A Conversation with Ohio State Senator Niraj Antani

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Ohio State Senator Niraj Antani
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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.

Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of a Desi Woman podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And today, we are delighted to welcome Ohio State Senator Niraj Antani to the show. Senator Niraj Antani is currently serving his first term in the Ohio Senate, and he made history as the youngest serving member of the Senate, and also the first Indian American and Hindu American state Senator in Ohio history.

Soniya Gokhale (01:11):
Niraj has been named at Forbes list of the top 30, under 30 people in the US for law and politics, and Newsmax named him the second most influential Republican in the nation under 30. Niraj just received the Legislator of the Year Award by the AMVETS Department of Ohio for his work helping veterans, as well as the Distinguished Government Service Award by the Ohio Association of Career Colleges and Schools for his work in improving access to education for hardworking Ohioans.

Soniya Gokhale (01:45):
Senator Antani earned a bachelor’s degree from the Ohio State University and was born and raised in Miami township to parents who immigrated to the United States in 1987 from India. Niraj just chaired the Ohio Republican Party Asian Pacific American Advisory Council, and serves on the national board of the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Future Majority Project. Niraj, welcome to the show.

Niraj Antani (02:16):
Thanks for having me.

Soniya Gokhale (02:17):
Well, we are so excited to welcome you back. And I always like to start out my interviews with guests, many of whom are immigrants to the United States or originally from another country of origin about their journey to the United States and experiences therein. Now, for listeners who may not be aware, I know your parents immigrated to this country from India in 1987. Fast forward to decades later, and you made history last January by becoming the first Indian American and Hindu American to be elected to Ohio State Senate, which is clearly indicative of your desire to give back to this country and offer your service.

Soniya Gokhale (03:02):
And I want to quote you directly, “I’m so grateful for the continued support of this community in which I was born and raised. My grandparents lived much of their life under a British rule in India, only gaining their freedom seven decades ago. That it is possible for their grandson to be elected as Ohio’s first Indian American state senator is a testament to America’s beauty. I thank the voters for entrusting me with this sacred honor to be their voice at the state house.” So that is a very powerful experience and trajectory if we just thought and considered that, but would really seek further comments from you about that.

Niraj Antani (03:44):
Yeah, I mean, thank you first of all and very happy to be here. Look, it is an honor for me to be the first Indian American state senator in Ohio history. When I became a state representative seven years ago, I was the second Indian American state representative in Ohio history. And I’m also the youngest Indian American elected official in the country and I’m very proud of that. And it is because of our community. Our community like every community in America, but more recently is a community of immigrants. And my family came here starting with my eldest uncle in the late 1950s through the 1970s, actually. And only because of that immigrant generation, Indian Americans, that were born here, can we do what we do. And for me that is to serve in public office. And I understand that I am not just the voice for my constituents that I represent, but also for every Indian American in Ohio and across the country.

Soniya Gokhale (05:00):
Well, definitely. And the it’s very powerful. And as a follow up question, Senator, which I think underscores your personal commitment to your constituent and to voters, you recently offered a very heartfelt personal story. And again, I will quote you. “Exactly 10 years ago this weekend, my father died. I’ve never spoken publicly about this before. I was 19 years old. He was an alcoholic. For the past 10 years, I’ve ignored it, whether out of embarrassment or fear of seeming weak. I acted as if it didn’t happen. His death or his severe alcoholism. I’m choosing to speak up now, not out of sadness or wanting pity, but rather out of a sense of duty. He was not an alcoholic in the sense of being the life of the party. He was an alcoholic in the sense of drinking every day, turning angry and yelling.

Soniya Gokhale (05:52):
In high school, I did my best to find excuses not to go home, extracurriculars, friends, whatever. Doing homework every night was a struggle. Regardless, I graduated high school and got a full ride to Ohio State. Near the end of my freshman year of college, he died. I didn’t know what to do. So I went to class the next day. I didn’t tell anyone, even closest friends for a long time. On my own, I graduated college, got elected, reelected twice, gotten bills signed into law and won the Republican primary for state Senate.

Soniya Gokhale (06:28):
However, my story is not unique. Unfortunately, too many have a parent who is alcoholic, addicted to something else, absent. Too many. So let my story be a message to all of them. You can do it. You can achieve your dreams despite them, without them. When all seems hopeless or unattainable, I promised you it is not. You don’t just need to survive, you can thrive. I’m here for you. Call me, message me, text me. I am here for you.” That is so incredibly powerful and moving. And I think so very timely at this point in our experience, not only as Ohioans, but in the United States.

Soniya Gokhale (07:11):
The COVID pandemic has resulted in a staggering uptake in opioid addictions. Alcohol sales doubled or tripled, and the suicide rate has skyrocketed. So I really applaud you for coming out with this personal story, not only sharing this, but also offering inspiration and even a shoulder to lean on to anyone that might need it. And I just want to ask you what prompted you to share this now. And again, thank you for doing so, because I have no doubt it’s helped many and will continue to do so, even as we share this now with the global audience of listeners.

