The Morrisville Town Council swore in Tuesday the Triangle’s second Indian-American elected official while promoting the Triangle’s first one to the rank of mayor pro tempore.
More than 130 people were in the standing-room-only audience that spilled out of the council chambers into the hallway, many of them from the local Indian-American community.
Steve Rao, the first Indian-American elected to office in the Triangle, was named mayor pro tem. He had considered running for lieutenant governor in 2016 but recently informed his colleagues he will remain on the Morrisville council until at least the end of his current term in 2017.
Satish Garimella, the other Indian-American to join the council, replaces Kris Gardner, a lawyer who was appointed to a then-empty seat last year and chose not to run for election this past November.
Garimella was sworn in on the Bhagavad Gita instead of the Bible, which most elected officials use. He was accompanied by his wife, son, parents and Gangadhar Sharma, a religious leader who founded the local Hindu Society of North Carolina.
“This is really a humbling experience for me, honestly,” Garimella said. “As you all know I grew up in India, so from the streets of Mumbai to the streets of Morrisville. ... I promise that I will give this honor my very best.”
Before Garimella got his moment in the spotlight, the council spent time praising Gardner, the outgoing councilman. Gardner is an expert in local government law and, prior to serving on the Morrisville Town Council, was on Morrisville’s planning board.
Council members said he was a near-perfect leader. They said he’s intelligent but of few words. Whenever he spoke, everyone made sure to listen. Several asked him to consider re-entering politics in the future.
Gardner said although he didn’t always agree with his fellow council members, they all respected each other. He said he’s glad they gave him the chance to serve.
“It took just an enormous amount of trust and confidence to vote to appoint someone you didn’t know that well,” Gardner said. “I hope I didn’t let you down.”
Later in the night, Liz Johnson and Michael Schlink were sworn in after winning re-election.
Johnson is the longest-serving member of the council. She had been the mayor pro tem but decided to relinquish the duty.
Both Rao and Vicki Scroggins-Johnson sought to become the mayor pro tem.
The council voted 4-3 in Rao’s favor, first in a private vote with written ballots.
In a public vote later, Rao was confirmed 6-1, with TJ Cawley casting the only no vote.
The mayor pro tem serves in the mayor’s stead if the mayor is ever out of town or incapacitated.
Mayor Mark Stohlman praised Johnson, before Rao and Scroggins-Johnson faced off for the duty.
“The bar that you set for mayor pro tem is so high, I just hope that others can reach that level of perfection,” Stohlman said.
In vouching for Rao, Schlink praised Rao’s business acumen and political savvy.
“I think you’ve continued to bring officials and business leaders to the table to help residents in Morrisville,” Schlink said.
Rao, a sales executive for tech company Alphanumeric Systems, also helped found several Indian-focused groups, including TIE (The Indus Entreprenuers) and the N.C. Indian Political Action Committee. He’s also a founding member of the Morrisville Innovation Foundation and the HOTTovation program that helps local entreprenuers launch their ideas.
Rao thanked the council, saying he has never missed a meeting and will continue to work hard. He also praised town staff for completing internal projects as well as working without outside forces, like Google Fiber and the International Cricket Council, to bring new initiatives to Morrisville.
Rao praised Johnson’s leadership, both as mayor pro tem and in her terms on the council stretching back to 1999.
“She’s always going to be a senior leader on this council, and I will continue to need her help,” he said.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran