By Ronak D. Desai
(Editor’s note: Ronak D. Desai is a Forbes contributor and writes about foreign policy, law and business in South Asia. With the permission from the author, this article is reproduced here from Forbes where it was first published.)
This year, Indian-American woman from both the Democratic and Republican parties are seeking elected offices in record numbers at both the state and federal levels.
Indian-American women have already established an impressive track record of public service despite their relatively small numbers. In 2010, Nikki Haley (R-SC) made history by being elected the first female Indian-American governor in the United States. She is regarded as a rising star by those inside and outside the Republican Party and has been floated as a possible Vice-Presidential pick in the upcoming presidential election.
Aruna Miller (D-MD) has served in the Maryland House of Delegates since 2011. After re-election in 2014, Miller was appointed to serve on the Appropriations Committee where she is Chair of the Oversight of Personnel Subcommittee and Vice-Chair of the Transportation & Environment Subcommittee.
The Seattle City Council witnessed the election of Kshama Sawant in 2013. Born in India, Sawant earned her PhD from North Carolina State University. She successfully ran for the city council as a member of the Socialist Alternative Party, making her first socialist to win a city-wide election in Seattle since Anna Louise Strong was elected to the School Board in 1916.
In Iowa, Swati Dandekar (D-IA) was a member of the state legislature for several years before being appointed to the Iowa Utilities Board by Governor Terry Branstad. She began her public service career twenty years ago as a member of the local school board.
Anu Natarajan served on the Fremont City Council for more than a decade before becoming the city’s vice-mayor. Reshma Saujani served as New York City’s Deputy Public Advocate before founding the popular technology non-profit Girls Who Code.
There are few public servants more popular than California Attorney General Kamala Harris. The daughter of a Jamaican-American father and an Indian-American mother, Harris has spent more than two decades of her life dedicated to public service. She is now seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Poll after poll has indicated that she is likely to prevail in both the primary and general elections.
The bench of Indian-American women already in public office runs deep. But what accounts for this ostensibly unexpected phenomenon?
Vishakha Desai, Senior Adviser to Columbia University and President Emerita of the Asia Society, explains “although is exciting to see the rising number of Indian American women on the American political stage, it is not surprising. Most of them are daughters of first generation of Indian immigrants who came to seek higher education degrees in professional fields, ranging from medicine and engineering to finance and science. These rising political stars are raised to succeed in whatever endeavor they pursue.”
Now, with elections just months away, Indian-American women are well-positioned to win even more state and federal offices around the United States. Here is a look at some of the most promising candidates.
Jenifer Rajkumar (D-NY) – Running for New York State Assembly
In Lower Manhatttan’s 65th Assembly District, Jenifer Rajkumar is running for State Assembly to fill the seat vacated by Sheldon Silver, one of New York’s most powerful political figures who was recently convicted on federal corruption charges.
The former all-powerful Speaker of the Assembly, Silver was known as one of the “three men in the room” who along with the Governor controlled some of the most important decisions for NY State for twenty years, until his dramatic downfall and conviction on federal bribery, kickback and corruption charges.
Rajkumar, 33, a human rights lawyer, is running on a platform of replacing Albany’s culture of corruption with a culture of service. Named a “rising star” by New York’s City & State news outlet, Rajkumar would be the first Indian-American elected to the New York State Legislature.
A Stanford Law School graduate, Rajkumar specializes in representing the poor and the disenfranchised, including low-income families, workers and women experiencing discrimination in the workplace. Currently an attorney at civil rights firm Sanford Heisler Kimpel LLP, Rajkumar has helped win various whistleblower cases, as well as the largest gender discrimination class action ever to go to trial, which was named by the U.N. one of the top ten cases in the world for advancing women’s rights. In 2015, she was selected by Super Lawyers to the New York Metro Rising Stars List, an honor given to no more than 2.5% of lawyers in the state.
The prominent Lower Manhattan district where Rajkumar is running encompasses Wall Street, Ground Zero, the Lower East Side, part of SoHo, Chinatown and Little Italy.
Rajkumar faces a crowded field of five other opponents for the Tuesday, September 13th election. However, she has the most successful electoral history in the district of any candidate in the field. In 2011, at the age of 28, she shocked the political establishment by defeating a 20 year incumbent for a Lower Manhattan District Leader post, winning with a resounding 70% of the vote. In 2013, she challenged an incumbent for City Council and garnered the most votes of any challenger to an incumbent that cycle.
Recognizing her strength and work in the Lower Manhattan community, she was endorsed for re-election to District Leader in 2015 by Congressman Jerry Nadler, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, NYC Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in a competitive race which she still won handily.
Rajkumar has garnered several early endorsements, from a national coalition of womens’ leaders to a coalition of Latino leaders within her district. Recently, the Broadsheet newspaper headlined her as a “Local Heroine” for her work on community issues over the years, including her leadership of a free legal clinic for residents of public housing. Rajkumar appears to have widespread support at the local, city-wide and national levels, making her a strong contender for this important and symbolic New York seat.
Kesha Ram (D-VT) – Running for Lieutenant Governor of Vermont
Elected to the Vermont House of Representatives at the age of 22, Kesha Ram made history in 2009 by becoming the youngest female member of the state legislature. Since then, she has established an eight-year track record of building consensus across party lines on a slate of issues affecting the small New England state. Less than a decade later, she is running for Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, hoping to make history once again.
The youngest of three children, Ram is the product of a culturally diverse household – her father immigrated to the United States from India, while her Jewish-American mother grew up in Illinois. With her parents serving as role models in embracing diversity, equity and community service, Ram says she developed her passion for advocacy and civic engagement in her early years- beginning in Los Angeles when she was growing up, and later in Vermont when she attended the University of Vermont.
