ROCKVILLE, Maryland -- On a recent October evening, Rajeev Sharma told President Barack Obama and 50 other guests how his late father -- who left behind a wealthy family in India to study in Missouri -- took a job mucking out cow barns during graduate school in the 1960s, and that his father-in-law arrived in this country a decade later with $8 in his pocket.
"They worked hard, became Americans, and now they're meeting the leader of the free world at the home of their children," an emotional Sharma said to Obama, as his wife, Seema, her parents and his widowed mother looked on. By evening's end the hosts, who own a high-tech firm here and a sustainable energy company in India, had helped raise a cool $400,000 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
A week earlier 29-year-old State Rep. Jay Goyal of Ohio flew to Washington to be honored as one of Time magazine's "40 Under 40"
rising political leaders. Also on that list were Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, 39, of Louisiana and GOP State Rep. Nikki Haley, 38, who could well become South Carolina's first South Asian and first female governor. What these three lawmakers have in common, in addition to youth, are Indian immigrant parents. A fourth honoree, Huma Abedin, 34, longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, grew up in Saudi Arabia as the daughter of an Indian father and Pakistani mother..
Now do the math: 10 percent of Time's young superstars are from an ethnic group that makes up less than one percent of the U.S. population, or about 2.7 million people. Yet Indian-Americans are the most educated, most affluent and among the most entrepreneurial of all groups in this country, according to the U.S. India Political Action Committee.
Their median household income is $69,470, nearly twice the $38,885 of all U.S. families; close to two thirds of those over 25 have at least a bachelor's degree and almost 58 percent of all Indian-Americans in the work force are professionals and managers.
"Like any immigrant community, South Asians [Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans] had survival as their first priority, which translated as 'I want to make sure my child is getting to Harvard,'" explained Shefali Razdan Duggal, 39, an Indian-born Democratic activist in San Francisco who has worked with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Barbara Boxer. "The next generation, my generation, has the luxury to be able to pursue and participate in politics."
Her generation is also flexing its political muscle in both parties as never before, said Bhavna Pandit, 30, who heads a Democratic political consulting firm bearing her name in Washington. "Indian-American clout has grown a lot in the last five to seven years, and it took people running for office to get there. Two years ago in Minnesota, Ashwin Madia ran the first Congressional campaign I can think of that was a very professional, organized full machine with consultant support from the Democratic National Committee. On the Republican side, when Bobby Jindal first ran for governor in 2003, he had a statewide campaign, a big national campaign."
This year, a significant number of South Asians are seeking local, state and national office, including Haley. (Jindal, whose term ends in 2011, has been mentioned as a possible White House contende
r in 2012). Seven Democrats have launched their first U.S. House races, most in areas with tiny Indian-American populations.
Only one is considered a shoo-in: State Sen. Hansen Clarke,
53, of Michigan, is a Detroit native and the son of a Bangladeshi-American father and an African-American mother. In August, he knocked off seven-term U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, mother of Kwame Kilpatrick, the disgraced Detroit mayor who is now in prison for corruption. Clarke's primary win is tantamount to November victory in this majority Democratic and African-American district.
Five Indian-American House contenders face uphill odds: Amerish "Ami" Bera, 45, a physican and medical school administrator whose Callfornia district includes Sacramento; lawyer and State Rep. Raj Goyle, 35, of Wichita, Kansas; attorney Ravi Sangisetty, 28, of Houma, Louisiana, whose rural district takes in 13 southeastern parishes; Manan Trevidi, 36, a doctor and Iraq war veteran in suburban Philadelphia; and Surya Yalamanchili, 28, a Procter & Gamble marketing executive in eastern Cincinnati. Hedge fund lawyer Reshma Saujani
, trounced in her September primary bid to unseat nine-term Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, vows to run again in 2012.
Having worked on the White House campaigns of Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Obama, Saujani credited the current president with inspiring many Indian-Americans to get involved. "My name is Reshma Saujani," she said. "When you get to the ballot box, you don't know if that's a boy or a girl, a Musilim or a Hindu." Someone named Barack Hussein Obama "made a lot of us feel like we could run."
Like other South-Asian candidates, Saujani's earliest financial support came from her own community, what she called "the aunties network" of her immigrant parents' generation, and from young voters who sent checks with notes saying "I'm so proud that someone is running who looks like me." Capitol Hill's first Indian-American lawmaker was three-term Rep. Dalip Singh Saund of California, who won back in 1956. Jindal followed nearly a half-century later in 2004, after his first failed run for governor. He left office in 2007 and went on to win the state's top job.
"For me the timing was right," Trivedi told Poliics Daily. "I am a primary care doctor. I know what it really means to go to war. And it's a natural evolution of our community. We always talked about U.S. and Indian politics at the dinner table. I think my father would have liked to run but he was a short Indian working class guy with an accent. I was always taught public service was honorable. This political glass ceiling? We are chipping away at it."
Unlike other ethnic groups whose members worked their way up the political ladder through grass-roots organizing, many Indian-Americans got started in politics as fundraisers, said Madhulika Khandelwal, who runs the Asian/American Center at Queens College in New York. Sharma said his activism began as a contributor and only recently, as he prospered, did he
begin to raise large sums from fellow Democrats. Saujani was a fundraiser for presidential candidates before deciding to run for the House.
