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Anticipating Madam President

By Uttara Choudhury Email By Uttara Choudhury
January 2017
Anticipating Madam President

We did not get Madam President, but these South Asian women, rising stars in the political universe, offer a glimmer of hope and pushback to Trumpism.

The world may have been anticipating Madam President, but Republican Donald J. Trump clinched the presidency, propelled by male white voters who responded to his drumbeat to “Make America Great Again.” Still, the future is female. As Democrats look ahead to 2020, a number of the names being tossed around for potential presidential candidates are women, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and newly elected California Senator Kamala Devi Harris. Additionally, there’s a fresh wave of Indian-American women politicians taking on new roles in government beginning in January.

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U.S. Senator Kamala Harris.

In the Spotlight
Kamala Harris, the 52-year-old daughter of Indian doctor Shyamala Gopalan and Jamaican American father, Stanford University economics professor Donald Harris, is only the second black woman to serve in the Senate and the first Indian-American U.S. Senator ever. The popular two-term attorney general of California won’t officially start her new role on Capitol Hill till January, but she’s already vowed to take on Trump when it comes to immigration reform.

Harris struck a defiant tone during her first public appearance on November 10 since her landslide Senate win over Representative Loretta Sanchez, purposely holding the event with immigrants and immigrant rights activists at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

“Today we are rededicating ourselves to fighting for the best of who we are. And there are a lot of people, as a result of this election, that are feeling dispirited at best,” said Harris. “Part of what we have to say is that you are not alone, you matter, and we’ve got your back.”

#NotMyPresident was trending on Twitter even before Republican Donald Trump was officially declared the victor. More than half the country’s voters—Hillary Clinton won the popular vote—were left reeling. There’s no question that Trump’s victory has brought the bigots out of the woodwork. The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which focuses on civil rights, documented 700 incidents of hate in just the week following the election (Nov 9-16). Trump says he loves “Hindu,” but the ground reality is that the 4 million Indian-American community, representing around 1.25 percent of the US population, is among the most vulnerable groups in Trump’s America.

Of the 700 instances of hate documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 206 were anti-immigrant, 151 were anti-Black, 80 were anti-LGBT, 60 involved ‘swastika vandalism,’ 51 were anti-Muslim, and 36 were anti-woman. The center also found 27 anti-Trump hate incidents.

“This issue of how we are treating our immigrants, and in particular our undocumented immigrants, is one of the most critical issues facing our country,” Harris said. “We are not going to be achieving who we say we are as a country if we attack our community members, our neighbors, our friends, and our colleagues.”

Harris said, “I think it’s absolutely unrealistic that we’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Harris’s appeal is similar in many ways to Obama’s. “She has a compelling life story and trails innovative ideas the way some women do perfume,” noted the Los Angeles Times.

Like her friend Obama, Harris is a product of today’s multi-racial, mobile America. Harris’s parents separated when she was five. Harris and her younger sister Maya, also a lawyer, were raised by their Indian mother, a successful oncologist, who moved to America in the 1960s to study medicine. Harris was married in an Indian and Jewish ceremony in 2014 to Douglas Emhoff, who is a partner at law firm Venable LLP’s Los Angeles office.

A brilliant prosecutor, Kamala Harris became San Francisco’s first female district attorney in 2003. Her biracial background made her the state’s first black—and nation’s first Indian-American—district attorney. She has now been the attorney general in California for more than five years. Harris has taken on big oil companies violating hazardous waste laws, and sued big banks like Bank of America, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and won $20 billion for California homeowners through investigations into mortgage-backed securities.

A brilliant prosecutor, Harris became San Francisco’s first female district attorney in 2003. Her biracial background made her the state’s first black—and nation’s first Indian-American—district attorney. She has now been the attorney general in California for more than five years.

“Her ‘smart on crime’ approach as district attorney has produced incredible results in San Francisco, resulting in the highest conviction rates in nearly 15 years while also striving to prevent crime before it happens,” noted the Los Angeles Times.