Niraj Antani (07:46):
Well, I mean, look, we know that alcoholism is a problem and addiction is a problem across many different drugs, whether it’s alcohol or another. And I feel that given my position, I have a duty to try and help people who have been affected by these things. And I think there are a lot of things that we can do. And I think oftentimes, heroin or some of these other things get the attention, but alcoholism affects just as many people.

Soniya Gokhale (08:22):
I think that is so incredibly accurate. And I have to make the observation that boy, we talk about the model minority myth, and yet you waged onwards. You continued with school and at the high school level, college level and onwards in spite of all of this in the backdrop, and it really is a testament to your strength. And we see that in your public leadership as well, but this is an example of reaching out for others to potentially offer them hope and inspiration. So really applaud you for that.

Soniya Gokhale (08:50):
Now, Ohio made a global headlines just recently when it was announced that Intel plans to spend $20 billion in building a massive semiconductor chip manufacturing on campus in Central Ohio. The DeWine administration says the deal will generate more than 20,000 jobs, including 3000 at Intel. And add about 2.8 billion to Ohio’s annual gross state product.

Soniya Gokhale (09:16):
Now, while the governor could not answer or declined to answer questions about the specific incentives that Ohio may have offered to Intel to make the Buckeye State more attractive than 39 other states that competed for the project, it has been reported that in the early stages at wooing Intel, Ohio changed state law to sweeten the potential tax breaks. Additionally, Governor DeWine and his administration successfully lobbied Republican lawmakers like yourself for a “mega projects” tax credit when the budget passed in June with one credit for operators and another for suppliers and companies like Intel that invest at least one billion in a state now get 30 years worth of job creation tax credits instead of 15. Based on the number of employees Intel expects to hire, that could be $660 million savings over 30 years. So, what are your comments on this and huge congratulations to you and the entire team of public and private partners that made this happen.

Niraj Antani (10:24):
Well, in economic development now, this incentive game is now played. Every state does it, every city does it, every county does it, and that’s just how this works now. And so, this deal happened, which will be great for Ohio, but this tax credit game is played and will continue to be played by everybody.

Soniya Gokhale (10:49):
I think that’s absolutely true. I will say, no. My full-time role at a fortune 50, and it really is a testament to what you guys are doing in Ohio. It clearly was a competitive landscape, but to be able to woo this. And I think it sets the stage for even future growth and development. So, I’m really proud to be in Ohioan based on this announcement and so much else that we’re going to be talking about.

Soniya Gokhale (11:11):
Now, in addition to that amazing announcement regarding Intel, I do want to pivot to redistricting. And the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the proposed congressional redistricting map just two days after calling new House and Senate maps unconstitutional. And for listeners who may not be aware, every 10 years, district maps are redrawn to follow population trends from the census. This year, Ohio lost a congressional seat and the Supreme Court said the 15 district map first drawn by the Ohio Redistricting Commission is illegally gerrymandered and seems to favor Republicans over Democrats. And yet interestingly, many experts acknowledge that it actually wasn’t terribly out of sync.

Soniya Gokhale (11:59):
The Supreme Court ruled in a four-three decision for the second time this recently that maps made by the Republican led redistricting commission are unconstitutional and offered the same for Ohio State Senate and House maps. You were quite forthright in expressing disappointment as were others and noted that in fact, it had seven seats within a competitive range. So, I guess my question for you is what’s next in this process? And it certainly seems like this is a hot button topic for both parties across many states in this country.

Niraj Antani (12:32):
Yeah. So the state redistricting maps are currently back at the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court will rule whether this second draft is constitutional or not. And then, the congressional maps were struck down for the first time and will have to be redrawn. And then I’m sure there will be more litigation there. Obviously, very important as this is who represents you and every state in the country is undergoing this process right now and I look forward to its completion.

Soniya Gokhale (13:06):
Absolutely. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine recently signed House Bill 29, which establishes the regulatory framework for sports betting in the Buckeye State. And you were an original sponsor of this bill. And the bill permits sports betting in Ohio under the regulatory authority of the Ohio Casino Control Commission and the Ohio Lottery. And in your estimation, I’ll quote you directly, “Bringing this a sunshine and doing it in a regulated and safe manner will be good. That way, we can be sure people who are a problem better and spiraling into a gambling addiction can be identified and treated. Under the bill, sports betting will be available on mobile apps that in persons sports books and at lottery terminals. It is anticipated to generate not only business development but revenue for the state.” And so that seems to be a theme here in Ohio and it’s exciting stuff. So, if you could expand upon why this was important to you and the net benefit to the state and Ohio.

Niraj Antani (14:13):
Yeah, no. This is very transformative. Many states now have legalized sports betting and we now have in Ohio. What I can tell you is that, the people of Ohio wanted to be able to bet on sports. Very clear, and we were finally able to get that done. And I think it will have great benefits for many, many people.

