5 Questions with Neil Makhija | The Institute of Politics at Harvard University

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Neil Makhija is an attorney and community activist in Pennsylvania's coal country. He was the 2016 Democratic Nominee for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from Carbon County, a predominantly white, working class community where he outperformed the national Democratic ticket by 14 points. The son of immigrants and grandson of refugees of India's partition, Neil graduated from Harvard Law School in 2015 on a scholarship endowed by an 19th century Pennsylvania coal magnate. While at HLS, he founded a student group to address issues of homelessness while also working with the Y2Y student-run homeless shelter.  In Carbon County, he works as an attorney and with a nonprofit organizing churches to house homeless families.

Recently, the IOP had the opportunity to connect with Neil, who is an IOP alumni, and ask him a few questions about the importance of law education, the current political climate, and what he hopes the future of politics will look like. Check out his insightful answers below! 

When did it become clear to you that you wanted to pursue a career in politics and public service?

My sisters and I were raised in a sort of satellite family, meaning that we were the few born in the United States while all of our relatives lived in India. Our upbringing instilled in us an understanding of the privilege of being American. We saw my father's example, how he earned his reputation as an exemplary physician in a tiny town where several generations of families share the names of the streets, worlds away from the city of refugees where he and my mother were raised. My sisters and I have all pursued service-oriented careers, I think because we saw the value in having a meaningful impact on lives seemingly distant from our own. We learned that institutions can systematically neglect the needs of certain segments of the population, and we each found meaning in tying our identities to addressing those needs. 

As a millennial who ran for office in the 2016 election, what advice or encouragement would you give to other young adults who are hesitant towards, or even strongly opposed to, the idea of entering the world of politics and public service, especially given the current political climate?

To use the language of a Kennedy, we simply need good and decent people acting on their instincts: citizens who see wrong and try to right it; who see suffering and try to heal it; who see war and try to stop it. If you feel that sense of injustice, consider it your responsibility to act. Otherwise you cede power to entrenched interests who are comfortable perpetuating the status quo and all of its imperfections. If you're turned off by the smallness of politics, or you're afraid of inevitable criticism from the opposition or the spectators, I can promise you this: when you meet real people and they place their hopes in your hands as if no one else has ever listened, because no one actually has, all of that noise fades to the background.

As a recent Harvard Law School graduate, why do think studying law is so important?

The law creates a structure within which you advocate for legislation, and it's critical to understand that. I think of clear cases that inspired my state-level candidacy: Rodriguez v. San Antonio School District (1973), which was a single vote away from invalidating the current unequal, unfair system of school financing system in many states; or Robinson Township v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (Pa. 2013), which invalidated much of the PA legislature's giveaway to the fracking industry and opened the door to expanding local environmental rights. I should also add, one of the best things I did at Harvard was cross-register for Preaching at the Divinity School. I find that legal training can get our minds stuck on criticism and analysis, whereas preachers lift, inspiring us to take action, to reach for our ideals.

When you survey current American politics, what is one thing you would like to see change?

I'm thinking about how we can bridge divides between urban and rural communities, both online and offline. Grassroots work exposes you to countless examples of our 'inescapable network of mutuality', and that is to say, so many instances where our problems are tied together in both rural and urban communities, yet where advocates rarely work together. One example is the opioid epidemic separated from broader calls for criminal justice reform. I want to to see us bring together advocates on both issues, so we can work in unison for policies that lift every community.

What do you think the future of politics will look like?

In an era of alternative facts and fake news, I still have faith in the democratic process, because I believe that truth is resilient. Political rhetoric has its limits, and reality is inescapable. The only question is how soon we get ourselves to act on what we know is right, true, and just. Whether it's addressing growing inequality or climate change, I'm hopeful that our generation will step up on the most difficult issues with compassion and ingenuity. I think we will surprise ourselves.

Follow Neil at http://neilmakhija.com or @neilmakhija

Thank you

Friends,

From the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank you. On a personal level, this has been the best year of my life. Your support made this all possible and what we have achieved is nothing short of extraordinary.

While I will not have the honor of serving in the Pennsylvania legislature next year, this is certainly the first time a "Makhija" has received over 10,000 votes on a ballot in Pennsylvania, and likely in the United States. We undertook a serious battle and we beat all expectations.

When we launched the campaign a year ago, I recognized that Carbon County was a bellwether in national elections. I accepted the risk that I could lose, and I did that because the challenge was absolutely critical. If we were truly going to change politics and solve the problems we collectively face, I knew that we must learn how to win here, no matter how hard it was. 

