The contrasts in the race for North Hempstead's 3rd Council District are coming into sharper focus, as a 14-year incumbent faces a novice candidate who says demographics are on his side.
Early this month as Republican incumbent Angelo Ferrara, 69, promised seniors new scissors at a craft session in New Hyde Park. His Democratic foe, Sid Nathan, 28, was canvassing the neighborhood with a TV star: his cousin, "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi.
The seat has been a lock for New Hyde Park's Ferrara, its holder for the past decade. It has GOP strongholds and more Republicans are registered than Democrats. Despite Ferrara's wide 2,600-vote victory in 2009, Democrats see Nathan, an ex-town spokesman who moved to Garden City Park in April, as ripe with potential, symbolic of an emerging demographic: South Asians.
According to 2010 census data, the percentage of Asians living in New Hyde Park village nearly doubled since 2000. The percentage of Indians rose 9 percentage points, according to data from the Asian-American Federation. In Mineola Village, the Asian population nearly doubled as well.
That echoes trends on Long Island, where the Asian population, census data show, rose 518 percent between 1980 and 2010.
"The South Asian population is an untapped community," said Nathan, whose parents emigrated from India.
Still, Ferrara holds great sway in the community and has formed bonds with Democrats. "My whole career is compromising," he said.
Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said he saw promise in the candidacy. "I don't see him as a sacrificial lamb," he said. "In these elections, between 28 and 30 percent of voters come out. If that holds true, that's going to be a tough race for any Democrat in that district. Our challenge is to bring the turnout up, primarily by attracting base Democrats."
Nathan has brought Lakshmi door-to-door, and reactions have run the gamut, from unfazed, to recognition.
"When someone like Padma comes out to activate the community, people are talking about it," he said. "She's an immigrant herself, and she knows that being involved in your local community is important."
Nathan said he has a more grassroots approach than past Democrats, visiting more than 4,000 homes.
The district, with 6,000 Asians, according to Nassau's Board of Elections, can turn for either candidate, said Lawrence C. Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies. "An explosion of the Asian and South Asian population could make a difference in a close election, or in a small jurisdiction contest, where a small number of people can affect the outcome more easily."
Ferrara agreed "It's going to be a tighter race. I'd be more concerned if I hadn't been involved in the Indian community."
Of Democrats, he said: "They're smelling blood; they figure they can do something."
Support varies within the Indian community. Some praise Ferrara as an ally who has seen through development projects and as an advocate for seniors.
"For Indians, he's like a messiah," said Tony Kumar, co-owner of Bell Foods Fresh in New Hyde Park. "He gets things done the right way and promptly."
Anila Midha, president of the South Asian-American Women's Alliance, said she supports Nathan and wants greater Indian representation in politics. "As a community we are doing very well," but political representation is sparse, she said.
Harsh Bhasin, chair of Stony Brook University's Asian and Asian-American Studies department, said Nathan faces hurdles, given splintered demographics. "The votes of the Indian community alone is not enough," he said. "In places like New Hyde Park, the Indian origin community is not really the largest single foreign community; they have to compete with the Koreans, the Bangledeshis, the Vietnamese."