Huja, known as being one of the architects of the Downtown Mall, was nominated by fellow Councilor Kristin Szakos, who in turn was elected to be the next vice mayor, also by a unanimous vote.
A Sikh who came to America from India at the age of 19 to attend college, Huja thanked his wife, his council colleagues and the city voters for giving him the opportunity to serve as mayor.
“It says a great deal about our community that someone like me can become mayor,” Huja said. “Our community appreciates diversity.”
“As the mayor, I will work with City Council for a future agenda for the community,” Huja continued. “I will listen to the desires and concerns of the citizens, residents and businesses. I’m accessible 24/7 to hear your concerns and ideas. As mayor, I will work my very best to protect the interests of our community. I will work to enhance the quality of life and the environment, so that Charlottesville can be a great city, a great community for all of its residents.”
In an interview, the longtime city planner turned local politician said he’s experienced a steady stream of well-wishers since being named mayor earlier this month by the unanimous vote of his City Council peers.
“It’s a really humbling experience. The outpouring of support and care from people all over the city … I was almost in tears the other day because people are so nice to me,” Huja said with a chuckle as he sat on his living-room couch.
At age 19, Huja left his native India to attend college in America, and he believes he’s one of the first Sikh mayors in the entire country.
“There are not too many communities in America where a guy with a beard and turban who doesn’t look mainstream can get elected,” Huja said. “And I think people realize that I do have some skills and qualities of use that are more important than what I look like.”
After winning re-election last year, Huja’s new role as the ceremonial head of city government has not gone unnoticed by the Sikh and Indian communities.
“I have been getting a lot of emails from all over the country,” Huja said. “Sikh people … some Indian people also.”
Sikhism, a monotheistic religion which stresses devotion to God and equality of humankind, originated in the 15th century in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent.
The website Indiawest.com, which bills itself as a news provider for the “global Indian community,” featured Huja in a story headlined “Sikh American Elected Mayor of Historic U.S. City.” His face has also appeared on the website Sikhtoons.com, where a cartoon Huja graces the front page of a fictitious newspaper, the “Charlottesville Times,” under the headline: “OMG! Our Mayor is Sikh.”
Huja, who took the oath of U.S. citizenship at Monticello on July 4, 1987, explained how his religion and his upbringing in India influenced his approach to planning, policymaking and public service.
“Sikhs are very simple in a sense that … it doesn’t matter what I tell you today,” Huja said. “Deeds and action and behavior are crucial, not your philosophy or talk. We are very action-oriented.”
He was born in 1942 near what is now Kohat, Pakistan, then a part of India under British rule. Huja attended boarding school in the mountains of northern India, and he described his father, the president of a large sugar corporation, as a major influence.
“My father was a very strong role model, in the sense that the idea of community service and sharing and caring was very much a part of his way,” Huja said. “He had about 10,000 people working for him, and he had a wonderful relationship with his employees. You could see that they loved him, and he loved them.”
Huja was interested in America from an early age, so much so that he travelled to New Delhi just to get a glimpse of President Dwight Eisenhower.
“I read some books about America and I was just fascinated, as an 18-year-old boy,” Huja said. “My father wanted me to go to England or Germany for studying engineering, because he thought I would get a better education. But I was pretty hard-headed at that time.”
Huja eventually landed at Cornell University, but life in America wasn’t exactly what he had imagined.
“I had read a lot about cowboys, and there weren’t any cowboys in New York,” Huja said.
Ira Herbst, a mathematics professor at the University of Virginia, was Huja’s freshman-year roommate at Cornell. Herbst said there was a bit of a culture shock during the early dorm-room days, but the two developed a friendship that persists to this day.
“I think he had just woken from a nap, so he probably had jet lag, and he was in his pajamas and no turban, so he just had like a bun on top of his head and a beard. And he was much skinnier than he is now,” Herbst said. “Me being Jewish was also a strange thing for him, but we got along really well.”
