Levittown Democrat Kevin Thomas was 10 years old when his family left India in 1995 to seek better opportunities in the United States, and he recalled the culture shock of leaving a developing Dubai for New York City, where his family settled in Queens.
“Dubai only had a few tall buildings back then,” Thomas said. “But New York was all skyscrapers and city. There was no comparison.”
His parents wanted him to receive an excellent education and find success in their adopted country. Now, Thomas serves as the New York State Senate’s first Indian-American lawmaker, representing communities from Farmingdale to Franklin Square. Like his parents, he wants to serve future generations of New Yorkers.
Taking the Senate
After earning his law degree at Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 2010, Thomas spent nearly a decade working for the New York Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit that helps clients who are being sued because of consumer debt. His experience helping graduates who were being “crushed by their student debt” motivated Thomas to find other ways to help them. The election of President Trump in 2016 solidified his decision to run for office.
“I saw policies coming out of Washington that were not about protecting the people in this country,” Thomas said. “And [U.S. Education Secretary] Betsy Devos and the loan companies were dealing out policies that hurt the very students I was working with.”
Thomas ran against 15-term incumbent Sen. Kemp Hannon last year. Despite being a clear underdog against a long-entrenched power broker, Thomas won by the narrowest of margins, with 50.6 percent of the vote. State Sen. Anna Kaplan, who shares a similar story of immigration to Thomas and sits next to him on the Senate floor, said their victories helped flip the Senate to a Democratic majority.
“It’s been an amazing, whirlwind experience for us, and holding the majority helped us pass laws that had been sitting on the shelf for decades because of partisan issues,” Kaplan, New York’s first Iranian-American state senator, said. “It was nice making these strides alongside him.”
Thomas and Kaplan helped pass the Child Victims Act, the Reproductive Health Act, gun and voting reform and a plastic bag ban. And when Thomas became the Consumer Protection Committee chairman, he was in a position to help the students who inspired him to run.
Modern problems, modern solutions
Student loan debt is at an all-time high, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve, which pegged the national student debt at around $1.56 trillion in 2019. From his work with the New York Legal Assistance Group, Thomas knew that students could fall victim to predatory practices from loan companies, so he committed his first 100 days in office to crafting legislation to regulate the companies’ operations. The law now requires lenders to obtain licenses from the state Department of Financial Services, which will provide “much -needed” oversight over the industry and can levy fines against those engaging in predatory practices.
After passage of the legislation, Thomas continued to eye issues affecting young people. He said the anti-vaccine “wave” of parents refusing to inoculate their children has grown in New York, and even left one of the schools in his district with only a 70 percent vaccination rate. When Thomas held a new conference in Eisenhower Park to inform parents about the need for vaccinations, protesters showed up.
“This is a serious issue, and people are being misinformed,” Thomas said. “Not vaccinating your kids puts them at risk, and we’ve seen these kids challenging their parents in the national spotlight.”
Thomas has also set his attention to the digital giants, leading a public hearing on June 4 to receive people’s input on the New York Privacy Act. The bill calls for data companies like Facebook and Amazon to seek consent from consumers to gather their personal data. With technology increasingly ingrained in people’s lives, he said, the tech companies have amassed a trove of consumers’ personal data that they trade back and forth with one another, usually for profit.
Thomas said the measure is not intended to restrict the business, but to foster transparency and lines of communication between the companies and their consumers.
“These are new problems we never even considered a few years ago, so we have to think ahead and make our decisions now,” Thomas said. “We all have to think about the future generations of New York and the problems they’ll face. That’s what I do whenever I’m drafting a bill.”