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The Governor and Us

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January 2004
The Governor and Us

Media sound-bites have attempted to paint Governor SONNY PERDUE as a racist who came to office on the strength of the highly divisive Confederate flag referendum. Digging deeper, however, reveals a governor who has done the most, by many measures, to reach out to ethnic communities in general and the Indian American community in particular.

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By PARTHIV N. PAREKH

Public figures are often like mirages. From a distance they tend to appear quite unlike their true nature. For politicians, it is usually the luster that precedes the blemishes. Under close scrutiny, most seem to have skeletons in their closets.

Thankfully, in the case of Governor Sonny Perdue, the reverse has been true. The more one gets to know him, the better he appears.

This is not to say that Perdue has not been steeped in controversy. His very emergence as governor had cast ambiguity and even doubt amongst minorities. His obscurity and rural roots had many wondering what could be expected of him. Then it appeared worse. In the immediacy of his win, the governor was labeled a racist.

The Confederate flag, which has been claimed as a symbol of Southern heritage by mostly the white lineage of the state, has also been challenged by African Americans as one that symbolizes racism and slavery. Perdue's campaign promise was to put it up for a statewide referendum, reversing former governor Roy Barnes initiative to replace it with a version that was not burdened with any stigma.

This promise of a referendum by Perdue was claimed by critics as a ploy to win the votes of the white rural majority of the state, while disregarding the sensitivities of the black community.

Such criticism of racial and religious prejudice has continued to plague his office. Currently, what is creating uproar is his initiative towards amending the State Constitution so as to allow State funding for religious programs. Critics claim this as going against the grain of a cardinal precept of our founding fathers ? that of separation of State and Church. A reversal of the constitution as proposed would overwhelmingly pit the Christian majority against minority religions.

Such being the plays behind his gubernatorial emergence and office so far, it would be easy to chart Perdue off as a racially and religiously discriminative governor. Granted, his positions appear to us as being far right, extremist, and pro-Christian ? rather than democratic and equitable.

A closer look at him, however, reveals a person who cannot be easily slotted into neatly defined camps. Indeed, there are at least three distinctions that paint a different picture ? one of a governor who is inclusive and who goes the distance for his minority constituents.

The first distinction is the person himself. Not only is he affable, but those who have come to know him, swear by his genuineness. Narender Reddy, who was recently appointed by him to the Board of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, believes that all it takes for the public to appreciate Perdue is to come to know him personally. "The governor is a genuinely warm and friendly person who is open to all kinds of people. If anything, he holds Indian Americans in very high esteem as he sees us as well educated and thriving. He thinks of us as role model citizens."

It is not only a Republican appointee of the governor such as Reddy who has praise for him as a person. Mohinder Bajaj, a political activist for the Democratic Party, while clearly against many of Perdue's positions, says that the governor appears to be "a very decent and genuine person." Bajaj flat out does not believe that the governor is racist.

Perdue has repeatedly stressed principles over political expediency. He is such a believer of the philosophy outlined by respected contemporary guru, Stephen Covey, in his book, "Principle Centered Leadership", that Perdue has distributed copies of the book to key officials in his administration. As a strong advocate of the "Win-Win" philosophy preached by Covey, the governor seems quite above racism and discrimination.

Hence, even when one is at odds with Perdue's beliefs, one sees it as just that ? a difference of opinion, rather than seeing an opponent in him. Even those positions such as government funding of religious organizations or teaching Biblical theories in public school, while highly objectionable to minorities, seem to come from a place of conviction rather than crass politics or crude discrimination.

Second is his background and upbringing. Though a son of a racially polarized South, his kinship with blacks, while growing up, renders him poles apart from those infamous white Southerners such as Georgia's own staunch segregationist, the late Lester Maddox.

A recent profile in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, titled, "Perdue's Journey in Black and White," dwells at length on his touching relations with his friend Hollis Watts, the son of a black tenant farmer who worked on their family farm. Eziekal Watts, Hollis' older brother is quoted in the article as saying, "Sonny and Hollis, they were tight. On the farm, they were everywhere together. If you saw one, you saw the other."

About the untimely demise of Hollis at age 15, the governor is quoted as saying, "I remember, when I first learned about it, burying my head in the pillow and just bawling. I don't recall having a family member die before that, but he was my family member."

Finally, and more than all, it is Perdue's emphatic outreach to minorities that leaves little doubt about his inclusiveness. The state, under his directive, has appointed 18 members to the Asian American Commission for a New Georgia (Four of who are Indian Americans). The Commission serves as an advisory board between the governor's office and the private sector. "The Georgia family of today includes citizens from many diverse cultures and backgrounds. Our diversity is a source of strength for this state, both nationally and internationally," Perdue said at the occasion. Amongst other functions, the Commission plays an important part in helping develop minority owned businesses in the state.

Dr. Josephine Tan, Chairperson of the Commission, says, "The governor recognizes the fact that the Asian American community is one of the fastest growing." That is one of the reasons, according to her, Georgia has taken the lead amongst other states in creating such a Commission. It has been effective in addressing issues such as helping Asian immigrants through the maze of the complex health care system, as well as in addressing the unique language needs of Asians in dealing with the government.

Broadly speaking, Dr. Tan asserts that the testament to Perdue's inclusiveness lies in the fact that not only has he created very active Commissions for the Asian American as well as Latino populations, but has also conducted a series of very constructive forums on racial reconciliation.

More specifically, Perdue has reached out towards the Indian American community like few previous governors have. The degree of his accessibility is evident in the fact that he took the time to meet with a contingent of about a dozen key Indian Americans at his office at the State Capitol. Present in the contingent were representatives of Georgia Association of Physicians from India (GAPI), Asian American Hotel Owner's Association (AAHOA), the Indus Bar Association, IACA, Georgia Indo American Chamber of Commerce (GIACC) and others. They were able to get a valuable audience with the governor. From insurance providers who discriminate against Indian hoteliers to cost-prohibitive malpractice insurance suffered by physicians, many significant topics were put up on the table. Not only did the governor listen intently and address the concerns of those gathered, but asked questions that would allow his office to follow up on the issues. As a small business owner himself who started two successful businesses from ground up, he showed a keen understanding of the issues faced by entrepreneurs.

Besides political appointments and meetings, Perdue has also reached out to the community at grassroots level. At the recent Festival of India in the Gwinnett Civic Center, he mingled with the crowds, shaking hands, stopping by at booths and even dropping down on his knees to be face-to-face with toddlers. Roshni Patel, a visitor from Kansas, was impressed by the governor's warmth and curiosity. "He actually carried on a conversation with my five year old," she said and then added, "The Georgia (Indian American) community is lucky to have such a viable relationship with the Governor."


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