Most significantly, Harris has taken on big oil companies violating hazardous waste laws, and sued big banks like Bank of America, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and won $20 billion for California homeowners through investigations into mortgagebacked securities.

“As the state’s top cop, Harris has shown that she is willing to fight against the powerful in support of the little guy. When other states reached a settlement with banks accused of improper mortgage foreclosures, Harris balked at what she saw as an unsatisfactory deal. She ultimately won greater debt reduction for homeowners and a larger award for damages,” pointed out the Los Angeles Times.

The newspaper noted that Harris also fought for a Homeowner Bill of Rights to ensure fair lending and borrowing practices, against strong opposition by banks.

“The extreme anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and racist rhetoric in this election was deeply disturbing to Asian American voters, who wanted to support candidates who shared their values and hope for America,” said Margaret Fung, executive director of AALDEF, a New York-based national organization founded in 1974 that protects the civil rights of Asian Americans.

Harris had no problem scoring the Asian American vote in her landslide Senate victory as she represents a vision for an America that is inclusive and pro-immigrant, not dark and divisive. She has a record of championing the interests of minorities and the little guy. The Huffington Post reported that “Latino voters, who make up about one-third of California’s electorate, gradually shifted from supporting Sanchez to supporting Harris.” Not surprisingly, both voters and the Democrat Party now have great expectations from Harris.

Presidential Material
After Hillary Clinton’s stunning upset, political commentators and the U.S. media have started casting their net wide to find a logical heir. Three political power players speaking on a panel about the 2016 presidential election at the Fortune “Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit” named Harris as the Democratic Party’s best hope for the 2020 presidential race. The Washington Post also identified Harris as a potential presidential candidate. The paper’s columnist Chris Cillizza wrote that Harris is already regarded as national-candidate material: “It is not hard to see why. She is the first African American woman elected to the Senate since Carol Moseley Braun in 1992. Harris also represents the largest and most Democratic state in the country, a huge financial launch pad to a presidential bid.” Harris raised more than $13 million for her Senate candidacy by mid-October.

“Her law-and-order background—she was elected and reelected attorney general in California—also will appeal to many Democrats. Whether Harris wants to—or will be ready to run for national office so soon after being elected to the Senate—remains to be seen,” added the Post.

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Governor Nikki Haley.

Building Bridges
Despite the long, vicious campaign which has brought scant peace to a divided nation, there are a few glimmers of hope. Trump sought to send a positive signal to critics by picking Republican South Carolina governor Nikki Randhawa Haley—a second-generation Indian-American who had initially opposed his presidential bid—to be the next United States ambassador to the United Nations.

Haley, 44, is seen as a reassuring pick as she would bring badly needed diversity to Trump’s cabinet at a critical point. This reassurance is key at a time when there has been a marked increase in the incidence of hate speech and crimes after Trump’s shock victory.

“Nikki Haley is of Indian origin, a woman, and was a Trump critic. I would say he has killed three birds with one Haley stone,” quipped Scarsdale-based writer Preeti Singh.

“In making Haley a member of his cabinet, Trump is showing a willingness to go outside his comfort zone,” said political expert William Mosley.

“Governor Haley has a proven track record of bringing people together regardless of background or party affiliation to move critical policies forward for the betterment of her state and our country,” Trump said in a statement. “She will be a great leader representing us on the world stage.”

Accepting the offer, Haley said, “When the president believes you have a major contribution to make to the welfare of our nation, and to our nation’s standing in the world, that is a calling that is important to heed.”

Battling Racism
This out-of-the-box cabinet pick is being seen as a push back against the sort of crass racism that has popped out of the woodwork after Trump’s victory. It sends a positive signal to other countries and America’s allies.

“Haley, who is the the daughter of Indian immigrants, has already carved out a legacy for herself, serving as her home state’s first female and first minority governor,” noted CNN.

Once considered as a potential vice-presidential nominee, Haley had met Trump in Trump Towers in New York on November 17, fuelling speculation that she could be his pick for a cabinet position. Predictably, this spawned vicious racist insults. Ann Coulter, an acerbic conservative commentator and author of Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole, took to Twitter to hurl racist insults at Haley when she saw media reports suggesting Haley was in the running for Secretary of State.

