The political winds of the conservative suburb shifted at just the right time for the city's newest councilmember, who spent years as a refugee waiting to gain the right to run.
Angie Jenkins knew Bhuwan Pyakurel was special from the time they first met. A few years back, Jenkins was an administrator for the Ohio attorney general by day, while also serving as an election worker in Licking County, where she saw Pyakurel volunteering to ferry voters to polling stations. He brought them by the carload—one after another, throughout early voting and Election Day—to fulfill his sense of civic duty. Fast-forward to Nov. 5, 2019, and Jenkins wasn’t surprised at all when Pyakurel won a race of his own to become the first Nepali-Bhutanese elected official in the nation.
Pyakurel was born in Bhutan, nestled between India and the Tibet region of China. In 1990, when he was 9, he and his family were forced to flee because of the Bhutanese government’s persecution of the country’s Nepali ethnic minority. They spent the next 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before being relocated to Colorado Springs. Late in 2014, they moved to Columbus, which has the largest Nepali-Bhutanese population outside their homeland, and in 2016 Pyakurel settled in Reynoldsburg, which has been developing a vibrant Nepali-Bhutanese community of its own.
In Colorado, he had attended the Family Leadership Training Institute, a 20-week nonpartisan program that stressed the importance of civic engagement. In addition to his work at the polls, he began regularly attending city council meetings wherever he lived. In 2016, he became a U.S. citizen, and during the naturalization ceremony, Pyakurel had the epiphany that the door was now open for him to serve as a public official. After the 2018 election, at the urging of his preteen daughter, he decided to run for Reynoldsburg City Council as a Democrat.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Thus, an unlikely campaign found an even less likely setting in Reynoldsburg, a conservative suburb that had tilted Republican at least since the days when Jo Ann Davidson launched her political career there in the 1960s. Yet the tide was turning. Democrat Councilmember Stacie Baker says that after he and Kristin Bryant won seats in 2017, the momentum seemed to build for 2019. The Democrats assembled their largest slate in years, says Jenkins, who was recruited by Bryant to run for council president after Jenkins retired from the attorney general’s office. She campaigned alongside Pyakurel, three other council hopefuls and candidates for city attorney and mayor.
They canvassed door-to-door—knocking on 20,000 all told, Baker says—during which Pyakurel promised to fix roads, build sidewalks, strengthen code enforcement and improve communication between council and residents. Not only did he win in November, he triumphed by 14 percent, the largest margin of any Reynoldsburg council contest. The Democrats swept the entire ballot, and Jenkins, Shanette Strickland and Meredith Lawson-Rowe won their races to become the first three African American women elected to Reynoldsburg council.
The only Republicans left in office are Auditor Stephen Cicak and Councilmember Barth Cotner—and Cotner lost to Democrat Joe Begeny in the mayoral race but has two years left on his council term. Republican Brad McCloud, who stepped away after serving as mayor for 12 years, was surprised by the Democrats’ sudden success, but he theorizes that Reynoldsburg is a microcosm of the leftward political swing in the suburbs of major metros across the country. The suburban city is getting more diverse as it grows, and that has altered its political dynamics.
“Let’s face it: City Council was dominated by middle- to older-age white guys, and a lot of folks come to a council meeting and say, ‘None of those people look like me,’” McCloud says. “I think it’s incumbent upon the Republican Party to address that in some capacity.”
McCloud believes these political swings tend to be generational, and he doesn’t foresee another Republican majority in the near future. The Democrats agree that Reynoldsburg’s shifting demographics worked in their favor, and Pyakurel acknowledges the suburb’s growing Nepali-Bhutanese community buoyed his election, but he also emphasizes his desire to represent everyone, not merely those from his political party or ethnic community.
As for what his historic victory means to the Nepali-Bhutanese people, he says they were forced out of their homeland because they had no political rights, and his election is proof they gained something by leaving. At 9 years old, when his world was upended, Pyakurel first had the idea that someday he could run for office. For most of his life, such a thing seemed impossible. “So this is a really big step, and I think this is a dream come true.”
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