Suraj Budathoki, Constituency Director of New Hampshire for the Bernie Sanders Campaign, joins us for Part 2 of our Early State Mini-Series to talk about his incredible journey from being refugee in Bhutan and Nepal to New Hampshire, and how to do politics in the “Live Free or Die” state.
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Transcript (lightly edited for clarity)
[00:01:22] Kevin: Today, we are going to talk about New Hampshire as part of a special Mini-Series we are doing on the Model Majority Podcast to profile the four early states in the Democratic Primary from the perspective of Asian-American staffers currently working on a presidential campaign in one of these states. And today I am delighted to welcome Suraj Budathoki, who is the Constituency Director in New Hampshire for the Bernie Sanders campaign.
[00:01:54] Suraj is a co-founder and a former executive director of Building Community in New Hampshire, which is a nonprofit serving refugee and immigrant populations. As a former refugee from Bhutan, he also founded the International Campaign for Human Rights in Bhutan and as a member of the Conduct Board for the City of Manchester.
[00:02:15] Suraj, welcome to the Model Majority Podcast today.
[00:02:19] Suraj: Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to come to your podcast.
[00:02:25] Kevin: Thank you! The pleasure is ours. So let’s start by talking actually about how you settled in New Hampshire from Bhutan by way of Nepal, I believe, as a refugee. How did that story came about?
[00:02:38] Suraj: That is I think 19 years worth of a story, but let me brief. Yes. I was born in Bhutan. So it’s a very small country in between India and China. So many Western people or Western countries they might not know about Bhutan. Well, if they know it, if they know it as the happiest country on earth, the youngest democracy or the last Shangri-la.
[00:03:05] But as you know, I was one of the refugees from Bhutan and that is everything what we understood as, you know, Bhutan. So in 1990s when Bhutan, the government of Bhutan, changed many sensitive laws and expelled me, my family, and more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan who were Bhutanese citizens.
[00:03:29] So ended up in Bhutan, sorry in Nepal, beginning from 1990s to 2009, I was a in refugee camp in Nepal. So I don’t have to explain to you the hardship, the problem that refugees go through in their refugee life or in their refugee camps. But in 2007, when the United States came up with the idea of resettling about 60,000 Bhutanese refugees to the United States, that gave me a sort of hope to rebuild my life in America.
[00:04:08] So it wasn’t my choice to come to the United States, but the interviewers thought that I could live my life in Atlanta, Georgia. So they sent me to Atlanta. That was actually, that wasn’t my choice, but to come to New Hampshire was my own choice.
[00:04:26] So I was working the two full time jobs with 7.25 per hour, a night job and a day shift. So with 7.25 per hour, it wasn’t enough for me to support my family paying rent and all those things. And also my parents were in refugee camp in Nepal, so I needed to help them. So I was looking for a better place where I can, at least, utilize my education and go to college and support my family.
[00:04:59] That’s how I found New Hampshire. It’s a better place for me. So now I’m with my wife. I knew her from refugee camp and I met her and I moved up here in New Hampshire. It’s a big long story. Now I am a business owner, small business owner, my wife and I run our business.
[00:05:18] Kevin: I’m sure we can do an entire podcast episode just on those history right? Which I’m sure is incredibly trying. And like you said, there has been kind of a stereotype of Bhutan from the Western world. That is: this is the happiest Shangri LA place, but clearly terrible things, human rights violation and ethnic persecution it seems, it’s very much happening, as you have experienced. And I’m just curious on one point is: did you know anybody in New Hampshire before you moved up there, was there a support network or enclave of folks that you already knew that gave you the idea that it was a better place for me to settle than Atlanta?
[00:06:05] Suraj: Well I was aware that, you know, currently my wife was there, so I knew her as, you know, my friend from refugee camp, so when I moved up here and we settled down here in New Hampshire.
[00:06:21] Kevin: I see. Got it. So I want to switch gear to current events, and maybe learn more about the backstory of how you decided to number one, just be part of American politics in general, but also, why did you decide to join the Sanders campaign to work for the Bernie Sanders campaign in New Hampshire right now?
[00:06:45] Suraj: So politics to me is a really important and personal. When I became a refugee that was a political issue.
[00:06:58] I went through a lot in my 19 years of refugee life and I was politically very active in refugee camp. And also when I moved up here, it’s also because of my education background. I have a Bachelor in Political Science and Masters in International Relations. So that also gave me some knowledge about US politics.
[00:07:21] And after my graduation, I was looking for a way to be involved and engaged in New Hampshire politics. So I attended many town halls, small political events, and also rallies. So there were many candidates in the fields, but someone I found, who I found very, very close to, attached to, and captivated me towards this individual.
