While the Penn Valley resident has not officially declared his intent to seek the position, he’s touting support from several high-profile leaders in the state Democratic Party, including former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, State Sen. Vincent Hughes, and State Rep. Patty Kim.
A prominent Pennsylvania civil rights advocate and election law professor could become the first South Asian member of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.
Neil Makhija, the executive director of IMPACT, the nation’s leading South Asian civic organization, and an election law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is considering applying for the position left open by outgoing commissioner Dr. Valerie Arkoosh. Arkoosh was recently appointed to be the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services under new Gov. Josh Shapiro, himself a former member of the Board.
The Montgomery County Board of Commissioners manages county property and finances, taxation of county residents, and oversees various departments, including the County Board of Elections. The Board of Commissioners is composed of three members — with one member coming from the minority party — who are elected to serve four-year terms.
Arkoosh, who officially departed this week, will be replaced via an appointment by county court judges. Arkoosh’s replacement will serve out her term to the end of 2023. Twelve people have applied for the role so far, according to the Reporter Online, and Makhija is considering tossing his hat in the proverbial ring.
“It has been my life’s mission to help elect qualified people whose work often goes unnoticed and unrepresented in government,” Makhija said in a statement. “It would be an honor to serve — in particular, on the 100th Anniversary of the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind and Ozawa v. United States, the US Supreme Court cases that stripped Asian Americans of citizenship rights.”
By all accounts, Makhija would also be the first Asian-American county executive or commissioner in any county in Pennsylvania.
While the Penn Valley resident has not officially declared his intent to seek the position, he’s touting support from several high-profile leaders in the state Democratic Party, including former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), and State Rep. Patty Kim (D-Harrisburg).
“The stakes are high. Montgomery County needs a leader who will defend the right to vote and inspire new voters to get involved in the process — Neil is the person who will do that,” Rendell said.
Makhija’s background as an election law professor and voting rights advocate make him the right candidate for the role at a time when elections and voting rights have come under attack, according to state Sen. Hughes.
“One of the most important roles of County Commissioner is overseeing the Board of Elections,” Hughes wrote in a letter to the Montgomery County Democratic Committee. “Under Neil’s leadership the County would take its voting operations to the next level and see historic levels of voter engagement in our critical county.”
A Carbon County native born to Indian immigrants, Makhija earned a scholarship to Harvard Law School. Makhija has spent most of his life in Pennsylvania and has dedicated himself to fighting for underrepresented communities and getting Pennsylvanians more involved in state and local politics.
Makhija’s legal work has focused on consumer protection, workers’ rights and public interest. He represented the City of Philadelphia against opioid manufacturers and a group of parents and children in a lawsuit against JUUL, alleging that the vaping company illegally marketed to minors.
Through his work at IMPACT, Makhija has worked to engage South Asian and Indian American communities in Pennsylvania and provide them the resources they need to run for and win elected office.
Polling shows that South Asians are overwhelmingly Democratic and Makhija’s organization has focused on ensuring they turn out to vote and participate in their government. That work has paid off in recent years, with a growing number of South Asian candidates being elected to the state legislature and to local positions across Pennsylvania.
Makhija also represented the Asian American community in a 2021 White House meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss immigration and voting rights.
Rep. Kim, the first-ever Asian American to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, highlighted the importance of Asian representation in state and local politics, given the growing Asian population in the commonwealth and in Montgomery County. She also touted Makhija’s work ensuring this growing population has more adequate representation in Pennsylvania.
“He has gone out of his way to counsel Asian American candidates nationwide who very often do not have the resources to make a successful bid for public office. Neil is always willing to go out of his way to help others succeed,” Kim wrote in her letter to county Democratic leaders.
In 2021, Makhija was named as one of the “Forty Under 40” most influential people in Pennsylvania politics by City and State PA, and in 2022, publicly testified on the importance of undoing gerrymandering and drawing fair district maps for the Pennsylvania state House.
This is not Makhija’s first time seeking public office. In 2016, he was the Democratic nominee for the 122nd state House district, a race he lost in a Republican-leaning district. Before that, he worked in Biden’s vice presidential office in 2010 and for Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Makhija is expected to make a final decision in the coming days after speaking with family and additional community leaders.
Anyone interested in applying for the role of County Commissioner is able to do so until Monday, Jan. 23, by sending their contact information, as well as a resume and cover letter to Court Administrator Michael R. Kehs, Esq., P.O. Box 311, Courthouse, Norristown, PA 19404.
Do you know who represents you in Harrisburg? Find out here.