Throughout her legislative career, Ram has sought to champion a host of progressive priorities: expanded tax incentives for statewide economic growth, green job creation, paid family leave, access to early learning and higher education opportunities, affordable housing and civil rights.
Ram also spearheaded the expansion of assistance to first-time homebuyers, protecting victims of domestic and sexual violence and ensuring Vermonters do not have to choose between a paycheck and taking care of a sick child. Through all of these initiatives, the young legislator has focused her energy on building an economy that works for all of Vermont and creates pathways out of poverty.
“Throughout my time in the Vermont legislature, I have remained true to my roots. I have worked to support the immigrant and refugee community, including creating immigrant driver’s licenses, advancing community policing and working to erect Vermont’s first Hindu temple. Now, on the campaign trail, I can tell my truly American story of bussing tables in my Indian immigrant father and Jewish American mother’s Irish pub. Vermont is at a pivotal time in its history, when new voices are needed at table to chart out our future. I hope to be one of those voices as Vermont’s next Lieutenant Governor.”
Mary Thomas (R-FL) – Running for Congress in Florida
Lathika Mary Thomas is running for Congress in Florida. A self-described “strong conservative Republican,” she is challenging Congresswoman Gwen Graham for the seat in the Second Congressional District. If elected, Thomas would make history as the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress.
Thomas was born in Charleston, South Carolina to immigrant parents who arrived in America from India in 1972 with their educations and their hopes of living the American dream. The Thomas family eventually settled in Pinellas County, where they started a family medical practice and a successful biotechnology company. Thomas observes, “My family’s story is a shining example of the American dream come true. Today that American dream is threatened by an out of touch Congress and a federal government that simply doesn’t care about the well-being of the American people. I want the American dream to be available to my young son Luke like it was available to me and my parents. That is why I am running for Congress, to save the American dream for the next generation.”
Thomas has resided in Tallahassee for more than a decade and has been a member of Governor Rick Scott’s Administration since he was sworn into office in January 2011. She currently serves as the General Counsel at the Department of Elder Affairs where she manages and oversees the legal department of an agency that administers an approximately $900 million budget.
Thomas asserts, “I’m the only candidate in this race that has substantial experience working on issues that directly impact the people of the Second District. My experience includes: serving as the Governor’s representative in negotiations with the Department of Justice and various states to secure our state and local interests after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill; developing strategies to protect the Apalachicola Bay from Georgia’s unchecked consumption of water, strategies that ultimately resulted in the filing of a lawsuit against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court; and helping to solve military base encroachment issues around the Panhandle’s military installations.”
Thomas has garnered several endorsements, including from the Tea Party Express, the Club for Growth, the Madison Project, the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) and the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA).
With the GOP primary scheduled for August 30th, Thomas is confident of her prospects. “As a 37 year old, a wife, mom of a two year old son, a first-generation American and a constitutional conservative property rights attorney, I offer the Republican primary voters of District Two the best choice to change the direction of our country.”
Thomas is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Law. She also holds a Masters of Law from the University of Miami and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida.
Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) – Running for Congress in Washington
Indian-American political activist and state legislator Pramila Jayapal is running for Congress from Washington’s 7th District for the open seat being vacated by Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA) Born in India, Jayapal came to the United States when she was 16 years old and has spent the last 25 years fighting for progressive priorities in a host of different capacities.
Since her earliest days residing in Washington state, Jayapal has established a long and deep track record of public service and effecting change. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, Jayapal founded Hate Free Zone to advocate on behalf of Arab, Muslim and South-Asian American victims of hate crimes targeted after the attacks. After eleven years at the helm of the organization, which was later renamed OneAmerica, she was recognized by the White House as a “Champion of Change” for her work on behalf of the immigrant community. She is a Congressional candidate progressives can only dream of.
Jayapal says she is running for Congress because “because our system is rigged for corporations and the wealthy, but we can fight back. The time has come to tackle this inequality: we need to raise the minimum wage, expand Social Security and Medicare and ensure debt-free college for young people across America.”
She continues, “We knew then as we know now that our values of justice, fairness and equity are under threat from those who profit from injustice, benefit from unfairness and gain from inequity. We can hear, see and feel this threat every day.”
She believes, however, that “[o]ur winning formula, however, is hard working, decent people who are willing to think critically, raise their voices and speak out, build a movement, stand for core principles and work for real changes that benefit the common good.”
Jayapal has earned an exhaustive list of endorsements from leading labor unions, elected officials, progressive organizations, city leaders and a host of other notable groups and individuals.
Although she is facing a crowded primary field, Jayapal’s candidacy has fueled excitement within the Indian-American community. She, along with Kesha Ram, have earned the endorsement of Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA), the only Indian-American member of Congress, and the Co-Chair of the House Caucus on India and Indian-Americans.
The ranks of Indian-American women in public office are set to grow with upcoming elections. In many ways, this is inevitable.
Desai, long considered one of the most prominent and accomplished Indian-American women globally, notes that “Indian-American women stand out among all Asian-Americans in the political arena. One may call it the democratic dividend. Their parents, coming from a country that fought hard for its independence and established a functioning democracy, were not only believers but participants in the process. This is not true of most other Asian American communities. So, you can say that it was only a matter of time before we would witness the abundance of Indian Americans in the democratic political process of our country.”
(Desai is an associate at the Belfer Center’s India and South Asia Program at Harvard University. His scholarship focuses on US-India relations, international security, international law, governance, and corruption. He is also a Washington D.C.-based attorney, and has worked in both the public and private sectors. During his time in the private sector, his practice included a wide range of investigatory, regulatory, litigation, and public policy matters. He is member of the Aspen India Strategy Group and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. Once a year, he teaches a course on U.S. foreign policy toward South Asia at the Johns Hopkins University. He earned joint public policy and law degrees from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School.)