Rep. Joseph Crowley in June when the Queens Democratic party leader lost to a 28-year-old newcomer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the primary. “Crowley lost because he lost touch with his constituents, and we remembered his shocking defeat and talked about that among ourselves in our campaign. We did not want to commit the same mistake,” he said.

Thomas also credits the large turnout despite the fact it was a midterm election, a time when traditionally fewer people except very committed voters come out to vote.

He credited the Indian-American and other South Asian voters in his district with the sense of urgency they felt in casting their ballots. He said demographically about 60 percent of the electorate in his district are white and 40 percent are minorities. “Out of the 40 percent, about 10 percent or so maybe are Asians that includes people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. All these people came out to vote and that made a difference,” Thomas said.

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