Soniya Gokhale (14:37):
Well, there’s no question about that. And you have been so busy because we’re moving on to another issue that I know is very close to your heart. And in May of 2021, you announced that you’re going to introduce a bill that if passed would allow college athletes statewide to profit from their name, image, and likeness. And to quote you, “As a student at the Ohio State University, I saw the hard work student athletes put into their academics and their sports. However, not every student athlete has a scholarship. And even for that do, it may only cover their cost of attendance, leaving little left for living expenses. These college students should be able to benefit from their own name, image and likeness. Most will not get endorsement deals from major shoe and apparel companies but rather from their hometown businesses such as an auto dealer or bookstore, and my bill legalizes this in a safe and reasonable manner.

Soniya Gokhale (15:35):
So far 16 states have passed legislation regarding name, image, and likeness, or NIL as it’s known in its abbreviation. Six of those are, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and New Mexico. Will into effect in July while the others will take effect within the next five years. And the Ohio State Department of Athletics recently announced that a total of 220 student athletes have engaged in 608 reported NIL activities with the total compensation value of just under the three million dollars. That is absolutely spectacular and amazing. And so, really want to get your comments on why this is important to you and have to underscore, it’s really going to transform lives and already has for so many student athletes across the country.

Niraj Antani (16:28):
Yeah, this is absolutely changing lives for the better. There’s nothing more that is going to change the lives of these students than name likeness and it’s only going to do it more. And I think as the market develops, we’re going to see more of these deals happen and more students engage in them and more benefits from it. So I’m very proud about it. I was very happy that we were able to get it to done and it really is benefiting our students in Ohio.

Soniya Gokhale (16:57):
There’s no question about that, and it’s been a challenge. I will be candid in getting those from the Republican Party and the South Asian diaspora to join me on this program for a lot of reasons. And I’ve always been steadfast and committed in the fact that this has a partisan based program. And in fact, I welcome all voices from both sides of the aisle, independent, what have you to join me here for conversation. And part of why I was prompted to reach out to you for second interview, other than all of the impactful legislation issues we just covered, which have made global news, by the way, you wrote an op-ed for India West newspaper in the latter part of 2021.

Soniya Gokhale (17:42):
And I’m just going to speak to it briefly and then want to get your comments about it, but to quote the op-ed, which I’ll have a link to in the podcast news. “Across the country, there is a new light rising as Hindu and Indian Americans, largely embracing common sense, conservative policies, amidst the darkness and failures of Joe Biden and the Democrats radical agenda. The failures of Joe Biden and the Democrats are clear. Rising prices, soaring crime, and an economy leaving so many behind or a threat to our families’ wellbeing. It’s no wonder why Indian Americans are realizing they have a home in the Republican Party. The GOP shares our values. Republicans message of economic prosperity, freedom and security is resonating. This continues a trend of the GOP attracting diverse candidates and making important gains with minority communities.”

Soniya Gokhale (18:40):
And so, what’s really exciting is that the RNC has opened nine minority engagement community centers across the country, and are on track to opened 35 by November of 2022. And I think this is really noteworthy because I have interviewed others and based on other organizations of a different political persuasion, they’re really putting a focus on the [inaudible 00:19:05] vote. And I’m really glad to see that the RNC is doing the same, because I think that again, we are not a monolith. And so I want to hear more from you about this and your personal involvement in this movement.

Niraj Antani (19:20):
Yeah, no, definitely. I mean, this has been a journey in the Republican Party over the last 10 years, and I think we’re doing a lot better now than we have. And I’ve really been proud to see the RNC take the Asian American and Indian American vote seriously, especially in the last few years. And I think these engagement centers are a great idea and I look forward to helping them more.

Soniya Gokhale (19:49):
Well, there’s no question about that. I mean, I will be interested to follow up with you and see how this is all playing out. I cannot believe that we are approaching the end of our time together, but you’ve clearly been absolutely entrenched in doing the hard work. And it really shows based on the results that just outlined throughout this podcast. So I have to ask you, what’s next? What do you see as the things that you get excited about in the course of your week or day or those items that you find challenging? And you alluded to some of that in the op-ed. Obviously, we have midterms coming up, so, yeah, and any other closing comments that you might have.

Niraj Antani (20:33):
No, I very much appreciate. It’s truly an honor to be able to serve as one of the few Indian American elected officials in the country. And I guess just, if any of your listeners ever need anything, please do get in touch with our office.

Soniya Gokhale (20:47):
Well, thank you so much. And we really can’t thank you enough for joining us today because as you stated, I mean, we’re so gratified to have a global listenership and you’re a role model to so many. That trajectory, I cannot underscore it enough from grandparents that were under British rule to now being the first in American Hindu American to be a state Senator, just remarkable. And so, thank you again, Senator Antani for joining us today.

Niraj Antani (21:14):
Thanks so much.

Soniya Gokhale (21:15):
Thank you.

 

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