South-Asian Americans Discover Political Clout

Nikki Haley waves to supporters

Nikki Haley waves to supporters after winning the Republican primary for governor in South Carolina. Haley defeated Rep. Gresham Barrett in a runoff election. Chris Keane/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Keane/Getty Images

Commentator Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media.

It’s an only-in-America scene: An Indian-American candidate shaking hands with Chinese-American voters in a cavernous gymnasium. In the background, an older Chinese couple, in full tux and gown, sways to Tom Jones.

And it’s happening in Wichita, Kansas.

Raj Goyle, who grew up there, now wants to be its Congressman. He says that when people asked him how many Indian-Americans live in his district, he told them it was 10. "They said 10 percent, not bad. I said no, 10 people!"

Wichita. Detroit. The Sacramento suburbs. These are not places you’d expect to be political launching pads for Indian Americans.

Seven Indian-Americans Are Running In The Midterm Election

For Congress:

Surya Yalamanchili (D) in Ohio's 2nd District  (Opponent - Jean Schmidt)

Raj Goyle (D) in Kansas' 4th District (Opponent - Mike Pompeo)

Manan Trivedi (D) in Pennsylvania's 6th District (Opponent - Jim Gerlach)

Ami Bera (D) in California's 3rd District (Opponent - Dan Lungren)

Ravi Sangisetty (D) in Louisiana's 3rd District (Opponent - Jeff Landry)

Hansen Clarke (D) in Michigan's 13th District (Opponent - John Hauer)

For Governor:

Nikki Haley (R) in South Carolina (Opponent - Vincent Sheheen)

Ami Bera is a physician running for Congress from California’s 3rd district. He’s raised more money than his Republican opponent, which he said answered the viability question. "And certainly that got the press interested in this race."

There only been a handful of Indian-Americans elected to congress. The first was Dalip Singh Saund, back in 1956. Then, for almost 50 years, there was no one else until …Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, who was elected congressman, and then governor.

In this election, Nikki Haley is the Republican nominee for Governor of South Carolina. And six South Asian Americans are Democratic nominees for Congress.

Toby Chaudhuri, a Democratic political strategist, realized things had changed when he was in New Hampshire for the last presidential primaries. He recounted an Indian-American aunty who invited him over. "I went to her home expecting some chai and samosas," he said. "Instead, dozens of Indian Americans were debating over who they were going to vote for as a bloc in that Tuesday’s elections."

Now there are Indian American lobbyists, fund raisers, campaign consultants, and PACs. The Democrats have the Indian American Leadership Initiative. Ajay Kuntamukkala is a member of the Indian American Republican Council. He sees a real shift in how parties are treating Indian Americans. "They are taking them much more seriously," he says. "People say these guys have more to offer than medicine and technology."

The current candidates have great all-American resumes — high school football player, Iraq vet, doctor. But they still have those funny names, so they have to do the ethnicity balancing act.

Wichita candidate Raj Goyle salutes his hardworking immigrant parents, whom he said came from nothing — his mother is an obstetrician who Goyle said has delivered 6000 babies during her 30 years in the community.

But candidates must still be reassuringly American. Sacramento area candidate Ami Bera says "I think I have the best of both worlds — rooted in the values of family and community."

The trick for these candidates is to never let voters forget you are running to represent Sacramento, or Wichita … not Bangalore.

Raj Goyle does this by campaigning very hard on fighting outsourcing of Kansas jobs.  Ami Bera agrees, "we have to keep those jobs here because we have over 12 percent unemployment."

Candidates must also be cautious. If you go too far in the balancing act, Indian American supporters will think you’re ashamed of your mother’s curry. Not far enough, and your opponent quickly brands you as "the other," says Priya Murthy of SALT, South Asian Americans Leading Together.

She cited the case against Surya Yalamanchili. "His opponent made remarks questioning whether he could be elected because of his last name." Other candidates have faced similar challenges, she said. "In Raj Goyle’s case questions were raised regarding the fact that he’s not a Christian and even went so far as to call him a turban topper. And Nikki Haley received comments from another elected official who had called her raghead."

Sandip Roy

Sandip Roy is the host of New America Now on KALW in San Francisco. Bishan Samaddar/Courtesy of Sandip Roy hide caption

itoggle caption Bishan Samaddar/Courtesy of Sandip Roy

In short, the attacks imply that "you aren't really American, are you?" Although if the six South Asian Democrats running for congress, lose their races, it might be because they're Democrats, not because of their funny names.

I guess that's progress, but win or lose, Ami Bera knows he’s paving the way for the next wave of Indian American candidates: "That’s a privilege to be in a position to inspire a generation. They should dream they can be congressmen. They should dream they can be senators."

And perhaps their names won’t stand in the way.

Unless you're the Indian American Republican Council's Ajay Kuntamukkala. Hmm. Would that name work for a candidate?

"Probably not" says Kuntamukkala. "I think there are some Indian names easier than mine. My last name is difficult by Indian standards."

But Sandip Roy – that could work.

This story was produced in association with the Center for Asian American Media.

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