Q & A with the Governor
As a native Georgian, you have seen the state evolve from a relatively homogeneous community to a cosmopolitan one. As a result, what do you believe has been gained or lost?
You may know that I had the advantage of growing up in Warner Robbins, which was somewhat multicultural and cosmopolitan by virtue of the military influence. Warner Robins calls itself an international city for that reason. So I had the advantage of being early on exposed to different cultures. Obviously the changes that we have seen happen in Georgia over the last two decades, that's even increasing. But as a native Georgian, I take it as compliment that people from other lands would want to come to Georgia and to make a new home, to raise their families and also start businesses. So, I look at it as a very complimentary fashion that people have honored us. The fact that they have come in to stay means that they value the same things that you value ? the opportunity for a better life, hope, education and a good business environment.
You don't see this transformation as a loss to the native culture?
Well, obviously Georgia is changing, but it's going to change irrespective of those factors. I think that we have the opportunity to preserve adequate amount of heritage as we continue to evolve over the years. United States of America is very much a land of opportunities that has evolved over many years of welcoming immigrants to its shores; to those who come with the goodwill wanting to make a new future for themselves and their families. We find it strengthens the fabric as we all work together to improve Georgia. We never can like changes constantly, but those who want to keep things as they are, usually get left behind by the progress.
You have often affirmed (Contemporary guru) Stephen Covey's philosophy of "Principle-Centered Leadership." Do you find it particularly challenging in politics, considering that you have to please various and often contradictory interests?
I think that makes principles even more important. If we don't have principles guiding us, then we are likely to make vacillating decisions based on who is asking. Sometimes [such an approach] means we have to be candid and transparent with people about not supporting what they are asking because it doesn't comply with principles. When you believe in principle-centered leadership, those principles ought to apply over all decisions. That precludes us from making decisions that are made just by the virtue of who is asking, or the political power of the group. Frankly, [such leadership] gives a stabilizing influence. It also gives the public a better sense of what they can expect. People respond favorably when there's stability. Any of us in any situation, always feel comfortable when we see some precedence that is consistent and that consistency usually has to be based on a principle. That I think is better governing.
How do you rate Indian American political activism in Georgia?
I've found even in my days as a senator that the Indian American community was particularly active. I have spoken to the GAPI on two or three occasions. But also the Indian American businessmen and women in our area were engaged and active and they realized that to get their views across they needed adequate access. I've been very impressed with the engagement and frankly that is what helps democracy work better. In a foundation that is built on the principle of "Of the people, by the people, and for the people," the more people engaged, better the product you get.
Do you have any constructive suggestions to further improve the political activism?
The Indian American culture has to recognize that at some point all politics is local. So, while they are particularly engaged at the higher levels they should also start with the local representatives and that means municipal and county officials and as well as the legislature because this combination of influence is what grows public opinion and builds a broader case rather than having something imposed because there's good relationship at a higher level. So, get to know local officials, state, municipal, and legislators. Get them involved in the community at large so that they have a sense of the community. I think that's the best way to have influence and impact way beyond the numbers. It's to be engaged locally.
The Asian American Commission, though well received, may be prone to being superficial than substantial. What concrete goals do you have for it?
This whole Commission was formed to be a conduit. A conduit is only as effective as we talk and as we listen. The superficiality can be accurate if either of the two sides doesn't make it happen. It is basically a pipe to my ear to help hear the needs of the Asian American community. It is also a pipe that I can speak through, to disseminate policies and decisions in a way that helps the public understand what the motive was, what the principles were behind the decision. I view it as a two-way-street, but it's also like dancing. If one partner doesn't dance then it's not much of a dance. I don't view the Commission as an honorary sort of thing. I want it to be functional, but the functionality depends on how candidly we can work with one another and how transparent we are. And then, it's my responsibility to respond back; not in a pandering sort of way but in a realistic way of what is practical, what's doable and what can be accomplished. If we act in that way it's much more likely that we will accomplish more. That doesn't imply that I would be able to meet all the wishes and the desires, but as we make progress in checking off those that we can, we will be much further down the list than not having done anything at all.
You supported the display of the Ten Commandments on government property. How would you feel about the display of verses from the Bhagwad Gita or the Koran or from other religions?
Well, I think the Ten Commandments transcends its mere religious or historical significance. It's also principle-centered in that way. I think if we incorporate those principles on which this country was founded, there would be opportunities for display of other historical documents significant to other populations in the U.S. The Ten Commandments form that Judeo-Christian effort that led to the founding of America by the pilgrims on the idea of religious freedom. That has a stronger historical significance from my perspective. But as these other principles [verses from other holy books] embody those same "honor your parents, don't steal and kill," I think they contribute to the fact that our society is well.