Herbst said Huja would often come home with him to Long Island during school breaks, surprising at least one neighbor.
“We were outside once and there was this little kid from next door who ran in to his mother after seeing Huja, yelling: “There’s a genie outside, mommy!”
Herbst, who accompanied the Hujas to dinner and a play in Staunton to celebrate the mayor’s 70th birthday, said he reconnected with Huja when he arrived in Charlottesville in 1977.
“Huja is a very unusual guy, in that he’s got a real heart. And he really takes service very seriously,” Herbst said. “I can see that in his personal life. I can see that in his civic life.”
Becoming mayor, Herbst said, is a “great cap” to Huja’s career.
“I think it’s really good for him and I think it’s really great for Charlottesville too,” Herbst said. “Because he really does care. He’ll work his heart out for Charlottesville, there’s no doubt.”
Huja first started working for Charlottesville in 1973, when he was hired as the director of city planning. After retiring in 2004, he made his first run for council in 2007 as a Democrat, and he was re-elected to another four-year term on council last year.
During council meetings, it’s not uncommon to hear Huja say he has a personal interest in this or that piece of the Charlottesville cityscape, because he had a role in creating it. One of the first projects he was involved in as a city planner was the creation of the Downtown Mall, and his last big effort was improving the streetscape of Court Square.
Sitting in the living room of his sleekly designed home in Greenbrier, Huja said he places a premium on aesthetics.
“Everything I buy, if it’s something that’s going to be staying with me for a while, I want something that’s attractive and good quality design. Because I have to look at it every day,” Huja said. “So design is really crucial to me, and that’s one of the things I’d like to promote: quality design in our community. Because everybody wants to go to a pretty place; they don’t want to go to an ugly place.”
Huja, who played a role in jumpstarting the ArtInPlace project and the McGuffey Art Center, has always stressed the importance of the arts, which he dabbles in himself.
Huja has produced a compilation of his poetry and sketches called “Poems in Prose and Line,” which features titles such as “Measure of Man” and “Glimpses of Eternal Peace: A Mental Slideshow.” A sculpture of one his sketches, titled “Woman,” sits on a shelf in his home.
“When you think of great cities and great communities, you think of art,” Huja said. “Art is a very important part, in my mind, of quality of life.”
One way the city’s aesthetics could be improved, Huja said, is to make the city’s major corridors more dense.
“I do want to see growth in Charlottesville, but I want to see growth more in the corridors. I don’t want to build high-rises in the middle of single-family neighborhoods. It needs to be compatible,” Huja said. “When you think of cities, you need to think of it like a quilt: each piece must fit into the quilt.”
As mayor, Huja’s most visible role will be to preside over council meetings for the duration of his two-year term. He pointed to infrastructure improvements, balancing the city budget, affordable housing, job training and transit improvements as some of the important issues he and his fellow councilors will be working on in the months and years ahead.
The mayor has taken heat from some city activists for supporting the 50-year water supply plan and the construction of the city’s portion of the Meadow Creek Parkway, but he was the strongest performer in electoral politics last year, earning the most votes in both the Democratic primary and the general election.
Huja’s predecessor, Councilor Dave Norris, served as mayor for four years. Norris endorsed three candidates who ran against Huja in last year’s Democratic primary, but in an interview, he said Huja was the “logical” choice to be the next mayor.
“He’s been in town for several decades, so he’s got a lot of connections and knows a lot of the right people and can utilize that experience and those contacts to help him do his job and help the city,” Norris said. “… I think he’s well-liked on council and that helps. And obviously, he has a reservoir of support in the community, given the fact that he was the highest vote-getter both times he ran for election.”
Norris, who’s planning to launch a new non-profit initiative in the near future, said the main piece of advice he gave to Huja was to stress the importance of being accessible and visible.
“People expect to be able to contact their mayor. They expect to see the mayor around the community,” Norris said. “…He’s got a two-year window, and it flies by, so he’s got to figure out how to make the most of this experience.”