South-Asian Americans Discover Political Clout There are a record number of candidates of South Asian descent running for prominent offices across the country. Most notably is Nikki Haley for governor of South Carolina, and six candidates are running for congressional seats. Commentator Sandip Roy looks at the different ways some of these candidates are expressing their ethnicity.
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South-Asian Americans Discover Political Clout

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South-Asian Americans Discover Political Clout

South-Asian Americans Discover Political Clout

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This year there are more South Asian candidates campaigning for political office in the U.S. than ever before. Take Nikki Haley, for example. She's running for governor in South Carolina. There are also six South Asian candidates for Congress. Commentator Sandip Roy explores the new political clout of Indian-Americans.

SANDIP ROY: Its 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, sway to Tom Jones. And its happening in Wichita, Kansas. Raj Goyle grew up there and now wants to be its Congressman.

Dr. RAJ GOYLE (Democratic Congressional Candidate, Kansas): People asked me, how many Indian-Americans are in your district, and I said 10. And somebody said, 10 percent, that's not bad. I said, no, 10 people.

ROY: Wichita, Detroit, the Sacramento suburbs - these are not places youd expect to be political launching pads for Indian-Americans. Like Ami Bera, a physician running for Congress from Californias Third District. Hes raised more money than his Republican opponent.

Dr. AMI BERA (Democratic Congressional Candidate, California): That answered the viability question. And certainly that got the press interested in this race. Who is this guy?

ROY: The first Indian-American elected to Congress was Dalip Singh Saund, way back in 1956. Then, for almost 50 years, no one else - until...

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): Today we begin a new chapter in the history of Louisiana.

ROY: Bobby Jindal - congressman, 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 primary.

Mr. TOBY CHAUDHURI (Democratic Political Strategist): An Indian American aunty actually invited me over. I went to her home expecting to have some chai and samosa. Instead, there were dozens of Indian Americans debating about who they were going to vote for as a bloc in that Tuesday's elections.

ROY: Now there are Indian American lobbyists, fundraisers, campaign consultants and PACs. The Democrats have the Indian American Leadership Initiative.

Ajay Kuntamukkala is a member of the Indian American Republican Council.

Mr. AJAY KUNTAMUKKALA (Indian American Republican Council): There's a real shift to having - how the parties are treating Indian Americans, taking them much more seriously. People say, look. These guys have more to offer than medicine and technology.

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

Raj Goyle salutes his hardworking immigrant parents. His mother is an obstetrician.

State Representative RAJ GOYLE (Democrat, Kansas): She's delivered 6,000 babies in this community over 30 years, and my parents came from nothing and made it work...

ROY: But still reassuringly American.

Ami Bera.

Dr. BERA: I think that I have the best of both worlds rooted in the values of family, of community.

ROY: And never let them forget you are running to represent Sacramento, or Wichita, not Bangalore.

Mr. GOYLE: I am campaigning very hard on fighting outsourcing of Kansas jobs, as far as...

Dr. BERA: We've got to keep those jobs here, because we have over 12 percent unemployment rate. We've got to...

ROY: 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 SAALT, South Asian Americans Leading Together.

Ms. PRIYA MURTHY (Policy Director, SAALT): There was the case against Surya Yalamanchili: His opponent made remarks questioning whether he could be elected because of his last name. In Raj Goyle's case, questions were made regarding the fact that he is not 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 a raghead.

ROY: In short: You aren't really American, are you? Though 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.

Mr. BERA: That's a privilege to be in a position to inspire a generation. They should dream that they can be congressmen. They should dream that they can be senators.

ROY: 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?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KUNTAMUKKALA: It probably would not. I think there are some Indian names that are easier than mine. I think my last name is difficult by Indian standards.

ROY: But Sandip Roy - that could work.

KELLY: That is commentator Sandip Roy. He's an editor with New America Media.

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