When Dr. Aakash Ahuja announced his candidacy for a Santa Clarita City Council seat in a Facebook post in January 2020, he pledged to donate 100% of his city council salary to local charities if he is voted into office.
It’s what separates him from the other candidates says Ahuja who is running for public office for the first time.
Ahuja, a psychiatrist in the greater Los Angeles area, represents a growing breed of politically active Indian Americans who are stepping forward to serve their communities in public roles, from city councils to state capitals.
“If you firmly believe that America is your homeland and that you like living in this country and embrace its values, then being Indian or from any other ethnicity should not deter you from running for public office,” says Ahuja.
It’s important to be involved in civic engagement, he says, especially, “If you have something positive to bring to the table – the benefit of your experience to your community, your school board or your city. If you have a vision and the support of your community, then consider public office.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by another Indian-American legislator in California, Ash Kalra (D-27), who says, “The longer the Indian American community has been in this country, the more it has matured. And part of that maturity is becoming more politically active.”
Santa Clarita, home to Six Flags, is the third largest city in Los Angeles County. Elections to the 5-member City council will be held in November.
“An array of “good, diverse candidates with different viewpoints with the best interests of their city at heart. That’s the recipe for a strong democracy,” says Ahuja.
He cites his professional leadership roles and public health initiative experience as invaluable preparation for taking on a public service role. Ahuja has pioneered and led programs for medical students as a Chief Resident, supervised teams of psychiatrists, chaired suicide prevention committees and volunteered on mental health programs for Native Americans at Red Lake Reservation, MN.
At his first public meeting on February 9th, a large swathe of the community turned out to support Ahuja and his vision for Santa Clarita.
“It was great to earn their endorsement at the meeting” he says. Ahuja envisions a city that will provide improved mental health and healthcare access, affordable housing and better paying, local jobs for the community, among other priorities.
“Our goals are city centric and we want to resolve them with common sense solutions”
His “grassroots-level campaign” to hear community concerns and explain his mission – canvassing door-to-door and meeting people at parks, religious institutions and non-profit organizations – has drawn widespread support from the public, work colleagues and small business owners.
“My biggest challenge is to let people know about us,” says Ahuja who is also spreading the word via social media, yard signs and bumper stickers. He intends to donate 100% of his city council salary ($30,000 a year over a 4-year term) to local charities which support local veterans, firefighters, teachers and special needs children and “whoever is trying to increase mental health access to the community.”
One of his proposals is to invigorate the economy and civic life in Santa Clarita by building a much needed local hospital and a youth center. He says that Santa Clarita’s only hospital Henry Mayo Newhall – a 370 bed facility is inadequate for the city’s population of 200,000+. Ahuja plans to approach healthcare systems (Kaiser, UCLA and Cedars Sinai) to build a new Level-1 trauma center that will create opportunities for healthcare professionals who live in Santa Clarita but work elsewhere.
“We need to optimize their use for the welfare of the city,” he says.
Lack of mental care access and an extreme shortage of mental health providers is another issue Ahuja wants to address by asking the VA to build a satellite clinic for veterans. He is working with Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D-38) on a mental health subcommittee, and points out that, “As more veterans return from tours of duty in war zones, we see increases in cases of PTSD.” Investing in resources will broaden healthcare access and attract psychiatrists, social workers, and task forces for drug rehab centers, drawing “much needed healthcare professionals” to the city, says Ahuja.
One issue deeply important to Ahuja is resolving the homeless issue in Santa Clarita. A 2019 count revealed there were 256 homeless individuals in the city.
Homelessness is a “humane , important issue – not a problem that can be solved simply by providing housing”, says Ahuja. “It needs a multipronged approach at its core,” by mobilizing every resource. “We are planning to work hand in hand with LA County to help the homeless with vocational training that will help them find employment, as well as education, drug rehabilitation and mental health care if required.”
Ahuja is excited about the youth center he is proposing to offer educational, fun, leadership activities for children aged 10 and upwards. He wants to obtain corporate sponsorships from companies like Boston Scientific or Disney and help from non-profit organizations to support courses like AI, coding and public speaking – especially for children in the community who cannot afford them. This initiative he says, will tap into a valuable community resource – the volunteers among its professionals and college students who could use their skills to teach younger children and assume community leadership roles. College students will receive incentives certificates to recognize their volunteer efforts.
Ahuja has the strong support of his family, his wife and two children, friends and colleagues, as he embarks on his city council bid, but says he is not seeking the blessing of any political party.
“We believe our issues are city-centric and don’t want to align ourselves with any political party. It will box us in or force us to run with their narrative.
Our strength is going to be getting the vote of the man on the street.
I want an endorsement from the public.”
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents