Candidates survive racist 'garbage' to make it to Election Day: 'Where are you going to deport me to?'

"Chinese school! Indian school! Cricket fields! Enough is enough!" a card reads.

ByABC News
November 3, 2017, 8:08 AM

— -- Some New Jersey voters will head to the polls Tuesday after a week in which racial dissension marred campaigning in the days leading up to Election Day.

Three candidates — two Asian-Americans running for the school board in Edison and a South Asian–American mayoral candidate in Hoboken — were targeted by attempts to associate them with terrorists or undocumented immigrants, which one expert called a "very American story of what happens when you have a new wave of immigrants diversify in a community and become politically involved."

In Hoboken, mayoral candidate Ravi Bhalla's turban-wearing likeness was plastered on leaflets under red letters that read, "Don't let TERRORISM take over our town!"

Bhalla, a Sikh who is a city councilman at large and a partner at a New Jersey law firm, told ABC News that there is a criminal investigation underway to ferret out whoever is behind the spread of the "garbage" that he says was "for purposes of intimidation."

Hoboken police did not respond to ABC News' request to confirm their involvement.

"I don't know who put it out, but it's very hurtful," said Bhalla, 44, a New Jersey native. "My skin is thick at this point … however, this has really impacted my family, especially my daughter."

He and his wife had to try to teach a difficult lesson to 10-year-old daughter early in life, he said.

"This is her first encounter with racism," he said. "She can't understand why people would be critical of me because of my turban."

He also tweeted: "Of course this is troubling, but we won’t let hate win.”

But Bhalla, who has called Hoboken home for 17 years, praised the city for its diversity and tolerance and said he's unfazed by the fliers.

"I'm not intimidated by it at all," he said.

And he is convinced that city voters will not be swayed by the flyers. "That type of garbage is something that Hoboken is going to reject," he said.

Fits a pattern

Patrick Egan, an associate professor of politics and public policy at New York University, suggested looking at these missives "with sorrow," saying they are "beneath American democracy."

But he added that the leaflets fit a pattern and that "in an era in which the norms of political discourse are more contested and less heavily governed or regulated, these kinds of messages are testing to see how far these norms can be bent."

And perhaps more important, Egan said, is taking inventory of the pushback by community and civic leaders.

"For every person that it mobilizes by appealing to their fears of newcomers, it may also countermobilize those who find those messages offensive," he said. "Liberals and conservatives can agree that these kinds of messages are unhealthy for American democracy, especially when we move into an era when there will be more diverse candidates and leaders."

'Make Edison great again'

The leaflets came days after residents in Edison, about 30 miles southwest of Hoboken, on Wednesday fetched from their mailboxes anonymous postcards demanding that two Asian-American school board candidates be deported.

The mailer features a slogan, "Make Edison great again" — a clear take on Donald Trump's presidential campaign mantra that was plastered on signage at his rallies and stitched with white thread into red baseball caps.

Flanking it are photos of Jingwei Shi and Falguni Patel with circular red "DEPORT" stamps below their faces.

"The Chinese and Indians are taking over our town," it reads. "Chinese school! Indian school! Cricket fields! Enough is enough!"

On the reverse side of the postcard under a red stop sign is a list of demands, including "Stop the outsiders!"

The card's origin is unknown.

Ethnically diverse Edison, which named one of the best places to live in the country, has about 100,000 resident, 49 percent of them Asian, according to the Census Bureau.

'Where are you going to deport me to?'

Patel is an Indian-American Democratic committeewoman who works as an attorney, according to her Ballotpedia biography.

Shi is an at-large representative running for re-election after being appointed in 2014, according to his biography.

Patel, a New Jersey native, opened up about the mailing in an interview with a New Jersey radio station. "I'm obviously disgusted by it, to say the least," she said Sunday.

"To see the word 'deport' on my picture — where are you going to deport me to? Really, it's just outrageous," she added.

One Edison resident, requesting anonymity, said she received the postcard Wednesday afternoon and initially thought it was a joke.

"It struck me because it said 'deport,'" the woman, 33, told ABC News.

She then called neighbors, who also received the mailing.

The people she reached out to, she said, "all seem to be Asian-American."

The outcry in Edison has been strong and in support of Patel and Shi.

Mayoral candidates speak out

Edison's Mayor Tom Lankey, a Democrat, condemned the mailing, calling it "despicable."

"It has become a sad reality that in our polarized political atmosphere, some people suddenly feel empowered to publicly express these vile ideas," he said in a statement. "Make no mistake, we will do everything we can to expose the shameful people behind this."

Keith Hahn, a Republican running for the town's mayor, said in a Facebook post that he is trying to pursue whoever is behind the mailing. "Disgraceful and offensive campaign tactics cannot be tolerated," he wrote.

He then vowed to "track down the anonymous cowards behind this piece" and said there has already been progress.

"Investigation is developing rapidly," he wrote.

Police investigating postcards

Edison police are investigating the mailing, ABC News has confirmed.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey is also looking into the situation, he said in a statement.

"The racist message shocks the conscience and is highly offensive," he continued, emphasizing that the police department and his investigators are there to "support the community" and that they are "examining the facts surrounding the mailing."

But he cautioned that it's unclear what, if any, crime has been committed.

Some residents condemn the hate

Some Edison residents were aghast at the political propaganda that landed in their mailboxes.

Katherine Maranino, 29, a real estate agent who grew up in Edison, said she he has been in touch with many of her Asian friends from childhood who have been devastated by the campaign ploy.

"I think it's horrible that they had to come home to get that in the mail," Maranino told ABC News. "There's a demographic of Edison that's into the kind of culture that doesn't like minorities coming in."

Such offensive material, she said, has been "hurtful."

"I feel sorry for the candidates that were in the mailing," she said. "They're both wonderful members of society."

Jennifer Wilner, who is an administrator of the private Facebook group Edison Neighbors, was angry as well about how badly it reflects on the town's good people.

"It's unfortunate Edison gets noticed for such horrible things when there's so much good going on in town," she said.