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For Asians, local politics is slow to catch on

Saatvik Ahluwalia unwinds a few days after last week’s town election with his sister, Tara, and their mother, Poonam, at home in Lexington.

JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF

Saatvik Ahluwalia unwinds a few days after last week’s town election with his sister, Tara, and their mother, Poonam, at home in Lexington.

Over two months this winter, Saatvik Ahluwalia knocked on 1,500 doors and he and volunteers for his campaign called 2,000 of his neighbors, asking them to elect him as one of their town’s selectmen. Ahluwalia, 24, lost the race.

He still stood out on election day last week, as one of the few Indian-Americans ever to run for townwide office in Lexington, a community that is 20 percent Asian, the fourth largest percentage in the state. The schools have the state’s second largest percentage of Asian children — 31 percent last year — after Quincy.

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Despite the growing population, few Asians have gotten involved in town politics in Lexington. Even beyond running for high-profile offices like the School Committee or the Board of Selectmen, the low participation rate extends to volunteer roles on the town’s multitude of committees. Of the 530 elected and appointed positions held by Lexington residents last year, 3 percent were filled by Asians. Parent-teacher groups in the schools fare a bit better, with Asians holding 13 percent of their board seats.

Ahluwalia was one of four Indian candidates on the March 3 ballot in Lexington, a number that the newspaper India New England called a New England high. He received 1,485 votes, placing third out of three candidates vying for two seats on the Board of Selectmen. Incumbent Norman Cohen got 2,512 votes and Michelle Ciccolo received 3,012.

“I did achieve showing people the town is changing,” Ahluwalia said. “The new town is ready to get involved.”

Last month the town completed an 18-month study into ways to increase participation by Asian residents in town and school affairs, and it cited some potential barriers. The authors of the study found that Asians are, on average, seven years younger than other residents and more likely to be busy with child-rearing. Although most of the town’s Asian residents speak English well, older residents often do not. Some Asians, the report suggested, don’t come from a tradition of participation in local government.

“They don’t have the same type of involvement or inclination to get involved or volunteer with town government as we do here in the States or in Lexington,” said Peter Lee, president of the Chinese American Association of Lexington. “It’s not that they wouldn’t do it. It’s not something that they grew up with.”

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In the last few years, the association and the Indian Americans of Lexington have worked to encourage their members to become more involved in town politics. About half of Lexington’s Asian population is Chinese, and Indians account for about 25 percent. People of Korean and Japanese origins make up much of the rest.

Lee estimated that over the years, about eight Chinese residents, including at least two in the recent election, have won town office. “The important thing is it’s trending up,” he said. “Over the last few years, the number has grown.”

The town study found that a lack of information about the types of committee work available keeps Asian residents from volunteering for those groups.

Since the problems of time and culture are difficult to overcome, the group studying Asian participation focused on the issue of committee work. It urged town officials to better publicize the types of committees that need volunteers, as well as how future vacancies will be filled.

“It’s not the civic participation per se that’s important, but it’s having constant contact and open communication that’s important,” said Dan Krupka, chairman of the study committee.

Ahluwalia, the partnership coordinator for YouthTrade, a nonprofit for young entrepreneurs, thinks part of the problem is that many committees meet during the day. He saw a notice for a tourism committee meeting that gathered on a Friday morning.

“There’s no way you can go to that meeting, because you have a job,” he said.

Ahluwalia was elected to Lexington’s Town Meeting last year and became vice president of his precinct. He had early political experience. While he was at Boston University, Ahluwalia was chosen for a fellowship working with Democratic state Representative Jay Kaufman.

Later, he worked for US Representative Edward Markey when the Democrat was running for US Senate, and he was later hired as campaign manager for Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung.

Ahluwalia is a Bollywood dancer who speaks Hindi, but he doesn’t like being called an Indian American. He prefers “American of Indian descent.”

“Whether you came on the Mayflower 300 years ago or if you moved here three months ago from any country in the world, you are equally an American if you set your roots here,” he said. “We are a country of immigrants.”

Newer Asian immigrants may not feel truly part of the community.

Ahluwalia said he remembers that when he was a student at Lexington High School, recent immigrants would eat together in one of the school’s two cafeterias. When he went back to the high school recently for a visit, he saw the same dividing lines.

About 70 percent of the Asians in Lexington were either born in the United States or are naturalized citizens. To encourage the others to become more involved in local politics, the town might consider allowing them to vote, said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Newton, Cambridge, and Amherst have approved measures allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections.

The state Legislature, which must also vote on the proposed change, has not approved their petitions.

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Asians in Lexington

20: percent of Lexington population that is of Asian descent

31: percent of students in Lexington Public Schools that are of Asian descent

3: percent of openings on town boards and committees filled by people of Asian descent

Source - Lexington report on the participation by Asians in town government

Kathy Burge can be reached at kathleen.burge@globe.com.

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