On the eve of the November 8th city council election, Raj Patel and his family hosted a large gathering at Takanami for friends and supporters. The room was silent and tense as I walked in just ten minutes before the official election results were announced. The ‘Remember the Titans’ instrumental in the background only made the tension more clear. My first glance of Raj revealed a feeling of overwhelming nervousness as his family created a barrier between him and the crowd. His gestures switched between wiping sweat from his temples and taking gulps of a drink with his shaky hand.
Photo by Manny Alhadab
I was not yet informed that Raj already knew his first attempt at a local government seat had failed. He lost his shot at a city council spot to Michelle Payne, who narrowly defeated him by only 232 votes.
When the clock struck nine and the results were confirmed, the music cut and the awkward atmosphere of a fresh politician’s first defeat set in. Patel said nothing, and no one in the crowd seemed to know what to do.
Eventually, Patel managed to snap back into autopilot mode, walk on stage, and flip to his prepared concession speech. He then hugged anyone in his path on his way off the stage, as his mother quietly wiped tears from her eyes.
Soon the room cleared out enough that I knew I could hold his attention for a few moments. We had talked earlier that day, and he had agreed to provide a reaction statement. But when I asked his thoughts on the results, his reply took me by surprise. “I don’t have time tonight, I will call you later.”
Part I: One-month earlier…
Verum- You grew up in Burlington, but you are first generation American, tell me about what that was like growing up?
Raj Patel- My parents immigrated from India 37 years ago and first lived in Baltimore, Maryland. They lived with 10 or 12 people in a two-bedroom apartment. My dad first worked for Snap on tools and he also ran a paper route, my mother worked at McDonalds. They both came here with only a few dollars in their pocket and worked hard to save enough money to buy a small motel in Arkansas. It was a run down small 18-unit motel. Eventually they made enough money with that to move to Burlington, Iowa and build a hotel about two years before I was born. Now we own about 30 hotels in the state of Iowa, they really have lived the American dream. Every day i think about what life would be like if my parents didn’t immigrate here and I grew up in India. I would have no education, I would have married a woman that my parents would have chosen for me. I would have grown up with the same belief set that my parents had. My destiny would be handed to me, instead of me writing my own destiny. It is really incredible what America has given myself and my family.
Verum- What made you choose to go into politics. Was there a certain moment that made you realize “I am meant for this”?
Patel- Yeah, actually it was back in high school, I interned with the mayor of Burlington. I was in a job shadowing course, and I told the teacher that I wanted to job shadow the mayor, and she just said “no, you wont ever be able to do that… why don’t you try someone else?” But after school that day I drove to the Mayors office and asked to see him anyways. He let me shadow him for the semester. He also shot me around all the city departments, I spent a week with police, medical and fire, libraries, water works, every city department. The mayor and I developed a very strong bond….to this day I still look up to him. I kind of learned that you could really make a change in city government. You can really hold your elected official accountable on the local level, that’s why I was inspired to get involved.
Verum- Do you ever want to just live the normal college kid life?
Patel- I guess I don’t think about that very often, I don’t usually wish I could just be like any other college student because some things that happen in the campaign. So many people are counting on beyond myself. My campaign manager moved here from Seattle, and just quit his job just to work on my campaign. My brother has also put off a lot of work [to help me out], and has been sleeping on air mattresses. A lot of people tell me…that they have been looking for a young person for the council, but they have just been waiting for the right person. I think I am that right person. I guess that is my drive.
Verum- So how have you adjusted to being in the public spotlight? What changes have you had to make since decided to run?
Patel- A lot of my friends are actually upset that I am not my goofy self any more. I have learned that if you are going to get into politics you have to have a very very tough skin, and basically everything about is going to be out there in public. For example, when the media found out about me dropping my class at the UI. That was a private issue that I didn’t realy want people to know.
Verum- How exactly was that information obtained? Did the school leak it?
Patel- Yeah, it was leaked, but we can’t figure out who it was. In the end that was an eye-opener to me that anything I do from now on will be open to the media and open to criticism.
Verum- Speaking of controversies in your campaign, what exactly happened to your position in the UISG? Did you resign on your own terms or were you forced to quit?
Patel- I was called in an emergency meeting sometime in September. I had to go into the IMU, to the UISG office. [UISP President] Brittany [Caplin] talked for most of the meeting, and said that during that week most of their meetings with the UI officials had been consumed with talks of my candidacy, and legal conflict of me running while holding my city council liaison position. She said that there were calls for my resignation, and she thought I should just take a leave of absence. So I asked for a written statement of all the legal conflicts that that they found, and I received none. They made it hard for me to stay in the organization so I just resigned. But then they came out and said [to the media] that there was no pressure put on me by the organization to leave.