Like other ethnic groups, Indian-Americans have few qualms about crossing party lines -- and ideological divides -- to support their own. Paul Brountas fondly recalls the conservative Republican Greek-Americans who rallied behind Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts when the liberal Democrat ran for president in 1988. "They supported him handsomely because he was a person who would enhance the image of Greek-Americans, this grandson of Greek immigrants. Maybe they didn't agree with all of his policies but they were proud that he was intelligent, that he had done well as governor." Unfortunately for all those Hellenic donors, Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush, who carried 40 states.
Today, there are several political action committees supporting Indian-American candidates: The eight-year-old, bipartisan USINPAC matches donors and office-seekers (including non-Indians who back the PAC's India-centric issues). Democrats founded the Indian American Leadership Initiative PAC to bankroll party candidates at every level. "Bobby Jindal. Bobby Jindal. Bobby Jindal. He's not the only Indian-American elected official," declares one IALI Website.
The Republican Indian Committee PAC
was created in January to help local, state and national office seekers. "Now is an opportune time to be involved," said Baltimore lawyer and co-founder Dilip Paliath
. "A lot of folks we've been talking to have been conservatives and they haven't been hurt by the economy. So they still have disposable income that they are willing to put into the political process."
For years, most Indian-Americans were Democrats, said Sharma. "I think the majority still are, but it's an economic thing," he said. "A lot of my friends who are CEOs of their own corporations have become Republicans. The 'rank and file' Indians, if you will, are Democrats. It's historical. For a long time,Democrats were seen as a lot more pro-India. The Republicans with George W. Bush and his father turned that on its head."
Kishan Putta, 36, is one of those Indian-American Republicans. A veteran of Sen. John McCain's 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns who now focuses on health care reform in the insurance industry, he cut his political teeth at the Senate Republican Policy Committee. "What I was waiting for after '08 was for our community to realize that if government is not business-friendly enough, then our community can be stymied."
But he has given money to candidates from both sides of the aisle, including Saujani. "Of course I want to support them," he said. "They are smart and they would make good leaders. But I don't do this blindly. Our community is a little more savvy than that." Likewise, Democratic consultant Pandit helped Jindal with national outreach in his first run for governor, and while Duggal gave him money during his first House race, she recently declined on partisan grounds to send a check to Nikki Haley.
Talk of Jindal and Haley among Indian-Americans can lead to the delicate subject of names and religions. The Louisiana governor was born Piyush Subhas Chandra Amrit Jindal, but adopted the nickname "Bobby"
as a child from his favorite "Brady Bunch" sitcom character. Although raised in a Hindu home, he converted to Christianity in high school and was later baptized a Catholic.
Nikki Haley, born Nimrata Randhawa in South Carolina to Punjabi immigrants, has long used the common Indian nickname. She was raised in her parents' Sikh faith but converted
before her 1997 marriage to Michael Haley, a Methodist.
The couple had two ceremonies, one Sikh, one Christian. But over the years, as she got involved in politics, her own descriptions of her faith changed
, from emphasis in 2004 on her Sikh heritage and her husband's Methodist beliefs to her latest 2010 profession of a deep connection to Christ that did not include mention of her Sikh upbringing.
Democratic consultant Pandit rules out electoral calculus in both Jindal's and Haley's religious conversions, saying, "I think it's truly what they believe, and not for politics."
But on the subject of names, she notes that none of this year's Democratic Congressional hopefuls have changed theirs. Amerish Bera in California, however, goes by the nickname Ami, and Ohio's Surya Yalamanchili is often called "Chili."
A bigger worry is what many South Asians see as racism, whether overt or subtle. In June, South Carolina Republican State Sen. Jake Knotts called Haley a rag-head
on an Internet talk show during her tough four-way primary. Knotts, who favored a Haley rival, later apologized, saying the remark, also aimed at Obama, was meant in jest.
Two years ago, when lawyer Ashwin Madia was in a tight Congressional race in Minnesota, the National Republican Campaign Committee a ran a TV ad
that his backers alleged darkened his complexion in a "disgusting" dirty trick. The NRCC called those claims "profoundly ridiculous and false."
But the incident that went viral involved the 2006 Senate campaign of former Gov. George Allen of Virginia, who twice used the word "macaca" to call out a Democrat videotaping his rallies for opponent Jim Webb. Macaca is a French term for dark-skinned people in the North African colonies. Allen, whose French mother grew up in Morocco, also told Virginia-born S.R. Sidarth "welcome to America." The University of Virginia student born in the state promptly posted the video
on YouTube. Three months later, Webb narrowly defeated Allen.
Amid all the electoral jibes and missteps, victories and defeats, have come high-level appointments, especially in the Obama administration. They range from Rajiv Shah, USAID administrator, and Vivek Kundra, federal chief information officer, to Richard Verma, assistant secretary of state, and Kalpen Modi, better known as actor Kal Penn of "Harold and Kumar" movie fame, who worked in the White House Office of Public Liaison until heading back to Hollywood last spring.
There is even a generational duo. Suresh Kumar is an assistant secretary of commerce who heads the agency's foreign and commercial service while his son, Aditya "Adi" Kumar is a special assistant to Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff, and a director of special projects. "We are the only father-son appointees in this administration," the proud papa told me recently.
"That is a testament to our growing influence," said Pandit. "All these people are in high policy positions and they have proven themselves."