Opanyi Nasiali; First Kenyan-born Mayor in United States

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My name is Opanyi Nasiali. I moved to the US in 1970 to pursue education through a scholarship granted by the Institute for International Education (IIE). IIE transmitted my application to various US colleges for admittance. I was accepted at California State University, Northridge where I graduated with a BA degree in Urban Studies and Special Major MA degree in Urban Planning and Public Administration.

Photo Courtsey Photo Courtsey

Moving to a foreign country presented me with challenges in the initial stages. For example, my initial culture shock was over items such as household appliances, vending machines and unconstrained freedom of speech.  Nevertheless, I adjusted to the new culture and thrived in the challenging environment. I would go on to be elected president of the International Students Club, made the dean’s list, and was selected to “Who’s Who in American Universities and Colleges.”  I would also, with a tad of pride; say that it is in college where I met my future wife.

I was always interested in politics from my early school days and my work in the Kenyan Parliament. Before deciding to run for elective office in Claremont City-California, I was actively involved in various community organizations, and regularly attended City Council meetings. I also wrote and published articles in local newspapers. The articles covered various subjects, including commentaries on issues of the day – political or otherwise.  I made an attempt to win election twice, but lost on both occasions.

Undeterred, I continued to participate in community projects. It was also an opportunity for me to go back to the drawing board and ponder the wrong moves I may have made in the chess game of elective politics. I needed to checkmate the prevailing obstacles! I learnt that I may have lost the previous elections mainly because of stiff competition from many candidates running. Campaign financing was a major challenge. In addition, it was obvious, perhaps, that I did not have a well sharpened campaign message that appealed to enough voters.

With the lessons learnt, in 2001, I made another attempt and this time I got elected. The way it works at Claremont City Council is that the Mayor is not elected separately, and the council members rotate annually to perform mayoral duties. That is how I became Mayor. It was historical granted that I was the first Kenyan-born to occupy the Mayoral seat in these United States of America.

As a Mayor, one of my most challenging decisions was refusal to sign a Council Resolution requiring the Mayor to join a group of Mayors who had formed an organization known as “Mayors Against Illegal Guns.” My refusal to sign the resolution was not because I supported illegal guns, but because I believed that regulation of guns was/is a federal government responsibility – not in the jurisdiction of local governments. I was vindicated in my decision years later because the United States Congress failed to act on the issue, thus the efforts of the Mayors against Illegal Guns were for naught.

My most inspiring moment as Mayor is borne out of my motto which I ran on; “Living within our means.” This is in view of the fact – at the time – that our city was facing up to $5 million annual deficit. I refused to increase taxes as some people in the community had suggested. Instead, I urged my city council colleagues to embrace economic development as a way of improving the city’s revenues. In addition, I was inspired by the fact that during my first 4 years on the Council we had balanced the budget with surpluses three years in a row, not to mention that  I was re-elected unopposed! All these were satisfying and welcome blessings.

It is my wish, prayer and hope that many Kenyans in Diaspora will run for local political offices in their current countries of residence. Do not be afraid to try. My mother used to tell me – during my growing up years – that if you do not ask or try, you have already lost. But if you try, you have a 50 – 50 chance of making/achieving it. And if you do not succeed or make it, try again.

I would also urge Kenyans living abroad to keep abreast with what is happening in Kenya, and to offer some suggestions on how Kenya can do better.

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