Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi Woman? She is a dynamic, fearless, and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale, and I am a Desi woman. Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale and today we are so excited to be joined by Michigan State Representative Padma Kuppa. Padma is a member of the Michigan House of Representatives from the 41st House District, and was just re-elected for a second term. The 41st District includes the cities of Troy and Clawson in Michigan.
Soniya Gokhale (01:10):
Padma is the first Indian immigrant and Hindu in the Michigan legislature. Throughout her life, Padma has sought to bring people together to solve problems, both in the professional world and in the community. She is a mechanical engineer and project manager [inaudible 00:01:28], with a career that has spanned higher education, marketing, automotive, financial, and IT sectors. Representative Kuppa is currently president of the Troy Historical Society, a board member of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, and on the advisory councils for South Asian-American Voices for Impact, and The Great Lakes Political Academy. Padma is also serving a second term on the My STEM Council, and is encouraging a focus on STEAM in public education, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, as she believes this is a critical foundation for a strong economy. Padma, welcome to the show.
Padma Kuppa (02:14):
Thank you so much for having me again, Soniya. It is an honor to be here with you and your listeners at the Desi Woman Podcast.
Soniya Gokhale (02:25):
Oh, we are so excited to have you here, and I want to start with a bit about your journey to this country. We have a large number of listeners from India, in particular, and I know you came to this country for graduate school. I know that you came here briefly as a child and then again for graduate school. And so we’d really enjoy hearing where you are from in India and just a bit about your journey to this country, becoming a mechanical engineer, a business analyst, experience executive in the areas of manufacturing finance, and now an elected official for a second term, and the first Indian immigrant and Hindu to be elected to the Michigan State Legislature. An inspiring journey that began in India.
Padma Kuppa (03:10):
Yes, very much.
Soniya Gokhale (03:11):
So we’d love to hear from you about that.
Padma Kuppa (03:13):
So I actually was born not in Andhra or where my parents are from. My mom is from Rajahmundry, my father is from Tenali. And then for whatever reason, women go home to their parents or their family to deliver a child. So my mom went to… Her eldest brother was working in a city called [Pillai 00:03:33]. It was in Madhya Pradesh, today it is in [inaudible 00:03:36]. So I was born in Pillai, and then my dad had come to the United States in the wave of immigrants that came to study here in the late ’60s, early ’70s. And my mother and I followed him. My mom also did postgraduate work here. She’s a biologist. She did her PhD at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. And so after living here for so many years in the Northeastern part of the United States, my parents decided… My brother was one year old, I was 15, and we moved back to India so that they could take the education that they had acquired here and then help their country.
Padma Kuppa (04:16):
Now, I spent 11 years here growing up, and when I landed in India, I didn’t feel at home. I had an American accent, I had an American attitude. And so I think that it wasn’t just the best age to move, to shift cultures. And this is pre-internet. So I really had no idea what I was getting into and I would be very outspoken. I come from a traditional South Indian family. And as a girl amongst many boy cousins, I would always end up sort of arguing with them and associated a lot of the patriarchy that I experienced and that I confronted with India. I knew my mom always said math is my one of my favorite subjects. And if I wanted to come back to the United States, my mom said, “Do engineering or medicine because they want doctors and engineers in America.” It’s a good profession to be an engineer. They always need engineers, right? This country, America, doesn’t have enough of us. And so we’re always importing people with technical skills from other countries.
Padma Kuppa (05:24):
And so I got to come back as a foreign student. Now, I will say, my experiences during my college years at Ajit Sigh Nagar now known as National Institute of technology, we had about 1,500 students from all over the country and a few from around the world, from Mauritius, from Lebanon. I had a Palestinian classmate. I had a Malaysian classmate. It was really, really interesting because I got to understand the diversity that is India, but also the unity that is India. We would all bug classes on Saturday. In fact, I was the only girl in mechanical engineering, and I would come up with, “This is the list of Hindi movies that are playing in the morning show, and this is a list of Telugu movies that are playing,” and let all my classmates know. And so they would go… The Hindi speaking students would go to the Hindi movie, and the Telugu speaking students would go to the Telugu movies, and so it was kind of fun to see how the diversity also allowed us to be so unified.
