Nepali-origin American wins US state election

Sarahana Shrestha delivering a jubilant victory speech in Kingston, New York on 8 November. Photo: Tania Barricklo/Daily Freeman

As the results of the US mid-term elections come in, with the Democrats not doing as badly as predicted, there is rejoicing in faraway Kathmandu because a first-generation Nepali has been elected to the New York State Assembly.

With her home country of Nepal going to the polls in 10 days, Sarahana Shreshta, 41, ran for the Democratic Party. She defeated real estate tycoon Patrick Sheehan by a vote of 35,493 to 23,104 to win the 103rd New York State District Assembly seat on Tuesday.

She is the oldest child of Gyanendra Das and Seema Shrestha’s three children and grew up in a family of photographers. She became a US citizen in 2019 and championed a climate-related platform focused on developing a clean, renewable and affordable power supply.

“When she announced her run for primaries, I was very nervous. There has been constant news of political violence and asian hate crime in America, and after Trump there is a lot of anxiety about being a brown immigrant," says Shrestha's mother Seema  whose father, late Dil Bahadur Shrestha, once served as Home Minister of Nepal in the 1980s.

She adds: "Otherwise, she has always been a topper and good at everything she has done, so I felt she could do well in this too. I guess she took some political genes from the family, after all."

Shrestha is the Ulster County co-chair for the Mid-Hudson Valley chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and a leader in Public Power NY, a coalition of organizations focused on promoting renewable energy and climate action.

“So many people do not have a voice in what happens to the world, who is affected by war, ecological disaster,” Shrestha said. “As an American citizen, we can do a lot.”

Sarahana Shrestha with New York State Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who endorsed her campaign. Photo: Corey Torpie

Before moving to the US, Shrestha published and edited the Kathmandu youth magazine, ZING!, during her SLC break in 1997. She also spent her entire holiday that year editing all the mistakes she found in her school text books.

She then worked for three years as a radio show host and producer on IMAGE FM 97.9. She is an avid photographer and videographer herself, is a published author, and plays the piano and guitar. Shrestha was also a self-taught graphic designer and website developer before deciding to pursue it in college in New York in 2001.

Shrestha has always had activism in her blood. For example, she set up the website, samudaya.org, in Nepal to spread awareness amongst youth about democracy, pluralism and free press. It was among the sites banned in Nepal by the royal regime in 2005 after king Gyanendra’s coup.

Once in the US, she was active in politics, organising support for healthcare rights and climate activism in the scenic Hudson Valley in New York State. Shreshta’s campaign for state assembly was endorsed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who herself was elected for the second time on Tuesday, actress and activist Cynthia Nixon of Sex & the City fame, the New York State Nurses Association, Planned Parenthood, New York State United Teachers and the Communications Workers of America.

Sarahana campaigned door-to-door tirelessly and battled headwinds from rich real estate developers who circulated negative emails about her and other candidates, calling them ‘extremists’.

In June, she defeated career Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Cahill in a primary election for the party for the seat. Cahill was a 13-term incumbent, having held the seat since 1999. Shrestha is now the first socialist member from upstate New York for the state legislature in Albany.

“There was also really warm support from the Nepali community even if they could not vote for her, because her constituency has almost no Nepalis. But when we found out her opponent was engaging in some very agressive negative campaign , iI was quite worried about how that may impact her,” says Gyanendra Das, Shrestha's father. "As parents, her victory is a relief. And i think a moment of pride for the Nepali diaspora, too. A candidate like her was also much needed in American politics at this point in time." 

Shrestha has recalled in media interviews about how her political thinking was shaped by being stuck in a school bus in Kathmandu during the 1990 People’s Movement while riot police clashed with protesters outside. After school, she visited parts of Nepal affected by the Maoist conflict to understand what was driving the insurgency.

In the US, she continued her activism for justice, equity and the environment – exemplified by her campaign for renewable energy. She told The Nation: “Climate is an economic issue, and the way we have been able to connect to people to talk about it is by presenting it as an economic issue. People are seeing that if we continue to rely on fossil fuels, we might not be able to afford a lot of things.”

Shrestha lives in the town of Esopus with her husband, their dog, and some chickens.

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