Indian American Community Turns a Rising Political Force Giving $3 Mn to 2020 Presidential CampaignsTop Stories

July 23, 2019 11:10
Indian American Community Turns a Rising Political Force Giving $3 Mn to 2020 Presidential Campaigns

(Image source from: Los Angeles Times)

Even though Indians make up merely 1 percent of the United States population, it has a growing political force. Indian Americans turned out to be the largest contributors to 2020 presidential campaigns with giving more than $3 million.

Indian Americans are largely split among three candidates who have ties with their community. On the Democratic side: Senator Kamala Harris of California, whose mother was born in India; Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who chose Hinduism as her religion while she was a teenager; and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

The trio has directed these affluent donors from coast to coast.

Kamala Harris’ presidential Bid

                        (Image source from: The Root)

At a recent fund-raiser, Harris spoke of her ties to her mother’s country of origin as she sought donations from its descendants.

“My grandfather, having been a freedom fighter in India and a very progressive person, put my mother on a plane, a transcontinental flight, which was unheard of in those days, 1959, to go and study at Berkeley,” Harris told about 100 people in the backyard of a Washington mansion.

The only major presidential candidate with Indian heritage, Harris has raised about $388,000 from the Indian American community for her 2020 presidential bid, more than any other Democrat in the race, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of revelation forms filed by the campaigns.

But the senator, who is also of Jamaican descent, is not a huge favorite of Democratic, Indian American donors: Gabbard was a close second with approximately $375,000.

                        (Image source from: Gulf News)

In recent years, Indian Americans have grown politically active, donating more to candidates and running for office.

According to a Times analysis of fund-raising reports released July 15, reflecting the community’s leftward tilt, two-thirds of the more than $3 million donated throughout the 2020 election cycle has gone to Democrats.

Indian Americans have also donated more than $1 million to committees backing President Donald Trump.

The incumbent has the benefit of being competent to accept six-figure checks into a joint fund-raising committee with the state Republican and national parties.

The Democratic candidates are constricted to donations of up to $2,800 for the primary and $2,800 for the general election.

Although Indian American voters with great strength trend Democratic, a vocal minority has embraced the president. They acknowledge his positions on the economy and fighting Islamist terrorism, an issue their country of origin has struggled with for decades.

“On foreign policy, on the protection of industry, on creating jobs ... he has delivered on practically everything he promised,” said Shalabh ‘Shalli’ Kumar, founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition.

The Times identified Indian descent contributors using fund-raising disclosures and a database of names compiled by Diane Lauderdale, a social scientist at the University of Chicago.

The list was derived from government surveys in which people provide their country of ancestry and last name. The method is used by top universities to carry on elections research. However, it cannot determine all Indian Americans, so the Times’ analysis in all likelihood represents an undercount.

Harris made headlines in India and the United States in 2016 when she was elected the first Indian American senator, but she has work to do among donors in the community, experts say.

“A fair number of Indian Americans are excited by her candidacy, but she’s still not tapping into that donor base nearly as much as she could,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a University of California, Riverside professor who studies Asian American politics.

Ramakrishnan and others note that no ethnic community is monolithic and that sharing one’s skin color, religion or language does not guarantee support.

But some in the Indian American community say Harris’ Indian descent is not as well known as it could be partly because the senator, who attended a historically black college and joined an African American sorority, has embraced her blackness in a way that overshadowed her South Asian heritage.

One instance they point to was during a debate in June when she confronted former Vice President Joe Biden over his past opposition to some forms of busing for school integration.

“After the episode in the debate, where she pointedly said, ‘I’m the only black person on the stage’ to Biden ... there were a number of people who said, ‘What happened to the other part of her?’” said Shekar Narasimhan, chairman of the AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC aimed at mobilizing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Narasimhan, who is not aligned with any candidate, said Harris had successfully raised money from Indian Americans, or Desis, during runs for attorney general of California and the Senate. But she had not been as much of a face at Indian American events until early this year, while other candidates have had a more consistent presence, he said.

“People think she got elected to Senate and she forgot about us,” he said.

Harris has spoken about how her upbringing included aspects from both of her parents’ cultures, but how her mother raised her and her sister as black girls because that was how they would be viewed by society.

“She was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women,” Harris wrote in her autobiography, ‘The Truths We Hold.’

Manan Trivedi, a physician who hosted Harris’ Washington fund-raiser with his wife, Surekha, said they were drawn by Harris’ Indian heritage and her being the child of immigrants: “We have two little girls, ages 5 and 9, and I want them to able to look up to the president and relate.”

But he said they decided to support Harris because they believe she is “whip-smart” and best positioned to defeat Trump.

“That was the No 1 criteria,” said Trivedi, 45.

Tulsi Gabbard’s Presidential Bid

                        (Image source from: New York Post)

Tulsi Gabbard virtually tied Harris in donations from Indian Americans through June 30, raising almost 10 percent of her total haul from individual donors from the community - the highest share in the field.

Gabbard is not well known nor Indian American, but she has long been a favorite of Desi donors because of her staunchly pro-India foreign policy and devout Hinduism.

She has practiced the religion since her teens and was the first Hindu elected to United States Congress. Gabbard is also aligned with controversial Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling, Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

“I’ve known her for a long time,” said Bharat Barai, a Chicago-area oncologist who is a registered independent. “Putting apart religion, she has served her country well at a young age. She’s a leader from Hawaii, and she served twice in Iraq, so she’s a veteran. I think she has good social ideas on how to work for the people.”

Barai said that if Gabbard is not the nominee, he could see supporting Biden or Harris. His three daughters favor California’s junior senator, but Barai noted that the former vice president has decades-long ties to the Indian community.

Biden has made slips - especially telling an Indian American man in 2008 while talking about the community’s growth in Delaware: “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.” But that moment is largely overshadowed by his efforts to strengthen the U.S.-India relationship, including fighting as a senator for a nuclear deal.

Biden, who joined the 2020 field in May, has raised about $174,000 from Indian Americans, a number expected to rise after fund-raisers early this week in California, which is the abode to the largest number of Desis in the nation.

One San Francisco Bay Area donor, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, said he donated to Harris’ earlier campaigns but is backing Biden.

“The Indian community sees him as one of our leaders,” he said, recalling Biden and President Barack Obama lighting oil lamps to celebrate Diwali, or the festival of lights, at the White House.

“Kamala, on the contrary, has taken another direction. That’s her personal choice, only to highlight her African American heritage and not even show interest in her Indian heritage.”

Booker has raised close to $249,000 from Indian American donors. New Jersey has a large population of Desis, and Booker has long maintained relationships with the community, showing up at festivals and supporting Indian American candidates.

“He’s very genuine. He talks about a unifying message,” said Sangeeta Doshi, a Booker donor and a Cherry Hill, New Jersey, councilwoman whom the senator endorsed. Harris supporters are confident that as the field winnows and if she continues to gain in polls, skeptical donors will coalesce behind her.

“People are moving to her side now,” said Ashok Bhatt, co-host of a June luncheon for Harris in San Francisco. “I’m going to put on more events for her to let people know we have confidence in a woman who can hold power, hold the White House, for the first time.”

By Sowmya Sangam

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