“If Trump wants an Indian Sec of State, how about Tonto?” Coulter tweeted to her over one million followers. Tonto is a fictional character, an ugly caricature of a grammar-challenged Native American, who was the loyal sidekick to the Texas Ranger who fought outlaws in the American Old West.

Shockingly, Coulter earlier told Fox News that Haley was a “bimbo” and Trump should deport Haley while vetting immigrants. “She is a woman who was accidentally elected because she’s pretty and isn’t very bright,” Coulter said during a Fox News radio show where a shocked host John Gibson called out Coulter’s racist and sexist comments.

On the other hand, Republican representative for South Carolina Mark Sanford came out in vocal support of Haley, whom he described as a “very capable governor.” The general consensus is that Haley can reach out to a broader world audience with her diverse background, experience, and strong negotiating skills.

“I don’t think the cabinet needs to look like a Benetton commercial, but I think that having folks of different ethnic backgrounds matters, particularly in that role, given we’re 5 percent of the world’s population and most of the world doesn’t look like us,” Sanford told MSNBC. “She’s of Indian descent. I think that that would really matter.”

Complicated Tie with Trump
During this election cycle, Haley was critical of Trump and endorsed his former presidential rival, Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Haley criticized Trump’s arrogance and warned that America needed to send someone up to the White House who was going to be “calm and cool-tempered,” who wouldn’t jeopardize American diplomacy.

“If you want to talk about tackling illegal immigration, then let’s talk about it, but we don’t need to attack so many millions of people who came here...and did it the right way, like my parents,” said Haley while rebuking Trump’s stance on immigration.

“Republicans need to remember that the fabric of America came from these legal immigrants,” she added.

Haley responded admirably and strongly to the police killing in her state of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man. In a first for South Carolina, Haley championed legislation to put cameras on police officers statewide.

Haley also drew international attention for speaking out against the Confederate battle flag in the aftermath of the 2015 massacre at a black church in Charleston. Citing the rapid move to prosecute Walter Scott’s killer and her successful effort to remove the Confederate flag, she asked for better behavior from her fellow Republicans. “The problem for our party is that our approach often appears cold and unwelcoming to minorities,” said Haley. “That’s shameful and that has to change...it’s on us to communicate our positions in ways that wipe away the clutter of prejudices.”

“I think Americans feel encouraged that Trump has someone as thinking and compassionate as Nikki Haley in his inner circle,” said political commentator Bob McNabb.

In October, Haley became a late endorser of Trump saying she would vote for him even though she was “not a fan.” “This is no longer a choice for me on personalities because I’m not a fan of either one,” she said at a news conference while referring to Trump and Hillary Clinton.

“What it is about is policy,” Haley said. “So when I look at all of those, I come back to say that the best person based on the policies, and dealing with things like Obamacare, still is Donald Trump.”

Has Trump placed Haley in a post he considers marginal? Or will Haley, along with a still-to-be-named Secretary of State, be able to moderate the radical views of other Trump aides? Trump sent alarm bells ringing by naming far right firebrand Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist and senior counsel. Bannon is the former head of highly inflammatory Breitbart News which is routinely accused of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism.

Currently, there is widespread hope that Haley will raise her voice on behalf of America’s most vulnerable people.

“Despite the unknowns, many diplomats, scholars, and rights advocates who have been anxiously awaiting Mr. Trump’s choices were relieved at the announcement. They saw in Ms. Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, someone unafraid to express her beliefs even if they differ from Mr. Trump’s,” observed the New York Times.

Shooting Star
A veritable star in the Republican Party, Haley who is in her second and final term as Governor of South Carolina, was elected in 2010 as the youngest governor in the United States. She created history as the first female and Indian-American Governor of South Carolina.

In her evocative memoir, Can’t Is Not an Option, Haley has written about having to tough it out while growing up Indian in a small conservative white town in South Carolina.