Padma Kuppa (06:26):
It was also a time for me when I came to understand what it means to be Hindu. Living in India, I looked like everybody else, but I also worshiped like everyone else. It’s a very interesting experience, different from being a Hindu in America. You understand pluralism at its best. So many people have come to India over centuries seeking and aspiring to be closer to God and eat, pray, love, or back in the day, there were [inaudible 00:07:02] so many others. Foster wrote his book, A Passage to India, and my father always speaks of that. He’s an English professor. He’s retired now, but these are the things that I really appreciated.
Padma Kuppa (07:15):
But I came back because I knew how to function better in a Western society. My Telugu is good, but my English is better. My Hindi is very poor. And so I came back to raise my family, to have a job and live in the United States, but I was very firmly rooted in the ideals that my parents gave me, which is education, education, education. And I think that’s something that all Indians and members of the Indian diaspora like us share. And that’s what brought me into the political arena because I believe in the backbone of America is public education, both K-12, as well as college education that’s very affordable at our colleges and universities, like the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where I went to graduate school or Michigan State University, where my son just graduated from.
Soniya Gokhale (08:09):
Well, that is so well said and I could not agree with you more. Education is so intrinsic to who we are and our identity in a lot of ways as a diaspora. And I read a couple of past interviews that you’ve done, and I really want to illustrate some of the pressure-filled realities and existence that go along with politics and your key leadership role in Michigan. And you stated, “The day I won somebody was planning to take my seat.” So there is that consistent looking over your shoulder and recognize that the great honor you’ve been given also is coveted by others. And so that’s just a really interesting nuance that we don’t often hear about. But I also read that you drive 90 miles to Michigan State Capitol in Lambton from your home in Troy, Michigan. And when the legislature is in session, you clock about 180 miles a day. I would also add you’re a devoted wife and mother, and of course, I just want to hear… We know women around the world juggle tasks on a daily basis. I would like to hear more from you though about all of that.
Padma Kuppa (09:18):
Yeah, juggling is the name of the game. If I did not have a supportive spouse and a supportive family, I could not have started it. When I decided to run, that was the first conversation. People had been encouraging me to run for public office for over 10 years. And I resisted because I really didn’t like politics. I thought it was dirty. But I heard a very famous Indian woman speak at a conference in Delhi in 2013 in November. Her name is [inaudible 00:09:44] and she was asked the question, “How are you in politics?” Because she was part of the BJP and in government, and she’s now famous minister in India, but she said in response to a question about, “How did you get into politics? It’s so dirty.” She said, “Well, you’re a woman. You know how to clean it up. Get in there and clean it up.”
Soniya Gokhale (10:07):
I love that. Oh, wow.
Padma Kuppa (10:09):
And so that was an inspiration to me that politics may not be the worst thing for me to go into, but especially in 2017, as I saw some things unfold here in the state of Michigan and especially at the DC level, I realized politics is local. Again, my father, the English professor always told me that all politics is local and he was very involved in local issues and local activism. And so when I decided to run, we had an outpouring of support from everybody in the community who saw both… Within the local community, the two communities that I represent, Troy and Clawson, the two cities, but also from the Indian community across the region. Now, one of the challenges I face is the immigrant community does identify with me, which is a blessing. And it is a beautiful thing because I am the immigrant story, right?
Padma Kuppa (10:58):
We come here, we work so hard and we achieve. And so I’ve crossed a barrier that a lot of immigrants have not crossed, entering into the political arena. But the other piece of it is also the challenge because now people come to me with all sorts of issues that they don’t know whom to go to. And I’ll get WhatsApp messages, I’ll get what Facebook messages I’ll get texts, I’ll get phone calls and all sorts of things that I have no control over. In fact, I had a Sikh gentleman a couple of months ago call me, or email me as a state representative asking me to condemn the Modi government and speak out against what he perceived as the farmer bills. And I said, “I’m the state representative. This is what I’m supposed to do. And I don’t have boots on the ground in India,” and I didn’t comment.