Amidst a stunning shift toward the GOP in this year's election, our local campaign dramatically outperformed the national ticket by 14 points. While this wasn't enough to get us to 51%, the precinct level data shows we made serious inroads and expanded the map by winning towns that no Democratic candidate has won in years.

There will be more to talk about in the weeks to come, but I want to thank you for standing with me throughout this campaign. I don't know what the future will bring, but I do know that this experience has prepared us to take on the next fight. 

I hope I made you proud. 

With gratitude, 

Neil

21 teams in Carbon Adventure Race to aid Special Olympics

BY TIMES NEWS / PUBLISHED: JULY 18, 2016

The third annual Carbon Adventure Race was held Saturday at Skirmish to benefit Special Olympics of Carbon County, with 42 people (21 teams) participating.

The Carbon Adventure Race was hosted by the Carbon Chamber and Economic Development Corporation’s Young Professionals Council. The 2016 Adventure Race is a HALO event (Helping And Leading Others) and works to raise funds for the Special Olympics of Carbon County.

The race included mild to moderate physical events, rough terrain and mental challenges.

Delina Rodriquez, a Carbon County Special Olympian, and her brother Darris complete the race on Saturday.

First place: Neil Makhija and Talon Fogal, who won $200 cash. They will donate their winnings to Special Olympics.

Second place: Jessica Huber and Ryan Kemensky from Coordinated Health, won $100.

Third place: Nicole Rex and Greg Rex from Coordinated Health won $50.

Article published in the Times News.

 

Heffley, Makhija to Face off in Fall

BY THE TIMES NEWS, PUBLISHED APRIL 27, 2016

Carbon County’s representatives in the Pennsylvania and U.S. Houses of Representatives will be decided in the November general election, with both the Democratic and Republican parties having formalized their nominees in Tuesday’s primary election.

In the Pennsylvania House race, Rep. Doyle Heffley of Palmerton, the incumbent Republican, was unopposed on Tuesday. He collected 6,868 token votes from party members in 22 of Carbon’s 23 municipalities. Summit Hill was cut out of the 122nd Legislative District in the last redistricting round.

Heffley’s opponent will be attorney Neil Makhija of Jim Thorpe. An unopposed Democrat on Tuesday, he garnered 5,566 complimentary votes.

A two-year term is up for grabs.

Meanwhile, in the 124th Legislative District, which includes Summit Hill, Rep. Jerry Knowles of Tamaqua, a Republican incumbent, was unopposed Tuesday and received 285 token votes from Summit Hill Republicans. There was no Democratic candidate.

In addition to Summit Hill, that district includes the townships of East Brunswick, East Union, Kline, North Union, Rush, Schuylkill, Union, Walker, West Brunswick and West Penn and the boroughs of Coaldale, Deer Lake, McAdoo, New Ringgold, Orwigsburg, Port Clinton, Ringtown and Tamaqua in Schuylkill County; and parts of Berks County.

Article published in The Times News.

Jim Thorpe man launches bid for state representative seat

BY TIMES NEWS / PUBLISHED: NOVEMBER 19, 2015

Jim Thorpe attorney Neil Makhija has announced his candidacy for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives serving the 122nd district.

A number of community leaders encouraged Neil to follow his dream of serving Pennsylvania families. He made the decision to seek public service after attending the Lehighton vs. Jim Thorpe football game earlier this month.

“I love this community,” he said. “I was born and raised in Lehighton, right here in Carbon County. In Harrisburg, I’ll fight to revitalize our region and build a new economy where working families prosper. Our political system is rigged — and we need a new generation of leadership in Pennsylvania to fix it,” Makhija said.

“Carbon County needs a strong voice in Harrisburg. Our schools and human services have been held hostage to these political games for months while legislators have been getting their own paychecks. We need problem solvers and common sense people like Neil. Neil didn’t forget where he came from,” said Billy O’Gurek Jr., chairman of the Carbon County Democratic Party and chair of the Northeast Caucus of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

An attorney in Carbon County, Makhija was recently sworn in to the Pennsylvania Bar Association by Justice Correale F. Stevens of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

He is also a graduate of Harvard Law School, where he was the recipient of the Horace DeYoung Lentz Scholarship.