“We were the first Indian family ever to live in Bamberg, in a time and place that only knew black and white, and we didn’t fit either category. We weren’t dark enough to be black or pale enough to be white, we were brown. That difference, our difference, was an inescapable fact,” Haley, 40, writes in her 245-page autobiography.

“We coped the only way we know how, we went into survival mode. We clung to one another tightly. We worked hard. We were respectful to our neighbors. We tried to fit in.”

It speaks volumes for the Indian-American super-achiever that her small, conservative, monochromatic town has come round since her childhood in the 1970s and now boasts a billboard that proclaims “Proud Home of Nikki Haley.”

A daughter of Sikh parents who emigrated from India and built a successful clothing company, the male members of Haley’s family wear turbans while her mother Raj Randhawa often wears saris.

Haley’s mother comes across as a remarkable person in her book. She started a business in their home and, through frugality, will, and creativity, built it into a multi-million-dollar clothing enterprise. Haley worked for her mother at one stage.

Haley acknowledged her Indian roots while taking her oath of office. Unlike Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Haley has gone out of her way to have strong ties with India. Soon after she was elected, Haley invited India’s then ambassador to Washington, Nirupama Rao, on a three-day visit to Charleston to sit down with members of the State Ports Authority to discuss the potential for doing business with Indian companies. Air India also got the first of four Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft from Haley’s state.

“The fact that she (Haley) is the daughter of Indian immigrants and she has been proud to talk about it and celebrate it has endeared her very much to us in India,” Rao had commented during her three-day visit to Charleston. In 2014, Haley won re-election with the largest number of votes for a South Carolina gubernatorial candidate in over two decades.

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U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal.

Social Justice Warrior
Seattle Democrat Pramila Jayapal, 52, defeated Brady Walkinshaw on November 8 in Washington’s super-liberal 7th Congressional District to win the seat occupied for 28 years by retiring U.S. Representative Jim McDermott, a great friend of India and one of the founders of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. She hit a historic milestone on November 6 by becoming the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress.

Jayapal was born in Chennai, India and raised in Indonesia and Singapore. In 1982, she came to the United States to study at Georgetown University and followed it up with an an MBA from Northwestern University.

An immigrant-rights activist, Jayapal founded the OneAmerica civil rights group, an achievement cited by former Washington governor Gary Locke in endorsing her. She was also championed by progressive and feminist groups such as Emily’s List and MoveOn.org. Notably, Jayapal also scored an endorsement from Bernie Sanders who raised money for her and made a get-out-the-vote appearance for her. Like her mentor Sanders, Jayapal completely dominated the youth vote.

While acknowledging that a “huge chasm divides our nation right now,” Jayapal, a fiery orator, has pledged to battle the bigotry and dark forces unleashed by the president-elect’s divisive campaign.

“We will have to defend core American values from withering and brutal attack,” Jayapal told supporters, many of them in their 20s, who packed Optimism Brewing in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. “We will have to fight for social justice like never before, and we will have to fight to protect our basic rights and freedoms as citizens.”

The Seattle Democrat has promised voters she will be a “bold voice” for progressive causes in Washington. The issues close to her heart include a push for a nationwide $15-an-hour minimum wage. It is well known that Jayapal served on the Mayoral Advisory Committee that finally negotiated Seattle’s $15 minimum wage.

Jayapal has also promised to push for a ban on assault weapons. The gun control issue is deeply divisive and there have been no major restrictions passed since 1994, when Congress under former president Bill Clinton imposed a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. That ban expired after 10 years in 2004 under President George W. Bush. It was brave of Jayapal to take a principled stand on assault weapons, as gun control is a lightning-rod issue among American voters, and even Democrats are scared it can injure them. Democrat Al Gore famously lost his home state of Tennessee in 2000—the first time an American presidential candidate has failed to win his own state since 1972—over guns and abortion rights.

In 2013, the White House recognized Jaypal, who started “One America” shortly after the 9/11 attacks, as a “Champion of Change.”

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Swati Dandekar, U.S. Executive Director
of the Asian Development Bank.

Branching Out
Thoughtful and pragmatic, Indian American politician Swati Dandekar, 65, has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the U.S. Executive Director of the Asian Development Bank. The first-ever Indian-American to be elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 2003, Dandekar will replace Robert M. Orr, who has held this high-profile position since 2010.