Padma Kuppa (11:49):
And I referred him to our federal level representatives who can offer him advice. And I think that is my job, is when people reach out to me about an issue that isn’t in my purview, I have to give them the… Where to go to find an answer to that particular issue. And I’m able to do that, and I have staff who are willing to do that, but I think this is a lot more than most representatives have to deal with because not everybody is coming to them with all these other issues. The other thing I will say is I’m the first Democrat in this seat. As I said, I’m a reluctant partisan because I believe in pluralism, and the idea that many perspectives and diversity is so important, it creates a much better answer. And so taking one side or the other side was never my…
Padma Kuppa (12:42):
Like when kids argue, you don’t take sides. When your children argue, you try to be a peacemaker. And so that’s what I’ve always seen myself as. But when I chose to become a Democrat, it was because of my values. I value public education. I believe in science. I really think that we should understand the impact that humans are having on the environment and on climate change. I believe that we should take vaccines to protect ourselves from the COVID pandemic. And I believe that we should protect our water from pollution and that by putting pollutants into the ground, we actually spoil our environment. And so these are sort of common sense things that I believe, and that’s one of the reasons I am a Democrat. But also the problem is that I’m straddling this people have a very stereotypical notion of what it is to be a Democrat or to be a Republican.
Padma Kuppa (13:37):
And unlike a lot of the other Indian American electeds who are out there, there’s Niraj Antani, who’s a Senator in Ohio. He lives in a safe Republican district, and he’s a Republican. Jenifer Rajkumar, also Hindu-American who lives in New York. Lives in a safe democratic district. They won their primaries. I had to win a general election. So not only did I have to deal with making sure that the field was clear on the democratic side, I also had to make sure that I won against the competing argument and the competing ideology of a Republican, which is something that was more trusted in this district for many, many years. And so how do I build people’s trust? And I guess I was very fortunate that the people of Troy and Clawson trusted me a second time with making good decisions for our state, for our district.
Soniya Gokhale (14:30):
Absolutely. And congratulations indeed, on another term in the Michigan legislature. Just a huge accomplishment. And I know you want it to return for another term to continue addressing issues that are important to you. Education, the environment, protecting the great lakes and maintaining medical insurance for people with pre-existing conditions. And you mentioned you wear a lot of hats and a lot is expected from you, not just as a woman, but also as a woman of color. And you are a naturalized citizen and you’re exceedingly proud of your Indian heritage, but you’re also keenly aware that you do face those Americans who think people like yourself, whether immigrants or women of color don’t belong in decision-making position. And you do make note, you’ve been hugely welcomed by constituents in your position. This is demonstrated by your reelection.
Soniya Gokhale (15:23):
However, I read in one interview, you faced a constituent from a gun rights organization who advised you that you should learn English and read the constitution. And you candidly stated, “I really didn’t know what to say. I’d read the constitution. I know English, and my father was an English professor.” So if you could tell me more about this and the challenges you faced along the lines of gender as well. And I may make the argument that your leadership in the private sector, I think, makes you very uniquely qualified to handle some of this dissonance, because unfortunately we don’t see enough diversity reflected in corporate America, and you certainly were a torchbearer in that sector as well. So I just want to hear your thoughts on that.
Padma Kuppa (16:07):
Sure. I think that is the essence of it, that I’m here at the table and making sure my voice is heard, is the number one thing. So I take on issues that I think are important to my district. Governor Whitmer recently issued an executive order to promote fair competition and protect Michigan businesses and workers’ wages. I also introduced with one of my colleagues bills that would better support and promote women in the workforce. I think that that’s a really important thing. And we add to the economy by being good workers, and being involved, and being wage earners.
Padma Kuppa (16:45):
And so I really look for policies that others have asked me to introduce that would enhance representation of women in the workplace, women in corporate boards, and making sure that I, as a woman in the political space can better support women from the time they are attempting to secure employment, to when they’re looking to be leaders in those fields because it will support the growth and health of Michigan’s economy and also the overall workforce and help working families. I know that I was… In my first term, I was the co-chair of the equal pay task force. It’s still an issue that I care very much about. I really want to see the gender wage gap ended. And so I’m part of the progressive women’s caucus in our legislature, where we try to introduce and support legislation that will help women and help hardworking families, right?