“I feel truly indebted to my community for this tremendous gift,” Makhija said. “Carbon County has given me so many opportunities, and I want to make sure that members of my hometown have the same opportunities to succeed whether it’s through improving our schools, building a stronger local economy for the middle class, or cutting down on bureaucracy and taxes to help working people thrive.”

Makhija has worked in the offices of Vice President Joseph Biden and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, where he oversaw intake for casework protecting the rights of veterans and seniors.

He now serves on the advisory boards of the Carbon Chamber & Economic Development’s Young Professionals Council and Family Promise of Carbon County.

Neil earned his B.A. at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and graduated from MMI Preparatory School in Freeland.

He is the son of Dr. Kailash and Lata Makhija of Lehighton, who have been providing health care services to the women of Carbon County for nearly 35 years.

Article published in the Times News.

 

Jim Thorpe lawyer runs for House seat

BY THE STANDARD SPEAKER / PUBLISHED: NOVEMBER 15, 2015

Jim Thorpe attorney Neil Makhija on Thursday announced his candidacy for the state House of Representatives in the 122nd District, which includes most of Carbon County.

He will seek the Democratic nomination in the April primary for the seat now held by Republican Doyle Heffley of Lower Towamensing Township.

Makhija is a graduate of MMI Preparatory School, Freeland; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, and Harvard Law School. He recently was sworn in to the Pennsylvania Bar Association by Supreme Court Justice Correale F. Stevens.

“I love this community,” he said. “I’ll fight to revitalize our region and build a new economy where working families prosper.”

Article published in The Standard Speaker.

Harvard Graduate Gives Back to Community

BY KELLEY ANDRADE, LEHIGHTON TIMES NEWS / PUBLISHED: NOVEMBER 10, 2015

Neil Makhija recently received the bar exam scores from the test he took in July.

The results: pass.

“It’s a relief,” the May 2015 Harvard Law School graduate said.

School loan debt hangs over the head of almost every graduate to date, and Makhija, a 29-year-old from Lehighton, feared he would be in the same boat until he learned about a scholarship funded by late Carbon County native Horace De Young Lentz.

Lentz was a Jim Thorpe resident who attended the prestigious university in the late 1800s.

Born the son of a coal company operator, Lentz became an attorney and community activist after his 1891 graduation.

“I didn’t know about the scholarship until after my first semester, my friend told me he got a small scholarship for being from Vermont, so I went to research possible scholarships for Pennsylvania.”

He came across only one Pennsylvania option for his Carbon County home base.

“When I called the financial aid office, the woman told me that they had already distributed everything and it was too late. Then she asked where I was from, and I said ‘Carbon County’ and she paused in silence, and said ‘Hold on.’ ”

Makhija was asked to send his birth certificate to the office, after which $25,000 a semester was applied to his college bill. The only qualification for the scholarship is to be born and raised in Carbon County. Of course he had to be accepted into Harvard first.

“When I got the scholarship I went out and found everything about Lentz,” Makhija said. “He’s buried in Jim Thorpe. When I went to the cemetery he had fresh flowers on his grave.”

Lentz’s community focus mirrors Makhija’s own.

An active board member of Carbon County’s Family Promise, which works to house homeless families in the area, he is also a member of the Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals Council and has worked with community-based nonprofit service Turn to Us in Jim Thorpe.

“I started the student Coalition to End Homelessness while at Harvard, which helped develop a legal service program for a youth shelter which is launching this week. That’s part of why I wanted to help Family Promise of Carbon County.”

Makhija is quick to sidestep the spotlight for creating the coalition, however. “I don’t want to take too much credit for that — I just helped bring people together from the law school.”

He said, “The scholarship gave me the opportunity to come back to the area and work in the community right away instead of work for a huge law firm to pay off debt. We need to fix our education system so everyone gets a chance to have opportunities like this.”

The little brother of two sisters, he is the only son of India immigrants Kailash and Lata, who have lived in Lehighton for 40 years. Kailash and Lata Makhija came from greater Mumbai, Ulhasnagar, a city of refugees that grew out of an abandoned WWII military barracks.

“My father is the hardest working person I know. When he was 8 years old he worked in a factory. He came from a one-room home that didn’t even have running water. Being a first-generation American, I actually got to have a childhood. My father was a child laborer and I got to play soccer at Beltzville. It really makes me appreciate what we have here.”

Growing up, Makhija’s father, a well-known doctor in the area for 40 years, was always on call. Even now he shows little sign of slowing down in his older age according to his son.

“At this point, he’s delivered the grandchildren of children he delivered. We grew up in our house with a wall of postcards of every baby born in the community.”

