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Immigrant, Muslim and Voting Republican in New Jersey

A Democratic supporter for the past two presidential elections, Levent Koch believes gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno can clean up corruption

levent koch USE
Levent Koch with his wife Rukiye and one of their three children

This story was written by one of New Jersey’s ethnic media outlets that is participating in Voting Block, a statewide collaborative reporting project to encourage political discussion — and more informed voters in neighborhoods across New Jersey ahead of this fall’s gubernatorial election.

Levent Koch has been a Democrat for as long as he’s been voting.

The 47-year-old voted for President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the past two elections. He took part in fundraising efforts for Jon Corzine, the incumbent Democratic governor of New Jersey who was defeated by Chris Christie in 2009.

But now, Koch, an immigrant from Turkey who lives in Woodland, says with his state’s gubernatorial election looming he’s leaning Republican, in spite of the anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from Washington. Koch says the shift started after he met Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is vying to replace the outgoing Christie.

“A woman governor — who is also a mother — would be advantageous to New Jersey,” said Koch, who is married and has a young son and two daughters. “I saw how effective she is when communicating with people.”

Uniquely suited to tackle corruption

Koch adds that among the candidates, Guadagno is uniquely suited to tackle the corruption he says is plaguing state politics.

“She was an assistant U.S. attorney (for the Eastern District of New York and the District of New Jersey) who fought against corruption,” Koch explained. “Corruption is a critical issue that needs to be solved in New Jersey — and, because of her experience, she has the advantage.”

Guadagno is facing a challenge from Democrat Phil Murphy, a banker and former ambassador to Germany, as well as candidates from the Green and Libertarian parties. The election is scheduled for November 7.

Koch, who holds a Ph.D. in economics, came to the United States from Turkey with his family in 2004. A green card holder at the time, he quickly became an active member in the local Turkish community in New Jersey and New York. The family naturalized in 2012.

New Jersey is home to about 20,000 Turkish-Americans, according to the latest U.S. Census data, while another 25,000 reside in the New York area.

Fostering dialogue

Today, Koch is the director of North East Turkish-American (NETA) Scholars, a nonprofit that fosters dialogue around social issues among academics and researchers. He said most people in the Turkish-American community track political developments in the United States closely, and are especially interested in how they affect Turkey and its neighbors.

Koch’s preference for the Republican Guadagno is surprising, given the hostility that President Donald Trump and others in the GOP have shown toward Muslims. It’s also surprising in light of the scandals that plagued Christie’s tenure in office. Christie’s approval ratings are at about 15 percent, and even Guadagno has refrained from seeking his support. But Koch’s commitment to the well-being of his home state clearly outweighs any sense of party loyalty. And, he admits, he has a grudging respect for the outgoing governor.

“As Turkish-Americans, we maintain respect toward public officials, unless they become autocratic or corrupt,” Koch said. “Despite his harsh style … I personally cannot say (Christie’s) governorship has been a failure.”

He says going back to when he first met Christie when he was the state attorney general, the governor has always been “respectful to Muslim communities and believes in diversity.” Koch’s wife, Rukiye agrees. A volunteer with the Peace Island Institute, she helps organize interfaith meetings in the community.

“My goal is to rally newly naturalized Americans to come together and be part of the community,” she added. “We are meeting with people from different religions, and I am happy that everyone respects one another.”

Hope through interfaith dialogue

She adds, “There may be people who have their own biases against Muslims, but there’s hope through interfaith dialogue.”

Koch and his wife both disagree with the direction the Trump White House has gone with efforts to push through a Muslim ban and the decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate treaty.

“I know that most Americans are against (Trump) on these issues — and the U.S. constitution is Trump’s biggest obstacle,” he said. “I also see no solution in his promise to build a wall with Mexico.”

Still, they’re hopeful positive change can happen at the state level. “State laws are as important as federal laws,” he added. “These are the laws that directly affect where we live.”

As for the gubernatorial election, he is passionate about turning people out to vote. “Every Turkish American — and every immigrant voter — should take part,” he said. “This is their right to exercise — to give voice to their communities."

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