Padma Kuppa (17:49):
When women earn what they are… A fair wage as they do when they belong to a union, then we will build a better future for everybody. And we need to have pay disparities eradicated. I think that’s really what we’re trying to do. And so whether it’s because you’re a minority or because you’re a female, you shouldn’t be earning less for the same job. And so making sure that my voice is lifted on these things. I know as a woman in the workforce, I didn’t negotiate salaries that were commensurate with what my male colleagues were getting. I wasn’t good at negotiating because we teach women to be more acquiescent, to be more accommodating and accepting and not rock the boat. And so I think it’s really important that, given the position that I now hold, that I can make those statements to support women and say, “We need better wages. That we need to be paid fairly.”
Soniya Gokhale (18:47):
Well. That makes so much sense and it kind of leads me into my next question. You and a few colleagues in the Michigan legislature are trying to get the sales tax on feminine hygiene products repealed. and this represents a third attempt to do so. It has been coined the “Tampon tax,” but the argument is being made that this represents money and rightfully so, I might add, that could go into retirement, could go into education, could go into savings for our children’s education.
Soniya Gokhale (19:16):
And it’s really just an unnecessary tax that takes those dollars out of women’s pockets. And Governor Gretchen Whitmer is a huge advocate of this as well. And I have to say, we certainly know that in countries across South Asia and India, there’s a dire need for improved maternal fetal medicine, and informational campaigns around feminine hygiene products. But it is shocking that in this country, women are still being penalized and taxed for an item that is simply a necessity or essential product. I have to say, even in corporate America, it is not uncommon to not see these being offered freely to employees. So it’s really rather shocking, but we’d love to hear more about this from you.
Padma Kuppa (19:58):
Yeah. So one of the things… So this is actually turned out. So I used to sit next to a colleague of mine named Brian Elder. He’s a lawyer and he was actually one of the sponsors of the bills the last term. And of course we did not get a hearing, and he was not able to serve again this term. I reached out to him and to his… It’s a pair of bills because one removes sales tax, one removes use tax. Because there’s two types of tax that we pay in Michigan on feminine hygiene products. And so I wanted to see who is going to take it up. And I asked, “Can I partner with Tenisha Yancey?” She’s a Democrat from Harper Woods, and she, and I introduced it this time because it was my seatmate who introduced it last time. And so I thought it was a great bill when he introduced it, and so I was very happy to support the reintroduction in my second term.
Padma Kuppa (20:55):
And it was really great to see that our governor introduced, in her budget recommendations earlier this year, a provision that would end the Michigan sales tax and use tax on menstrual products. It’s also been introduced on the Senate side. So we have two bills on the house side and two bills on the Senate side. So we’re waiting to see if we can follow 20 other States that exempt menstrual hygiene products from sales tax. There are States across the country, from Alaska to Washington on the West Coast in California, but Connecticut, and Delaware, and New York, and New Jersey on the East Coast. So this is something that I think the Midwest could take up. Ohio also has done it, so has Illinois. So neighboring States in the Midwest. So Michigan shouldn’t be far behind. If we want to be competitive with other States, we need to eliminate this pink tax as we call it, because they are medical necessities and our state’s taxation practices must be welcoming to those who menstruate.
Soniya Gokhale (22:00):
Very much so. And we will be watching that. I truly hope that indeed, that, that moves forward in Michigan. And you recently co-sponsored a resolution alongside your house colleagues on both sides of the aisle in support of the nationwide 30 by 30 campaign to protect 30% of Michigan’s land and 30% of its water by 2030. Now in researching for the show, I was shocked to find out that the United States is losing a football field of natural area every 30 seconds to some kind of development. And as a resident of Troy and a former city of Troy planning commission member, this didn’t shock you. And so I wanted to hear more about this and it’s amazing to hear that there is by the partisan support of it as well.