[00:07:50] And that is Bernie Sanders. So it is like his childhood and my childhood. He’d struggle at his childhood and my struggle in refugee camp were not that different. I struggled for survival everyday in refugee camp looking for medication. I was nearly dead in refugee camp because we’re not able to go outside of the refugee camp to see a doctor and I struggled for clean water in refugee camp. I drank water from cans of dirty water and I survived. So I know hunger. I live without food for days and days in refugee camp. So when I heard Bernie Sanders talking about all of this issues that millions and millions of Americans are facing today, I found someone like Bernie Sanders is very important to me in my life. So that’s how I got involved.
[00:08:43] Kevin: And since you’ve been involved at least as a volunteer, as a citizen, living in New Hampshire for many, many years. And this year, of course you actually are working on a campaign. I love to hear your thoughts and description of New Hampshire as a state.
[00:09:00] Specifically from the point of view of a political nerd angle. Like what is kind of weird or interesting or special about doing politics New Hampshire that is different from any other states?
[00:09:15] Suraj: This is a very interesting question. From an Asian American perspective or myself working on this campaign in New Hampshire is, you know, New Hampshire is the most educated state, so people don’t tend to make their decision right away. They want to at least meet all the candidates. They want to read their books, if any.
[00:09:39] They want to attend town halls and then only they will make a decision at the end. So that is unique to New Hampshire. The other thing is New Hampshire is a small state and sparsely populated. Some of the towns and counties are very sparsely populated and it is very hard to travel to those towns and counties and canvass.
[00:10:04] So the other interesting thing is New Hampshire state, its Congress is the largest Congress in the United States. It has 400 House of Representatives, and obviously they are very experienced. They have good experience and they know politics and they’re always educated and they don’t make these decisions right away. They want to meet.
[00:10:28] They want to, you know, talk to the candidates and they want to do some research. And only then will they support a candidate.
[00:10:36] Kevin: Yeah. I remember the New Hampshire, I think, House, State House of Representative like being 400 and change members. That means like every member is representing only like several hundred or several thousand residents, which is like a very small ratio or like a high ratio, right? Like everyone actually knows everybody.
[00:10:55] Suraj: Yeah, absolutely. Yes. We do that. And also we meet, you know, every candidate, every House of Representative or State Senator here and there in the shopping mall and everywhere.
[00:11:06] Kevin: So kind of given that characteristic of a small state, not so populated, but also everyone I think takes this responsibility very seriously.
[00:11:17] They take a very long time and they spend a lot of energy looking at candidates. And you know, this year of all years, we have so many candidates. Does that make it easier or harder for you from a campaign perspective to have to cater to this audience and their need for more information or more access or more question time for the candidates or the campaign?
[00:11:40] Suraj: I think Senator Sanders is not new in this political field. He has been here for decades and decades and people know what he is fighting for. And he was one of the candidates in 2016, and that made it easier for us to go to the field. And also, the one important thing that we have, or Bernie Sanders campaign has, is the communities that we have and they were from 2016.
[00:12:10] So the important thing that we have is now we’re able to talk to those communities. Those members they know their work, they canvassed in 2016. So it’s not that difficult even with a lot of candidates in the field.
[00:12:27] Kevin: I see. So he kind of has a foundation there already.
[00:12:32] Suraj: But I should tell you one challenge that I have as an Asian American facing these communities. As you know, New Hampshire is a less diverse state, so when I go to canvas or talk to people and when they hear a different accent, they believe that: Oh, no, this is, I think it’s calling from India or Nepal, and he’s not a real guy.
[00:13:00] That’s the most I heard over the phone. But when I go to people from the Asian American community, they are more receptive, they ask many questions. And I will be welcome there. So that is, I think, one of the challenges that I do face when canvassing or doing phone calls in this campaign.
[00:13:23] Kevin: That’s interesting. I want to follow up on that Suraj. That was one of the questions that I wanted to explore more with you, as an Asian American, as a South Asian American, a Bhutanese American, how has that identity and that heritage kind of impacted or changed the way you approach campaigning or organizing, or just the way you interact with voters or even volunteers?
[00:13:48] You touched on it a little bit, but I’d love to hear more stories or even like strategy in your head and how do you get around these sorts of things, right? That you were talking about.
[00:13:56] Suraj: Well, I can give you one example, right in our office. So I have a lot of good relationships with different community leaders.
[00:14:06] So when they gave their name to the staff here, and when they call them, they would not receive their call, or they would not be open to discussing about the political belief or opinion. So they tell me these individuals are not opening up with us. So could you talk to them.
[00:14:24] So that’s one of the things. And the other thing is meeting with individuals and organizing meetings. So what happened was Representative Ro Khanna was here in New Hampshire, I was able to organize a successful houseparty. So as this is for New American. We targeted only 50 people, but it was more than 85 or 90 people.
[00:14:57] So this is how receptive people from Asian American community are when I invite them, when I go to them. But it is different in other communities.
