Updated: May 9
Dr. Arvind Venkat, the Democratic Representative of District 30 in Pennsylvania, made news recently when the Pennsylvania House nearly unanimously passed his bill to officially recognize Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. TSB spoke to the new Representative about his entry into politics, the issues facing his constituents, and what the landscape looks like for the upcoming election season.
Venkat, an emergency physician, almost didn’t get to this position of government service. Entering college seeking a law degree, he got disillusioned after a summer internship in a law firm and decided to change tracks to pursue a degree in medicine. Initially planning to be a dermatologist (“In So-Cal!”) an allergy to skin rashes (!) drove him to emergency medicine. He found his calling as he realized that he was able to make an immediate difference in people’s lives in this field.
“Emergency medicine has well-defined shifts,” he points out. This gave him the opportunity to be involved outside the hospital in both community outreach and policy work. But he had no thought of seeking elected office till Covid hit his community, and he realized that there was a need for well-informed public servants to find the balance between public safety and economic impact.
“Grassroots outreach is the most effective kind,” says Venkat. He personally knocked on nearly 13,000 doors in District 30, a newly carved district after the 2020 census. His team knocked on all together 22,000.
“People were very open and glad to meet and talk with us,” he recalls. Luckily, this was just after the worst of Covid, and things were beginning to open up. “My job was to mostly listen as they shared the issues that mattered to them.” Asian Americans in the district were thrilled to have someone from the community represent them, a fact that helped his candidacy, though the district is nearly 90% Caucasian.
Initially a strong suburban Republican district, the concerns of voters in District 30 were centered around inflation. But after the Dobbs decision and frequent mass shootings, the focus turned to reproductive rights and gun safety. The district, that had been +6 Trump in 2016, swung 12 points to +6 Biden in 2020. “I think this shift has happened in areas with college-educated voters all around the country," says Venkat.
Venkat considers himself a centrist Democrat and is very much aligned with the national party when it comes to reproductive rights, gun safety, voter access, affordable health care, and improving public education. “Where I am less aligned is perhaps in the issue of the environment. I believe in climate change and the need to mitigate its impact, but I believe in an ‘all of the above’ approach when it comes to energy production. I think there is room for well regulated natural gas and nuclear power production, along with the need to improve energy efficiency and to sequester carbon. We are not yet in a place where we can choose to ignore conventional methods of energy production in favor of just solar or wind.”
His prediction for the upcoming election season is that if the Presidential candidates are Biden and Trump, then voters have already made up their minds. “People are very clear which side of the issue they are on in terms of gun safety and abortion.”
But for state representatives like him, campaigning never ends. “My week is divided into 3 days for the legislative session and the rest of the week and weekends for constituent services and outreach events,” says Venkat. Just before this interview he had participated in a litter clean-up event in the community. He keeps his hand in emergency medicine by working as a physician once a month. “My salary as a legislator is much lower than what I could be earning as a doctor, so I’m definitely not doing it for the money!” he laughs.
In his short stint in office so far, Venkat has been quite prolific, sponsoring or co-sponsoring over 80 bills and resolutions. He was approached by State Senator Greg Rothman, who presides over a Central Pennsylvania district with a heavy population of South Asians, to sponsor a bill recognizing Diwali in the House just as Senator Rothman was doing it in the Pennsylvania Senate. Two separate Diwali bills have been passed in the House and Senate, and a version will soon make it to the Governor’s office for his signature.
“Diwali is as much a cultural as a religious event for South Asians,” says Venkat. Other bills recognizing Eid and other Asian American festivals are in the pipeline.
Venkat is also announcing the creation of the Pennsylvania Legislative Asian and Pacific American Caucus on Monday, May 1 during AAPI Heritage Month along with the other three Asian American legislators in the Pennsylvania House. “This gives us the opportunity to highlight issues that are important to the Asian American community – especially hate crimes, gun safety, and investment in public education. We can exercise a lot of power as a community if we get organized."
What advice does he have for South Asian Americans? “I think South Asian Americans really need to understand that the political process has a huge impact on their day-to-day life. 90% of governing happens in state and local offices, and 90% of us don’t know who our state and local elected officials are.”
He adds, "If you are interested in running for office, you need the time and the money, but you also have to have the right motivation. Voters are extraordinarily savvy. They can tell if you’re in it for the power or to serve them, and you have to do the hard work to convince them that you’re there to make their lives better.”
To learn more about Dr. Arvind Venkat’s candidacy or to show your support please visit https://www.venkatforpa.com/