Whether it’s fighting for the right to don religious garb in the workplace or supporting the Sikh community with a street co-naming, Harpreet Singh Toor has been serving Queens residents for the past 30 years. Now, the political activist hopes to bring his influence to local government, having recently announced his run for City Council in District 23.
Toor is one of 10 individuals in the crowded race to replace current Councilman Barry Grodenchik who will leave office at the end of 2021.
Toor told QNS that public service is an important tenet in Sikhism and added that his commitment to service was what motivated him to run.
“For us, being Sikh and performing public service actually is the moral responsibility,” Toor said. “It is in our DNA. It is called ‘seva,’ [which means] that you serve the community without expecting anything in return as a reward.”
Running for City Council a second time
Toor ran for City Council back in 2010 after the death of former Councilman Thomas White Jr. prompted a special election. Although he wasn’t elected to the position, another opportunity presented itself a decade later once he heard Grodenchik was retiring. Toor jumped at the chance to run for office in the middle of the pandemic, citing his three decades of leadership experience.
“I felt like out of whatever is happening during the pandemic, there is a lack of leadership within the City Council because the City Council is actually the first line between the government and the constituents,” he said. “Overall, they need somebody who has the experience and also who has [gotten] things done with the elected officials previously.”
He said that many in District 23 offered their support when he announced he was running for office.
“So far, community response has been great. More than 250 donors contributed to my campaign within about two weeks time,” Toor told QNS at the time of this interview. “Community response is very positive. They are glad that I am doing it.”
Since then, Toor’s campaign has raised $19,150 from a total of 263 donors according to NYC Campaign Finance Board records.
“[The community] actually offered more than what I expected to do [in] fundraising,” Toor said.
While campaigning, Toor has gotten the opportunity to speak with constituents about pressing issues within the district.
“Right now, [the] pandemic is the top most issue. But not only the pandemic, the distribution of the vaccine is the biggest issue because the guidelines are not that clear,” Toor said “Sometimes it’s rare but it is happening … that they did not have enough people to get the vaccine. That shows the lack of understanding [and] management.”
He said that other district concerns included dealing with the aftermath of closing small businesses, restaurants and health facilities due to COVID and managing student and teacher safety within schools.
To alleviate some of the school issues amidst the pandemic, Toor said that it was imperative to have serious conversations with teacher unions.
“The unions can negotiate with the teachers to have extended school hours where more kids can go to schools and they can interact. Instead of having 25 kids in a class, [kids can] come in 10 at a time and spread [them out in classes],” Toor said.
Similarly, Toor said that landlords and renters can get together to discuss short-term plans for long-term solutions.
“We have to come up with creative ideas like giving lifelines. I know a friend of mine who owns a business and he rents out and there was an issue about the rent. I told him [the] first thing is speak to your landlord because the landlord wants his place to be used and leased. If you leave it, it will be empty [so] he may give you the break,” Toor said. “Bring the landlord and the people who are renting out together and come up with creative ideas about how to give them a short-term break so they can succeed long term. Then they can go and pay back whatever they owe. If they don’t succeed, the landlord loses, the renters lose, the families lose. If they succeed, then everybody succeeds.”
Getting things done
Over the past three decades of working as a political advocate in the community, Toor learned that getting anything done means making strong connections with community members, fellow advocates and elected officials.
“You go into [the] community and if you mention my name, they know it. The reason is because I have been working with elected officials,” Toor said. “It is not important [for] you to like or dislike the elected person. The question is, if there are things to get done, communicate properly and get it done.”
A prime example of this was his involvement in the passage of the Religious Garb Bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate in 2019. Toor recalled that he had been working with elected officials since 2012 to get the bill signed.
“David Weprin was the one who brought it to the Assembly and finally in 2019 we got it signed and we got it passed unanimously in the Senate, which is unique. It got signed by Governor Cuomo where irrespective of your faith [or] your appearance, you will be able to serve anywhere, whether it is NYPD, state troopers or any other services within New York state,” Toor said.
Toor and nine other candidates are vying for the District 23 seat, which includes the neighborhoods of Bayside Hills, Bellerose, Douglaston, Floral Park, Fresh Meadows, Glen Oaks, Hollis, Hollis Hills, Holliswood, Little Neck, New Hyde Park, Oakland Gardens and Queens Village. Joining Toor in the race is Steven Behar, Seth Breland, Christopher Padilla-Fuentes, Sanjeev Jindal, Jaslin Kaur, Linda Lee, Debra Markell, Mandeep Sahi and Koshy Thomas.
“In Asia there’s a saying — either you succeed collectively or you fail individually. And I intend to succeed collectively,” Toor said.
Correction: Toor is not the only Sikh running in the District 23 race as he previously mentioned. Both Jaslin Kaur and Mandeep Sahi are also Sikh candidates running for City Council.