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Penn Carey Law lecturer Neil Makhija (Photo courtesy of Penn Carey Law).

Penn Carey Law lecturer Neil Makhija was elected as the next Montgomery County commissioner after coming in second in a four-way race on Tuesday.

Makhija, a Democrat, received 143,386 votes, behind fellow Democratic candidate Jamila Winder and ahead of Republican candidates Liz Ferry, who graduated from the Fels Institute of Government in 1996, and Thomas DiBello, according to results from Montgomery County’s election website. Makhija and Winder will fill the county commission's two majority party seats, with the third seat reserved for the minority party.

According to a press release, Makhija — who also has served as President of IMPACT, a national South Asian civic organization — is the first-ever Indian American and Asian American elected county commissioner.

Makhija told The Daily Pennsylvanian a combination of his background in election law, learning to navigate the “party apparatus,” and a rare window of vacated commissioner seats propelled him to enter the race for county commissioner.

“We did something that had never been done before, which was to have an open primary where no one had the benefit of the party endorsement, and everyone was given a fair shot to run their best race,” Makhija said. “We won that primary, and it was the first time anyone had done that in the recent history of the Democratic Party here.”

Montgomery County’s Board of Commissioners comprises the legislative and executive branches of the county government. Board members are elected for four-year terms and are tasked with naming department heads, in addition to most members of various county boards, authorities, and committees. They also appoint and establish salaries for county employees, in addition to preparing, adopting, and executing the annual budget.

The commissioner vacancies resulted from 2008 Fels Institute of Government graduate Ken Lawrence not seeking re-election and former professor of clinical anesthesiology, clinical obstetrics, and gynecology at the Perelman School of Medicine Valerie Arkoosh being appointed to Shapiro's administration.

Makhija said he looks forward to “fully exploring the bounds of local government” to enact the priorities and issues that Montgomery County residents care about. He added that he is excited to connect with Penn Carey Law students and Penn undergraduates involved in initiatives surrounding voting rights, election administration, and climate, such as through summer legal positions, volunteer work, and paid externships.

“I hope to engage the student community as well as the broader community of academics and experts who are at the forefront of their fields, whether it’s on issues of democracy, law and policy, criminal justice, or climate,” Makhija said.

Several of Makhija’s former students from his “Law and Candidacy” course praised his course for helping form their career interests.

2021 Carey Law graduate Jeffrey Popoviz, who took Makhija’s course in 2021, told the DP that the professor was very candid about his unsuccessful bid for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2016, which Popoviz called “eye-opening” for someone who did not have much experience in election law or public service.

Popoviz said that even though the class was held virtually during COVID-19, Makhija managed to keep the course engaging, especially through speakers like John Fetterman and Tom Steyer. Even after the course ended and Popoviz graduated, he said how Makhija reached out to his former students with an invitation to see President Joe Biden speak in Philadelphia.

“Neil had obtained tickets somehow, and he invited anyone from the class that wanted to go experience that regardless of your politics just to see what it’s like, and that struck me because many in the class had already graduated,” Popoviz said. “That was a concrete gesture that really meant a lot… I think it just spoke volumes to Neil.”

Third-year law student Yitzchak Carroll took Makhija’s course during the spring 2023 semester and called him “one of the best professors I’ve ever had in my life,” adding that he enjoyed learning both the doctrine and real-world implications of campaign, communications, and voting rights law, while also being able to meet outside of the classroom to discuss careers in public service and the law.

“Before attending Penn Law, I worked in state government and politics, but Professor Makhija's course truly opened my eyes to the world of campaign and voting rights law, as well as the impact that local government has on our lives,” Carroll wrote in a statement to the DP. “Learning from him definitely furthered my interest in pursuing public service and using my legal education to help my community, just as Professor Makhija did.”

Secretary of Policy and Planning for Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and 2018 Penn Carey Law graduate Akbar Hossain, who took Makhija’s course, told the DP that the class was a firm introduction to getting involved in politics and policy.

“I think every law student wants to change the world in some way, and a lot of us think about changing it through policy and politics in one way or another,” Hossain said, adding that the class introduced him to Shapiro, who was then the state’s attorney general, providing a “genesis” for a career that took him from the Office of the Attorney General to Shapiro's gubernatorial transition team and eventually his cabinet.