[00:15:10] Kevin: I see. And I think your background sometimes could be the door or the entryway into certain communities that are typically a bit closed off to the political dialogue, right? Like our communities, as Asian Americans, we don’t usually get reached out that much, so we don’t probably even feel comfortable sharing a lot of these political thoughts unless someone like you perhaps call me as opposed to somebody else.
[00:15:33] So I want to talk about your job specifically. Your title is the constituency director. A lot of our listeners are young listeners, college grads, and millennials who are interested in politics, but probably have never worked on one or volunteered in one. What is a constituency director? What is your job?
[00:15:55] Suraj: It’s mostly talking to different elected officials. We have New Hampshire town chairs, town committees, and county committees. So my work and my job is to reach out to those individuals. And get their support to Bernie Sanders. And there are many other ethnic, non profit organizations in New Hampshire. They have leaders and community leaders.
[00:16:25] And my work, my job is to go to those organizations and share Bernie Sanders policies, ideas, and get their support. So mostly my work is to travel. I talk to those people, bring their support and and call them and rally them behind Bernie Sanders policies. That is you know my day.
[00:16:48] Kevin: So is that kinda how your day to day looks like? Like is there a typical day from dawn to dusk as a constituency director? Like do you drive a lot, most of the time, or do a lot of calls? What does it look like?
[00:17:01] Suraj: I drive a lot, meet people and phone calls. But when Senator Sanders and surrogates are here in New Hampshire, the days would look very different.
[00:17:13] I need to, if Senator Sanders is meeting people in Nashua, I should be calling people in Nashua and trying to find out places there and who do I need to call for all those things when Senator Sanders and surrogates are here. But typically, other days are like calling people, talk with them, meet them over coffee and seek their support.
[00:17:42] Kevin: And I want to talk to you a little bit about technology as well. As you know, technology has had a huge impact on how campaigns are run, executed, and even won in the end for good or bad reasons. I’m curious, you know, in 2019 now 2020, what are some of the interesting tech, if at all, that you use in a day in and day out basis to do your job well?
[00:18:08] Or is there still a lot of flip boards and clipboards and envelopes and very like old style campaign tools, which is kind of what I’m used to before.
[00:18:17] Suraj: Well, I think obviously we bring in the use of emails and phone calls, but what Senator Sanders campaign is unique one, and we call it the Bern app.
[00:18:30] So this is, I think, the unique one. Other campaigns, I don’t think they have it. There’s only one that we have in this campaign. So what it does is, it’s an app, it’s a normal app. For example, I have friends in other states or in other cities. So what I do is I type their name and if they are my friend, I will take them as my friend or family or acquaintances, anything like that, and then submit it.
[00:18:55] So for my friend, if he’s from Columbus, Ohio, then someone from Columbus, Ohio will contact that individual and involve him into the campaign. So that is, I think, a unique technology that we’re using on this campaign.
[00:19:13]Kevin: Got it. So this is an app that anyone can download on their phone if they want to be a part of the Bernie Sanders campaign to help out in some way?
[00:19:23] Suraj: Absolutely, yes.
[00:19:27] Kevin: Got it. So to wrap up our conversation Suraj, I love to hear maybe just one piece of advice, having lived in New Hampshire for so long, having been politically active there for so long, what is your one piece of advice for anybody who wants to do well in New Hampshire politics?
[00:19:42] Doesn’t have to be president. Can be, you know, mayor or Congress or whatever level of government? What is your one piece of advice?
[00:19:49] Suraj: That would be, in every corner of the state, there is a house party or New Hampshire Democratic Party town committee or County committee meetings involving people. If you want to run for office, anything, high or low, you should know the people. You should engage with the people and be open minded when you share.
[00:20:21] Kevin: So Suraj where can people find you or the Sanders campaign, where should people follow your work, if they wanna continue along on this journey.
[00:20:30] Suraj: Are you asking me about my social media?
[00:20:33] Sure if you do social
[00:20:35] Kevin: Sure if you do social media, if you don’t, you can certainly just plug the Sanders social media too.
[00:20:40] Suraj: I do share a lot of Senator Sanders’s videos and tweets. I’m at @surajbudathoki9 is my tweet. And people can find me in Facebook. Suraj Budathoki is my Facebook name.
[00:20:58] Kevin: Got it. Well Suraj thank you so much for chatting with me today and for educating me and our audience on how it works in New Hampshire presidential politics. Thank you so much for your time today.
[00:21:10] Suraj: And one last thing before we leave. If you want to learn about Bernie Sanders, please go to berniesanders.com.
[00:21:24] Kevin: Yes, berniesanders.com for everybody who is interested in the Senator’s campaign as we get closer and closer to election day in the New Hampshire primary. Thank you so much.
[00:21:31] Suraj: All right, thanks Kevin.