Named after the accomplished Neil Armstrong, “dad was dreaming big,” he laughed, Makhija is doing his best to live up to that namesake.

The minute he turned legal age he started working.

“I always had great examples. Both my sisters worked as soon as they were old enough.”

He was employed at Pocono Whitewater and Schuylkill County’s legendary Leiby’s Ice Cream House Restaurant.

“When I was working at Leiby’s I never thought I had a chance to get in (to Harvard) as a kid from Carbon County.”

He did make it in however, “the Harvard admissions officer called and told me she thought I had the potential to be a leader, and they want to educate future leaders in every field.”

Makhija proved the officer’s hunch to be accurate.

While attending Harvard he won the Dean’s Scholar Prize for State and Local Government Law, the highest honor at Harvard Law School in that subject. While attending college he was elected president of his class or of the student body almost every year. He received a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence in 2009 prior to his law school stint.

Between earning his degrees, he spent two years working for Vice President Joe Biden doing traveling logistics, and in the U.S. Senate, “helping people navigate Washington bureaucracy.”

According to Makhija it was his commitment to public service that helped gain the attention of Harvard admissions.

“The university appreciated my overseeing casework requests for tens of thousands of seniors and veterans who needed access to federal services.”

He graduated from Harvard this spring after three years with a juris doctor and gratitude for the coal scholarship, “I got a really well-rounded education across the whole university.”

Makhija took a wide range of classes, studying climate change and economic development, also studying at Harvard Divinity School learning how to use speech to engage the community.

He hopes by using his coal scholarship for climate change study he can help the community move forward.

“I appreciate in a very direct way all that we have gotten from coal as a community. And today we need to find new ways to reinvent ourselves and rebuild an economy that’s stronger than ever.”

Article published by Kelley Andrade, kandrade@tnonline.com, in the Lehighton Times News.

Paying it Forward: Law School Graduate Gives Back

BY KENT JACKSON, THE STANDARD SPEAKER / PUBLISHED: OCTOBER 18, 2015

Neil Makhija feels a debt to Carbon County because a scholarship for county residents helped him graduate practically debt-free from Harvard Law School.

Makhija, 29, who grew up in Lehighton and graduated from MMI Preparatory School in Freeland, Luzerne County, was finishing his first semester at Harvard Law when he heard that a classmate from Vermont received a scholarship available only to students from that state.

Thinking he might shave a few hundred dollars off his tuition, Makhija looked through the school's restricted scholarships for one open to Pennsylvanians. He found an award solely for students from Carbon County.

Horace De Young Lentz, a Carbon County attorney and son of a coal company operator, endowed the scholarship in his will. Lentz graduated from Harvard in 1891, and nobody had taken advantage of the gift for so long that a financial aid worker initially was stumped when Makhija telephoned to ask about it. 

The Lentz Scholarship paid $25,000 of his $26,000 tuition each semester.

"It's kind of unbelievable — chance reaching out from the past," Makhija said.

As the son of immigrant parents, Makhija grasped the symbolism of a coal baron's largesse sending him through school. Since then, he has studied Lentz and found that the attorney once donated 100 pounds of cabbage to striking miners.

Makhija also reflected on the wealth that coal brought to Carbon County during an earlier era. "I was studying energy and climate change, and a coal baron scholarship is kind of funny," he said. "It made me realize coal was kind of short-lived."

As he starts his career in Carbon County, Makhija said the mentorship of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Correale Stevens, who coached his mock trial team at MMI, made him consider becoming a lawyer after he graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and worked in the offices of Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

Now he is thinking how to help other county residents in their working lives as a volunteer with the Carbon Chamber and Economic Development, which aims to attract jobs.

Through the chamber, he met other young adults who have stayed in Carbon County and sees signs of promise. Tourist-related businesses like Pocono Whitewater, for whom he washed bicycles while in school, are growing, he said. He also would like to match companies with empty businesses like Schuylkill County's iconic Leiby's Ice Cream House Restaurant, where he also used to work.

Makhija, while preparing last week to move from the home of his parents, Kailash and Lata, in Lehighton to a place of his own in Jim Thorpe, also is reaching out to people who have no home. He joined the board of the Carbon County office of Family Promise, a national group.

"We serve homeless families … work with churches, house families, help them get jobs," Makhija said.

Article published by Kent Jackson, kjackson@standardspeaker.com, in The Standard Speaker.