Padma Kuppa (22:49):
Yeah. So again, going back to that theme that all politics is local, I first joined the city of Troy’s boards back in 2002, soon after 911. The first board I joined was actually called the Ethnic Issues Advisory Board because we were looking to engage the diversity. Troy has the most number of foreign born residents of any city in Michigan. And so in 2002, we were looking to make sure that we engaged the diversity, especially because there’s a lot of South Asians, there’re Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus. People of all different ethnic and religious backgrounds. And so we wanted to make sure that nobody was harmed as a result of what had happened on 09/11/2001 because the first person that was killed was a Sikh, and we wanted to make sure that we didn’t see a Sikh as an enemy, or a Hindu as an enemy, or a Muslim as an enemy.
Padma Kuppa (23:42):
And so I joined that board. From there I went on and I became a member of the planning commission. One of the first things that I recognized as a member of the planning commission was that it was our responsibility as planning commission to help shape how development happens in our city. We had all been seeing for a number of years that a developer would come in, buy a small plot of land, and then they would clear cut or cut down all the trees and build their houses. And people wanted to move to Troy. We have great school district, we have good community services. And so it’s a very good community to move into. And so the fact that the developer was able to do that and, and sell the houses, what we wanted was the developers to also retain some of the natural features on those properties and not cut down all the trees, because that’s the essence of environmental protection.
Padma Kuppa (24:38):
And right where we are, where we live, we want to love where we live, and the more trees we cut down, the more green space we lose. Now, we understand that this is private property and it’s privately owned, and the developer has a right, so we thought that there should be a balance. And we introduced a tree protection ordinance. It had been tried 15 years prior. And the concern then was that people were afraid of private land being restricted by public language, by public ordinances. But when we did this in 2015, we listened to our neighbor’s concerns because neighborhood after neighborhood, they were losing the small woodsy areas in the midst of their existing subdivisions to new housing. And we wanted to look for ways to preserve green spaces in our city. So to create that balance between development and conservation, we introduced language and the city council passed a tree protection ordinance.
Padma Kuppa (25:37):
And so at the state in Michigan, we actually have a law that bans local communities from passing tree protection ordinances, that tries to. It hasn’t passed yet, but it prevents certain communities from doing this. And I think that’s really not a good thing because we should have local control. And so people don’t want to see the continued destruction of our natural resources and our environment, from rural areas to suburban and urban areas. We really want to make a better Michigan by creating this 30 by 30 initiative, promoting this 30 by 30 initiative. And so I think it’s important that we get involved locally and find out what we can do to protect in our own small spaces that we live in. You reduce what’s going on globally by acting locally.
Soniya Gokhale (26:32):
Very much so. Absolutely. A set of bills aimed at restoring driver’s licenses for immigrants in Michigan was re-introduced recently, which if passed, the drive safe plan, which stands for safety, access, freedom, and the economy would allow more than 100,000 immigrants to apply for a driver’s license in Michigan. And based on the demographics you outlined for Troy, it makes so much sense now because you need to have a driver’s license. Many immigrants are business owners, they’re parents, professionals and essential workers and caregivers. And so it’s a little bit shocking that this is still a necessity. Very glad to hear that you are a bill sponsor of this and 15 States across the country have already passed similar legislation. So we would really enjoy hearing more about this from you.
Padma Kuppa (27:26):
So this actually, again, came from people in my district. I had a lot of business owners and H-1B, H-4 folks in my district who came to me and said, “Hey we can’t get our driver’s license renewed during that…” It’s called limbo, I guess, for lack of a better word, when they’re applying for renewal of their visa. And actually just at the beginning of this year, I heard from a young woman who had volunteered for my campaign. She was a high school student in 2018, [Tristy 00:27:54], and she couldn’t get her driver’s license renewed because she and her mom had applied for their H-4 visas to be renewed last April at the beginning of the pandemic. And they had still not seen their license… Their visas renewed, and they needed to renew their driver’s licenses. And our state since 2008 has not allowed people who are in the process of getting their visa renewed, to get their driver’s license renewed.
Padma Kuppa (28:24):
They’re waiting for their immigration status. Prior to 2008 in Michigan, as in many other parts of the country, nobody asked you about your immigration status to know if you could get a driver’s license, a driver’s license should be based on your ability to drive.
