Legislator’s election a sign of ethnic growth

Updendra Chivukula is the first Indian-American to serve in the state Legislature.

By: Jennifer Potash
   On Jan. 8, Franklin Township resident Updendra Chivukula was sworn in as a member of the New Jersey Assembly. Two days later, the event was reported in every newspaper in India, where the assemblyman was born.
   "I think (the international attention) has done a lot for the Democratic Party and the state," he said, in a recent interview in his new district office in New Brunswick.
   Mr. Chivukula, who represents the 17th Legislative District encompassing portions of Middlesex and Somerset counties, is the first Indian-American to serve in the state Legislature and one of three Indian-American state representatives nationwide.
   Asians are the fastest growing minority group in New Jersey according to the 2000 U.S. Census. And among Asians, Asian Indians were the fastest growing group.
   The number of Asian Indians more than doubled in the state as a whole —from 79,440 to 169,180 in the last decade — an increase of 113 percent. Middlesex and Somerset counties have some of the largest gains in Asian Indian populations in the state.
   Mr. Chivukula, an electrical engineer who has worked for AT&T and Bell Labs, emigrated to the United States in the mid-1970s to pursue a master’s degree in engineering at the City College of New York.
   While his status as an Indian-American candidate for political office was of major note in India, it was less so on the campaign trail.
   Many residents in his district did not know his ethnicity, Mr. Chivukula said.
   "People elected me not because I am an Asian Indian-American but because I am someone who is competent and felt I could represent them well," said Mr. Chivukula, who also serves on the Franklin Township Committee. He was mayor in 2000.
   Like the other freshman Assembly members, Mr. Chivukula is familiarizing himself with the workings of the Legislature.
   Mr. Chivukula has also brought his business experience — from his 18 years at AT&T where he worked in computer sales, consulting and marketing, as well as at his wife Dayci’s telecommunication company, Sira Tech — to his new career in state government.
   In the Democrat-controlled Assembly he serves as vice-chairman of the Commerce and Economic Development Committee and on the Environment, Telecommunications and Utilities Committee.
   In his campaign last year, Mr. Chivukula focused on quality of life issues such as education, health care, affordable housing and promoting small businesses.
   One successful state program, which provides micro-loans for minority and woman-owned businesses, ought to continue, he said.
   "The state has a responsibility to promote women-owned businesses," he said.
   Changes in the state’s economic climate and overall workforce changes, including the shift away of permanent employment to more periodic or contract employment, make such programs more vital, he said.
   -RT>Gov. James E. McGreevey recently announced he was freezing the program as part of an overall effort to close the $2.9 billion budget gap this year, Mr. Chivukula said.
   "(Small businesses) need more management expertise and guidance so they can be successful," he said. "They’re not looking at large capital investment."
   New Jersey companies, the nonprofit sector and even the federal government could provide support to those startup micro-businesses in the interim, he suggested.
   "One way the corporations can help is if they have a commitment of providing 10 percent of their business to minority-owned businesses," he said.
   As part of an overall economic plan, the state should also do more to bring in international companies to urban areas which will create jobs and promote minority businesses, he said.
   -RT>Overall, companies in New Jersey are aware of diversity issues in the workplace, he said.
   "Many corporations are very sensitive to the fact that the workforce, especially in the information and telecommunication industries, is very diverse with (much of) the talent coming from overseas," he said.
   -RT>Still, some ethnic groups are still grappling with discrimination, he said.
   Mr. Chivukula said he intends to look into complaints by minorities, including some Asian groups, claiming their professional advancement has been thwarted because of their ethnicity.