Verum- You were one of the most vocal and organized advocates against the 21-ordinance vote a little over a year ago. what made you get involved with that issue?
Patel- Well, at the time I was a student senator, so I was elected by the students. All my friends and all the students I had met voiced their opinions against the ordinance to me, for mostly safety reasons. So I decided to go ahead and take up that student stance on that.
Verum- You have recently said that you will not undertake any effort to repeal the 21 ordinances. why exactly did you change your feelings about it?
Patel- I guess what made me change my opinion was that I have knocked on over 4,000 doors and talked to many community members, and they all echo the same thing to me. That is that not if they are for or against the 21 only ordinance, they just don’t want to see this issue come up in a future election. I think that we need to give the law some time to show progress. We have an exciting opportunity now downtown with five bar closures, making spaces for restaurants, retail, and different artistic opportunities we have downtown.
Verum- If a student accused you of not understanding their issues and concerns because you are no longer a student at the University of Iowa, what would your response be?
Patel- If you look at the candidate pool, I am the best person to represent the students, I have done so for about 3 years now. I have worked hard for the students and have taken up their initiatives, and they know this. I know students, students know me. That’s the feelings students will take to the polls, “I know him, he has worked for me, he is my agent.”
Verum- What are your future aspirations in politics? In five to ten years do you see yourself still in local government or do you hope to move on to a congressional or more national political career?
Patel- I think holding political office in Iowa City is an awesome responsibility and I want to continue to be an Iowa City city council member as long as possible.
Part II: Life a month after election night…
Verum- So what has your life been like after the election?
Patel- Things have calmed down a lot, I have a lot of free time, which was uh, kind of different. After the campaign I got the chance to look back on the entire thing, and it was an incredible experience. I would like to stay engaged in the next few years and see if I can have another chance at a council spot.
Verum- How do you think your perspective has changed after the campaign?
Patel- When you are working on a campaign day in and day out, that’s all I would think about. When it ended I started thinking about other things I can do now after the campaign as far as internships and things that I wouldn’t be able to do if I won a council spot.
Verum- Did you feel like you had a much of a social life, if any during the campaign?
Patel- No. Luckily, I am blessed to have friends that kind of understood that I would have time for a social life during the campaign and they were alright with that. But I am completely back to normal now. I get to be a 20 year old now that the campaign is over.
Verum- Are you feeling stressed out with you finals that are coming up? What is it compared to the stress you faced during the campaign?
Patel- Yes a little, I have four finals this semester that I have been busy with this week. I miss some aspects of the campaign though. I miss being in front of crowds and talking, I miss being able to go around and shake ha
nds, sometimes I even miss meeting voters that didn’t support me, just to see if I could just change their attitude about me and my policies. But as far as the stress and time taken up by the campaign, i don’t miss that.
Verum- How did your friends and family help you deal with losing the council spot?
Patel- That night was sad, and those first days after the election were sad. It was kind of like I was dealing with a break-up. I knew exactly what to do everyday minute by minute. I was even lost as to what i should wear, I didn’t know if I should throw on my blue Patel shirt again.
Verum- One of your main strategies of your campaign was to focus on permanent residents in Iowa City rather than using your time to engage and motivate fellow students at the University of Iowa, looking back do you feel you would have had better luck if you focused more on the college students?
Patel- I think we did a fine job in getting some students interested in the city council race that they wouldn’t be interested in if a student wasn’t running in it. But you know the residents in Iowa City, many have been here their whole lives. They are very committed to the IC area and they understand these issues. Where students are only here for four years. That’s why it was important for me not to completely base my campaign on just the students’ interests. I wanted to make sure I represented the residents as much as I represent the students.
Verum- What do you think was your biggest flaw in how your campaign for city council turned out?
Patel- I think the biggest flaw was just the amount of time we had. Most candidates started in June, while I got into the race in late August, so we were facing a two-month disadvantage.
Verum- So you mentioned that you are looking forward to other opportunities like internships in the future, are you hoping to take on an internship this summer?
Patel- I would love to be out in D.C. this summer. Th
e amount of knowledge, young knowledge in particular out there is incredible. So, for an internship I would like to do one with a senator or congressman. Ideally I would like to get the white house internship, which I am also applying for.
Verum- Do you plan on running for city council the next election cycle?
Patel- I have made Iowa City my permanent home, and I plan to stay very involved in local politics. I still have that desire to accomplish that at some point in my life.
Verum is an Iowa City Magazine. Verum Political Editor Jules Pratt sat down with the young political hopeful for a three part conversation discussing the ups and downs of running for city council as an UI undergrad. This article was originally posted here.