Soniya Gokhale (28:39):
Padma Kuppa (28:42):
Right? And so we take a road test. We take a written test, and then we take a road test and all these different people who are here… And I had experienced problems with some of my own team members when I worked at [inaudible 00:28:55] Financial. One of my colleagues used to have to leave in the middle of the afternoon for a half an hour, 45 minutes to go pick up his child from school because his wife couldn’t get a license because she couldn’t… And so I saw how it impedes people’s day-to-day lives. So when this term… So somebody else had introduced this pair of bills last term, and they were really focused on the undocumented population here in Michigan.
Padma Kuppa (29:21):
And they said, “This is an issue that affects legal immigrants as well.” And as a legal immigrant myself, I really understood that we are so quiet as Indian-Americans. We tend not to make big noises about things and Asian-Americans in general, we were a little bit less likely to rock the boat. Our culture, our demeanor, we tend to be not as much activists and outspoken. My colleague, Senator Stephanie Chang in the Senate, in the state Senate, she is one of the sponsors of the drive safe bills on the Senate side. And she has really given me this ability to understand, and step outside of that because I don’t want to hurt anybody, but at the same time, there’s so many people who would benefit from me sponsoring this bill. It really would help a lot of the people who are working, allow them to get to work safely, and it would bring people out of the shadows, people who are undocumented.
Padma Kuppa (30:23):
It would also ensure that our auto insurance rates are lower because when you have a person without a driver’s license driving, that impacts everybody’s auto insurance rates. And so I think it’s really important that we look at this with a logical lens. I love math, but I also love logic. And to me, this is a no brainer that this bill, the drive safe bill package is better for everyone involved. Even for those who don’t want… People who are not lawfully coming in. We’re not seeing any movement on immigration reform in Washington DC. The inertia in DC is really holding up immigration reform. In the meantime, we can do things in our state legislatures that will allow people to live and drive safely to work, get to work safely, to take their child to the doctor, or go buy groceries with a valid driver’s license. There are things that I cannot control. When somebody comes to me and says, “Well, my EAD is taking so long.” I can’t help on the federal level.
Padma Kuppa (31:33):
I can help when they say that their driver’s license is not being renewed. And so that is one of the reasons that I’ve done this. And I think that many States, whether they’re Republican or democratic legislatures from California to Utah, there’s, like you said, I think there’s actually 16 States now that have passed this legislation because it just makes fiscal sense. And I’m very fiscally responsible, and I hope that that we are able to, to get a hearing for this legislation and actually talk about the value that it brings. And there’s a lot of stakeholders involved. Not only is it people in IT businesses that would like to have their workers be able to get their driver’s license renewed, but also on our farms, in our rural areas. There’s a lot of undocumented workers that work in farms across the state of Michigan, and they would also benefit. And so we’re hoping that it’s definitely something that we will see movement on in this term.
Soniya Gokhale (32:36):
It’s so eye opening and it’s just shocking and so unfortunate, but as you stated… This is why I want to bring it up in this podcast. I was not aware of this phenomenon, not even a little bit. And as you stated, many of them are legal immigrants to this country being penalized by the… It’s just unthinkable, unimaginable, and really glad that you’re advocating on behalf of this. Well, I can’t even believe that our time together is coming to an end here, but any closing comments? We would love to have you back again, but just to see what you’re doing at the local level, it is so inspiring and the journey from India as well. So I really hope that if there are listeners that might resonate with your story, that anything is possible, anything is possible. Any closing comments, Padma?
Padma Kuppa (33:25):
Sure. Thank you so much for having me and thank you for everyone who stayed with us through this podcast and listened. My passion is really for serving others, helping others. And whenever I worked and raised my family, I still volunteered because volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. So I urge every one of you to get out there and find a way to get involved in something that you care about. It might be about clean water, it might be about something in your local community, it might be in your school district. Just go onto your city website, go onto your school district website, and see how you can get involved and make a difference because it’s the best way to make the kind of community that you want to see. To create the world that you want, start locally.
Soniya Gokhale (34:13):
Uh-huh (affirmative). So inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us.
Padma Kuppa (34:18):