Sikh mayor-elect of Hoboken makes history, but now would rather talk about his city | Kevin Riordan

On a sunny morning last week along Hoboken’s Washington Street, it seems as if Mayor-elect Ravi Bhalla encounters a well-wisher every few feet.

A guy in a suit walks up to shake Bhalla’s hand, and a stylish woman — one of many young parents pushing strollers on the busy sidewalk — offers congratulations as she passes by, after which someone in a car hits the horn and waves.

“It’s been nonstop,” says Bhalla, a Sikh who is the first of his faith to be elected mayor anywhere in New Jersey.

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in the 15th century in the Indian subcontinent’s Punjab region. Its core beliefs include equality and service; an estimated 500,000 of the 25 million Sikhs in the world live in the United States.

Bhalla, a Democrat, points out that he was not elected to be “the Sikh mayor of Hoboken.” But he also notes that his victory is “a historic and proud” accomplishment for Sikhs everywhere.

“It sends an incredibly positive message,” says Simran Jeet Singh, a senior religion fellow with the Sikh Coalition, an educational and advocacy organization in New York City.

“This is a breaking-a-glass-ceiling sort of moment,” he adds.

The six-way, nonpartisan mayoral race in Hoboken, a vibrant little city across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan, was hard-fought. It was marred near the end by the distribution of a dimwitted flier with the word TERRORISM printed above an image of Bhalla’s turban-wrapped head.

The turban is an expression of faith for Sikh men. But a survey commissioned in 2015 by the National Sikh Campaign found that about 20 percent of Americans assume that men who wear turbans are Muslim, which suggests that the unwarranted hatred of Muslims accounts for some of the backlash against Sikhs as well.

“The flier is not reflective at all of Hoboken or its people. If it was, I would not be mayor-elect,” says Bhalla, 44, a Garden State native who grew up in suburban Montville, Morris County. He moved to Hoboken 17 years ago after completing law school at Tulane University in New Orleans and landing a job at a firm in Newark.

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Hoboken’s nonpartisan mayoral race was marred by the distribution of fliers attempting to link Ravi Bhalla, who is Sikh, with terrorism.

“It was a good place for a twentysomething bachelor to be,” recalls Bhalla, now the married father of two children. He will be sworn in to a four-year term as the city’s full-time mayor on Jan. 1.

A friendly, soft-spoken fellow who has served nearly eight years on the City Council, the mayor-elect expertly threads the family Subaru through Hoboken’s narrow grid of gritty yet pretty streets. More than 50,000 people are packed into the city’s 1.2 square miles.

“We’re the fourth most densely populated city in the country,” Bhalla says.

Hoboken is familiar to many through its longtime role in pop culture — it’s the birthplace of Frank Sinatra, the setting for the film On the Waterfront, and the spawning ground for many an indie-rock band. But since 2012, the city, which was once an island, also has been a testament to Hurricane Sandy’s awful power.

“Eighty percent of Hoboken was under water,” Bhalla says, as we head into the city’s low-lying, less affluent west side. “And this was the most flooded area.”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFITH
Hoboken Mayor-elect Ravi Bhalla walks through a new park that is an example of open spaces and flood-mitigating projects he sees as crucial to improving the quality of life in the densely populated city.

We stop at a complicated intersection near Observer Highway and Jackson Street, where a recently completed “resiliency park” showcases the city’s effort to increase open space while simultaneously helping decrease flooding.

The park was built by the administration of current Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who did not seek reelection; her support is credited with helping Bhalla win. He intends to continue Zimmer’s effort to add to the inventory of open, water-absorbent park space throughout the city. And the federal government also has pledged $230 million to build a comprehensive flood-control system for Hoboken and adjacent areas of Jersey City and Weehawken.

“These are permeable pavers,” Bhalla says, reaching down to tap the pebbly gray, patterned surface of the new park’s walkway. “Another neat feature I think is innovative on a national level is the underground water retention system below us. It holds up to 200,000 gallons.”

Our next stop is an impressive climbing gym in the city’s North End, where the mayor-elect believes a redevelopment area could become “almost a city within a city.” He’s an earnest urban-policy wonk, fluent in walkability, mass transit, arts districts, and inclusive and sustainable everything.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN
Hoboken Mayor-elect Ravi Bhalla shakes hands with a well-wisher outside Bhalla campaign headquarters in the city’s downtown.

“Ravi is an intelligent and compassionate human being,” says Camden County Freeholder-Director Louis Cappelli Jr., who has known Bhalla for about five years. Both are partners in the law firm of Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader.

Although Bhalla campaigned mainly on local issues, he’s already making himself heard beyond Hoboken, as evidenced by his recent CNN.com commentary about the connection between American values and Sikh values. And it’s difficult not to see the election of a progressive person of color, a son of immigrants from India who practices a minority religion, as an encouraging sign.

“Current political events, especially at the national level, have made more people engaged [and]  wanting to … have their voices heard,” says Cherry Hill Councilwoman-elect Sangeeta Doshi, the first Indian American to win office in Camden County.

She cites Bhalla’s win as among several “landmark victories” by South Asian candidates in New Jersey, including Democrat Balvir Singh, a Sikh who was elected in November to the Burlington County freeholder board.

Bhalla says he stands ready to protect the interest of his constituents from the impact of the Trump administration. “For a coastal city like Hoboken, it’s a real issue to have a president who thinks climate change is a hoax,” he notes.

And within the city, “it’s time to unite … and remember that we’re all neighbors, and we all love Hoboken,” says the mayor-elect. “I want to make sure that our best days are yet to come.”