Monday, February 19, 2018

Verma, longtime Longview advocate for underdogs, moving north

By Glenn Evans
Sept. 13, 2017 at 12:04 a.m.
Updated Sept. 13, 2017 at 3:39 p.m.

Vik Verma, center, visits with friends  Tuesday at his going-away party at Bootleggers Grill. Verma leaves East Texas on Thursday for a civil engineering job in Merrill, Wisconsin, but he'll be taking lessons from two decades of advocacy for minority causes to his new home.

Vik Verma knows what it's like to be the underdog, and he said Tuesday that he'll take the lessons from two decades of advocacy for minority causes to a new home in Wisconsin.

A grass-roots community organizer, NAACP executive committee member, co-founder of the PFLAG Pride Festival, Democratic precinct chairman and ferocious defender of the Affordable Care Act, known as "Obamacare," Verma leaves East Texas on Thursday for a civil engineering job in Merrill, Wisconsin.

The regional director of Organizing for Action-East Texas, the local branch of the movement that sprung from Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, Verma reflected Tuesday on fighting against the odds in red Northeast Texas.

"It's challenging, because you know you're not in the majority," he said. "At the same time, the challenge produces a lot of opportunities. It places additional emphasis and importance on the fact you need to be knowledgeable about the issues that you advocate for and (that you) have the passion to fight.

"It's easy to do things when you are in the majority; it's easy to do things when you have the wind at your back. The test is when you don't have the wind at your back. ... It's far easier to keep going when you know why you're going. And we know it is because we want to help people, we want to serve people."

Verma, 45, is a Kansas native who arrived in Longview in 1997 after a youth spent in the Plains and West Coast before heading to Texas A&M University.

His local resume includes the following posts:

  • A decade on the executive committee of the local NAACP;

  • Past president (2014-16) of PFLAG Longview;

  • Past president (2005) Deep East Texas A&M Club;

  • Past president (2002-03 and 2009-10) and state vice president (2011-12) American Society of Civil Engineers-Northeast Texas Branch.

  • Pct. 16 chairman of the Democratic Party of Gregg County;

  • 2015 chairman, Long-view Unity and Diversity Committee.

  • Regional lead of Organizing for Action-East Texas;

  • Local director SIGNS (Safe and Inviting, Green Neighborhoods) Initiative.

"Vik has a passion for social justice and the courage of his convictions to stand up for what he believes is just," longtime ally Steve Crane said. "He is loved and respected, because we know his heart and his passion."

Verma's work with SIGNS included a glass recycling drive that grew from two volunteer-run collection sites to at least eight now operated by the city of Longview.

"Our goal was to show that there was a need," he said.

A "straight ally" of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, Verma took on the presidency of PFLAG and watched attendance at the its annual Pride Festival in downtown Longview grow from about 200 in 2014 to more than 1,000 this past June.

"What the Pride Festival did was it allowed the (LGBT) community to express itself locally," he said. "It showed the community that the LGBT community is your brothers and sisters — they're members of your community — and that they exist. That helped in the acceptance of the community here, and I think that's really important work."

Verma's work with both SIGNS and NAACP elevated the visibility of South Longview, neighborhoods that once were emblematic of a growing city but are now struggling against decades of neglect.

"I know in Longview there's always a discussion of whether South Longview, with its African-American population, is forgotten," Verma said. "I think there's been a lot of attention paid. I think there's more awareness brought to that issue. There's more of an awareness in the public, and there's more awareness of the initiatives that the city has taken, slowly, to initiate progress.

"And that's given me hope."

This year began with Verma, through Organizing for Action, seemingly the last man standing in defense of Obama's Affordable Care Act. He staged a series of rallies, urging people to contact their congressional representatives. He called out U.S. Rep Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, for refusing to hold town hall meetings.

"When Donald Trump was elected, it basically was like, 'Obamacare is gone,' " he recalled. "Everybody said it. And I took the attitude of, OK, but they have to come up with something better. During the whole repeal effort, Americans across the country, many with personal stories, said, 'No. We're going to bother our senators.' What that says is, if you believe in what you are doing and believe in fighting for people and in fighting for yourself ... then you're probably going to win — and should win."

What he didn't foresee, when he began defending the health care reform he'd championed since its 2009 debates, was that he would become one if its success stories. The loss of a job coincided with an automobile accident last winter that racked up $450,000 in medical bills, but his health insurance through the Obamacare exchanges met all but $3,500.

Verma found himself on multiple occasions knocking on the door of one of the county's Republican mayors or GOP Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt. He said he learned something in those offices, too.

"What I have found is, obviously we will have political differences, but what we share in common — myself and these elected officials — is we care about our community, and we care about trying to move these things forward," he said. "Whatever our political differences are, and they can be significant, there is a willingness to see what we can do together and a willingness to listen. And as long as those avenues are open, then there's always a chances of progress."

State Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, got to know Verma's knock as mayor of Longview.

"Although our politics were often different, I always knew Vik's heart was good," Dean said. "He is passionate about issues he believes in."

Verma said his 20 years in Gregg County, home for more time than anywhere he's lived, will draw him back to the Piney Woods.

"East Texas — specifically Longview and Kilgore — will always be my home regardless of where I physically live," he said. "I've met the most wonderful people who, in many cases, were on the opposite side of the fence, politically.

"This town took care of me, Longview, in so many ways in a very bad situation. When I couldn't drive, I had friends who gave me rides."

A friend, Kathy Loy, even opened her home to Verma for four months after his extended hospital stay.

"I love the people here and know I will always be in touch," he said, adding he's keeping his (903) cellphone number.

He also intends to stay politically active in intriguing Lincoln County, Wisconsin, which went for Obama by one point in 2012 but landslided for Trump by 20 points four years later.

"Even in East Texas, we haven't had those kind of swings," he said. "In a nutshell, these are the counties that made (Trump) president."

One thing he's not likely to see in the Badger State — very many fellow Aggies.

"It'll probably be a lot of badgers," he said. "My plan is to work with the same mindset I've always had, which is to try to work on it mindfully, and work on things that help people in the community."



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