The merit of the Ten Commandments is hardly arguable. But you don't see its display in government property as a threat to the separation of State and Church?
I do not. I don't think it's trying to impose Christianity. That would be wrong. That's the reason I began my statement saying that the Ten Commandments is a principle-centered basis that guides our moral lives. I don't view it strictly as a spiritual document that you have to adhere to, to be accepted in this country. That's the distinction I make.
Besides the approval of the display of Ten Commandments on government property, you have also favored teaching creationism in public schools. Moreover, you have initiated a move for a constitutional amendment that would reverse the current prohibition of State funds for religious organizations. Do all these suggest to the Georgia public that you are shifting from being a moderate to being in the far right camp?
Well, I don't know how people describe these labels of far right. I'm a person of faith. I haven't tried to hide that. I didn't hide it during the campaign. Those principles that we talked about earlier were borne out of faith of love for mankind that's within my heart. I'm not trying to impose religion on people who don't want religion.
Would teaching of creationism in public schools not be such an imposition?
First of all, we haven't even made any statement about that.
My understanding is that you have publicly indicated a preference for it.
I believe education ought to be a display of information. One of those theories is the theory of evolution. Some people have claimed to have scientific facts to support that. Others have disputed that. Others believe in the origin of man as is described in the Bible. I think in the area of education, spiritual education is going to be most effective in the home. But I don't think we ought to exclude school children from education that may not comply with their secular or religious beliefs. So, again, I think these principles that guide us should be exposed for examination. Those that are most effective and influence the most would be victorious.
Indian Americans are extremely education-conscious. Georgia's lower ranking in SAT scores is alarming to many parents. What are you doing to correct that?
We're putting an emphasis on the SAT scores. It's embarrassing for the state, certainly, to be in the bottom on SAT scores. I frankly think our kids are better than that. They demonstrate themselves to be better than that when they go the universities. And the fact that we're getting these low scores in the K through 12 system shows a lack of awareness and concern. We created the Governor's Cup to put some competitiveness in there to highlight in a proactive way those schools that do well. We have challenged each high school in the state to raise their SAT scores by just 10 points. And as we move forward, that will better demonstrate what we're capable of. With the Governor's Cup we've got every principal engaged. We're committing incentives and awards to those who do well. I think we'll see our SAT scores move.
There has been a concern that a lot of schools, in order to qualify for the Hope scholarships, are fudging the grade curve upwards. Any comments?
We give a lot of local autonomy to our local school system for creating their own grade system. And one of the areas I've stated is that if young people are eligible for Hope, there probably should be a SAT component to that to demonstrate their abilities in a national test that's non-biased and not affected by grade inflation. If our kids here were as committed and passionate and engaged from their parents in the educational issues as Indian-Americans, then we wouldn't have that problem. At award ceremonies, I observe a great number of Indian-Americans and Asian-Americans. It's because their parents value their education and they know that to succeed in America a good education is important. Getting a high school education allows them to go to the best universities and it's very much embedded in the Indian-Americans and Asian-Americans who come to this country. They are committed to giving their children a good education. So we want to use those kinds of benefits that culture brings in to put value in our educational system and parents.
Contrary to popular belief about the export of IT jobs to India, there's considerable published evidence to suggest that this trend is, in fact, helping the job situation here by improving the bottom line of U.S. based companies. What policies would you adopt in Georgia to create the right balance between adverse domestic reaction and the value of this trend?
Well, oftentimes, when we lose jobs ? as we have in the hi-tech sector ? we don't look around for situations to blame. I don't believe that you can have a protectionist policy ? particularly in ideas and intellectual capital. That having been said, we have to be very careful that we grow our own businesses in a way that would provide opportunities. If we're providing incentives, then those who are paying the taxes to provide the incentives should be benefited. Now, overall, for companies to find efficiency and effectiveness, I want us to be the best. I want us to be creative and innovative and technologically capable in a way that makes people want to come to Georgia and create those jobs. There's a critical mass of fertile ground, intellectual capacity, investment, and educational capacity that would help these kinds of hi-tech businesses to grow.
Any parting message to the community?
What I find in the Indian-American community is that they want to work hard. But I don't see whining or complaining when everything doesn't go their way. They rededicate themselves and say, "We'll work harder next time." That's that American spirit. If you don't win the first time, prepare yourself to make the case or articulate it or win it the next time. That's the spirit that will prevail ultimately. The better-prepared person is going to win in the end. That's why I think Indian-Americans ought to be optimistic about its degree of entrepreneurship driven by education.
[Acknowledgement: Thanks to Mr. Narender Reddy for facilitating this interview]
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