Dandekar, who was confirmed by a voice vote in May this year, will take over her new position in Manila, Philippines, the headquarters of the ADB, with the rank of an American ambassador.

“I am looking forward to going to Asia and focusing on renewable energy, clean water, infrastructure, women’s issues, and education,” Dandekar told the Universal News Network.

She says she feels “well-equipped” to deal with ADB’s portfolio: “My background in public policy and utilities equips me with the experience, and I do understand a few Asian languages.”

Senior United States Senator from Iowa, Senator Chuck Grassley, has no doubt that Dandekar is the right person for the job. “Swati Dandekar has served Iowa in many ways over a long period of time. She’s shown her talent for building relationships that lead to productive dialogue and initiatives. Her enthusiasm for public service and willingness to take on new challenges and responsibilities are what the public deserves. The President and the Senate made a good decision in choosing Swati Dandekar to represent the United States in this capacity.”

A member of the Iowa House of Representatives from 2003 to 2009, Dandekar was also a member of the Iowa Senate from 2009 to 2011. She then served on the Iowa Utilities Board from 2011-2013. In 2014, Dandekar tried to run for the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, but lost in the primaries.

Born in the Indian city of Nagpur, Dandekar has a brilliant head for numbers, a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Chemistry from Nagpur University, a post graduate degree from Mumbai University, and strong negotiating skills. She migrated to the United States 43 years ago with her businessman husband Arvind.

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Attorney Reshma Saujani was a candidate for a U.S. House of
Representatives seat.

Inspiring Gen Next
It’s admirable that the Indian-American women who are rising stars in American politics don’t have a famous last name, nor do they come from vast wealth.

“They are the underdogs. They are the insurgents. But they have shown they have the brilliance, passion, charisma, talent, and the tenacity to win,” said political commentator Adam Cassel.

According to well-known New York City lawyer and politician Reshma Saujani, community support is something they can count on. The Yale-educated lawyer experienced a groundswell of support when she took on nine-term incumbent Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney in a high-profile Democratic primary race in 2010, trying to unseat her from New York’s ‘silk stocking’ district on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and parts of Queens.

“When I started campaigning I started getting random $25, $50, $100 checks from South Asian women from across the country. Many mothers and aunts felt very passionately about the election. My friend’s mother had my fundraising letter in her purse; she would go to the temple, show people the letter and tell them, ‘We must support our girls,’” said Saujani.

Saujani studied in Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where she worked part-time to pay for school. She also made it to Yale Law School and later, at the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, handled asylum cases pro bono. She has also been a lawyer for hedge funds. Saujani has tremendous political experience as a fundraiser, having worked for Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

“I am not the typical candidate to run for office. Indian-American women have changed the paradigm of who can run for office,” said Saujani, who lost to Maloney in 2010, but went on to make her mark as New York City’s deputy public advocate.

Saujani is now the founder and CEO of the well-known “Girls Who Code” nonprofit organization, which is seeing a lot of favorable outcomes. By the end of 2016, more than 40,000 girls will have gone through its training and internship programs. While classes are free, “Girls Who Code” doles out nearly $1 million in scholarships to students to pay for traveling and other costs.

Articulate, whip-smart, and passionate Indian-American politicians like Reshma Saujani, California Senator Kamala Harris, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Seattle Democrat Pramila Jayapal and Iowa state legislator Swati Dandekar are powerful role models.

“As an Indian-American woman, they inspire me because they have broken many barriers in American politics. Although I was disappointed that women couldn’t break the highest glass ceiling this election, being a part of getting Kamala Harris elected as one of California’s senators gives me hope and encouragement,” said Maya Rao, an MBA student at Stanford University, in California.

With such a galaxy of rising political stars, it may not be presumptuous to hope that the next decade may see our first Indian-American vice president or president.


Uttara Choudhury is a contributor to The Wire and Forbes India. She has been covering American politics, foreign policy, diplomacy, and defense issues for two decades.



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