“I knew I wanted to come back and live the rest of my life in New Jersey,” he says. “It might just be instinctual or in my roots being born and raised in New Jersey, and Hoboken was just the right fit.”
He’s a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and the London School of Economics, where he earned a Masters in Public Administration and Public Policy.
After graduating, his parents said he had to do something other than sit at home in Pine Brook.
At the time, his older brother, Amar, was in law school, and his best friend, Gurbir Grewal, was studying for the bar. “I never wanted or had any interest in becoming an attorney,” Bhalla says, but he decided to follow in the footsteps of his brother and friend. That friend is currently the New Jersey Attorney General.
Bhalla decided to enroll in Tulane University Law School.
“I almost dropped out during my first couple of weeks,” Bhalla laughs. “At Berkeley and the London School of Economics, it felt like people were there to learn the subject matter before them from an honest intellectual passion. But law school just felt like a rat race. It didn’t feel like people were there for the love of law but to get into the best law firm or to supplement their MBA.”
Bhalla’s parents told him he had to stick it out for the first semester, and if he didn’t like it after that he “could pack up his U-Haul and come back to New Jersey.”
During that first semester and over time, he came to appreciate the law and its relationship to society.
After graduation, he was offered a job at a Newark law firm. He enjoyed going to New York City and liked being close to his family in Pine Brook, so he decided to move to Hoboken because of its proximity to both and its vibrant atmosphere.
And the Rest is History
Since moving to Hoboken, Bhalla became a practicing civil rights attorney, married, had children, and opened a business.
He also served on the Hoboken City Council for eight years and was elected the state’s first Sikh mayor.
His passion for politics stems from his family and lively discussions around the dinner table growing up.
“Everyone in my household always had something to say,” he recalls. “It was hard to get a word in edgewise. My parents would joke that I was a really fast talker—I had to talk fast in order to get my point across.”
He decided to get into the Hoboken political scene after working on local campaigns as well as knocking on doors in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
“His election made me think if the country was ready for an African-American president, maybe Hoboken was ready for a Sikh councilman,” Bhalla says.
During that 2012 presidential campaign, he and his wife, Bindiya, were learning “the city was a mess financially.” The municipal budget was overspent by $12 million. Sick of standing on the sidelines, Bhalla decided to run for city council.
Bhalla, whose family is from India, is a Sikh, a religion founded in the 15th century. He wears a turban as a symbol of his faith.
Growing up in a predominantly white town, he was bullied from an early age.
“I was the darkest student at my school,” Bhalla says. “People would call me the N word. When young, little Sikh boys keep their hair in a bun, and kids would touch it and bully and tease me.”
His mother was the most influential person in his life because she was with him every day and taught him how to deal with bullying.
“She would help me be strong as a Sikh and be proud of who I am,” he says. “She taught me about my faith and background and how to handle the bullying.”
She told him to report it to the teacher, but that there was a strict line; he could fight back physically if a bully crossed it.
“If anyone touched our hair, which is an article of faith, we had the right to hit them,” Bhalla says.
The Beat Goes On
Unfortunately the ignorance and bigotry did not end in elementary school.
In 2002 when Bhalla was visiting a client at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, guards demanded to search his turban before he could be admitted.
He refused and listed his rights, including his First Amendment rights, but the guards wouldn’t let him in.
After a Federal District court hearing, the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued a clarification of its search policy, stating that religious representations of faith need not be searched.
In 2016 an online troll on twitter called Bhalla a “#terrorist” and said he “shouldn’t even be allowed in the U.S.” Bhalla responded, "Sir, I am born & raised in America. You clearly don't know what it means to be an American. #ignorant."
During last year’s mayoral election an anonymous flyer was distributed around town, which targeted Bhalla, taking an opponent’s previous campaign literature and doctoring it so that Bhalla’s picture appeared under the words “Don’t let TERRORISM take over this town.”
Police have not yet determined who created the flyer.
Keeping the Faith
Bhalla remains steadfast in his faith, which he says is the core of who he is as a human being.
“It guides my value system, it serves as a spiritual guide, but also and just as important, it guides how one should conduct oneself in this world,” Bhalla says. “Like most religions across the world, it teaches us to treat others with respect, be humble, help others who are less fortunate, and try to see connections between yourself and others.”
Since becoming mayor he is treated with “more respect than I have ever had in my entire life. I have not been bullied except by the city council,” he laughs.
Bhalla lives next to his brother, Amar, and his family on Garden Street and has two children, Arza, 11, and Shahbegh, 6, with wife Bindiya.
The kids attend Elysian Charter School, and Bindiya, whom he met in a Starbucks in London, works for a nonprofit called Manavi, which helps women from South Asian communities, who are victims of domestic violence and other forms of abuse.
“We hit it off,” Bhalla says. “We both have a common passion for social justice. She was an attorney who specialized in law dealing with immigration, refugees, and international human rights.”
Shahbegh is enjoying tee-ball this year, much like Bhalla enjoyed playing baseball growing up. Arza is into theater.
“My wife and I try to expose them to as many different things as possible,” Bhalla says.
His children don’t face the same bullying he did growing up. It’s among the things that make being mayor worthwhile.
“My son and daughter are the coolest kids in the class because their dad’s the mayor,” he jokes. “That means more than anything else to me.”—07030