California Attorney General Kamala Harris has received an overwhelming endorsement from the state party convention for her Senate run that could vault her on to the national scene, becoming the first Indian-American to serve in the upper house of Congress.
She got a whopping 78 percent vote, well over the 60 percent threshold for endorsement, at the California Democratic Party Convention in San Jose on Feb. 27.
That may have left her Democratic competitor out in the cold, but U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez is not backing down and Harris has her fight cut out for her in the June open primary where the two top vote-getters irrespective of their party will battle it out till Nov. 8.
Even though Harris has received support from a number of Hispanic leaders and Sanchez may have received a bit of a setback because of her controversial statements about Muslims, Sanchez may end up being the other top vote-getter in the June 7 primary. Conversely, some Indian-American observers say California’s party demographics that split to 60 percent Democrats to 40 percent Republicans and Independents, could end up seeing Harris pitted against one of several Republican candidates in November.
Indian-American analysts and Democrats say winning the state endorsement was significant in that it was an acknowledgment by the establishment that Harris was the best qualified candidate in the field. But Harris is by no means a shoo-in while facing off against an eight-term Congresswoman.
“In politics nothing is over till its over,” second-term Congressman Ami Bera, D-California, told News India Times. He was also overwhelmingly endorsed at the state convention, despite some local Democrats working against him.
If Harris gets elected in November, as Senator she will serve six-year terms, rather than the two-year period of Representatives. Senators usually spend long periods in Congress such as Barbara Boxer, whom Harris wants to succeed, is on her 24th year in the Senate.
If Harris is sworn in next January, it will be 60 years since another Congressional landmark when Dalip Singh Saund, also from California became a member of the House of Representatives. The only other Indian-American in Congress is also from the state, Bera.
If elected to Senate after serving as state Attorney General, she will further inspire women and girls. Bera said, “She is shattering the glass ceiling” for Indian women.
Analysts agree getting the “establishment” vote against Sanchez was important.
Harris and Sanchez represent distinct and different policies, according to University of California, Riverside professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, who has conducted surveys and data analysis of Asian American voters. Sanchez is more conservative and has made some controversial statements about Muslims, saying in one interview with Larry King, that about 5 to 20 percent of Muslims are ‘willing to use’ terrorism to establish a Caliphate.
Harris, on the other hand, has progressive policies, Ramakrishnan said, more in sync with a majority of Indian-Americans, according to public opinion polls conducted by him and his team. Those polls show Indian-Americans tend to be liberal, support higher taxes, Obamacare, strong gun control measures, and immigration reform.
“While they care about visa backlogs, we’ve asked them a couple of times about a path to legalization (for undocumented people), and they support it,” he said. “So Kamala Harris’ issue positions are very much in line with this, while a person like (former Louisiana governor) Bobby Jindal was very much not in line with this.”
Bera is already looking into the future and hopes Harris would sign up to be on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee if elected so that he could work with her to strengthen the strategic relationship between the U.S. and India.
“She could help the Indian-American diaspora and U.S.-India relations which I’m very interested in,” said Bera who is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans.
Whether ascendant leaders like Harris in the Senate or South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley — if she became Vice President — would be “natural leaders” of the community remained to be seen.
“How will they lead and guide the community rather than these leaders of myriad associations?” Shekar Narasimhan, founder and chairman of Asian American & Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Victory Fund, a recently launched PAC that purports to be non-partisan, wonders. “Will they exhort and mobilize the community, or go for their own agendas – we’ll see in 2017.”
Harris’ party endorsement was hardly a guarantee of smooth sailing to the Senate. With an opponent like veteran House Rep. Sanchez, “It’s going to be a slugfest,” said Narasimhan
Rise of Women
Narasimhan personally supports Harris and has contributed to her campaign. And he thinks she will win the Senate seat. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in California, and there’s going to be a higher turnout for a Presidential year election. “But her victory cannot be taken for granted,” he cautioned.
Harris has three election victories under her belt, two of them for state-wide Attorney General races. But her first AG race was a squeaker, made possible by absentee ballot counts. But either woman, Harris or Sanchez, winning was a plus because it put a minority woman in the Senate, Ramakrishnan contends.
M.R. Rangaswami, Silicon Valley IT entrepreneur, investor and founder of the non-profit Indiaspora, sees Harris raising the community’s pride if elected, to a higher level, for being the first Senator and because she is a woman.
An Independent, Rangaswami has been a long time Harris supporter from the time she ran her first Attorney General campaign.
Narasimhan sees Harris, whose mother was from Chennai, as part of a trend of women rising in politics, including Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state running for the U.S. Congress;, Kesha Ram, a Vermont state lawmaker running for Lt. Governor; the national rise of Haleym and former Iowa state Assemblywoman Swati Dandekar who is President Obama’s nominee for executive director of the Asian Development Bank.
“All this could happen in 2016!” he declares, a seminal year for Indian-American women, and if Hillary Clinton is elected President, it would be the year for all women.
The rise of women born and brought up in the U.S. is significant, — Harris, Haley, Ram. That is seen as a sign of maturity for the Indian-American community, according to Narasimhan, indicating a trend where more qualified and educated candidates are willing to give their future to public service and women have overcome cultural barriers.
In contrast to the hundreds of Indian-American associations led by self-appointed leaders or heads chosen within the organizations, these U.S.-born elected officials are natural standard-bearers of real leadership.
“When Kamala Harris or Ami Bera walk into a room full of these others, they are already seen as leaders because they are elected, they have a mandate and they have a seat at the table,” says Narasimhan. Harris’ potential rise, “changes the dynamic of whose the real leader of the community.”
One of the concerns is whether Harris will play up her Indian heritage from now till November and even after if she gets elected. This also depends on how she is portrayed during her campaign in the media.
“The extent to which Indians see her as a historic leader depends on what mainstream media does – if they report her as an African-American, how much will they (Indian-Americans) feel her to be Indian?” he speculated. (Her father is a Jamaican of African descent and she straddles the two ethnicities.)
For the Indian-American community, one cannot separate the achievements of Kamala Harris from those of Nikki Haley, observers say. Haley has come around to acknowledge her Indian heritage. Harris has “imbibed” her Indian-ness, as has Ami Bera, contends Narasimhan.
Rangaswami says from early days Harris has spoken fondly of her visit to Chennai with her mother as a little girl and celebrating Diwali. But reminds everyone that she is only 50 percent Indian, and makes sure to meet and know different ethnicities, not just Indians. “But in general, she is very well connected to us.”
“All we are asking is acknowledge your heritage and values … and we want you to marshal (your leadership skills) and move this community forward,” he added.
“How they will use their power in the coming years for the community is the point.”
Bera says Harris has always talked of her Indian heritage. He called her ‘dynamic’ and a proven strong Attorney General.
But Congress will be a different scenario from California and with a country evenly split among Republicans and Democrats, he thinks Harris will recognize and adapt to that. “I think she’ll get that,” Bera said. “I certainly try to represent everyone – Democrats and Republicans – on issues,” he said. His electoral District 7 is evenly split among the two parties and he has been attacked occasionally for siding with Republicans in Congress.
Harris has had at least 3 fundraisers with Indian-Americans in California, Rangaswami says. It is natural that her duties to date have not exposed her to international of bilateral relations with India, or trade and issues confronting IT businesses.
Harris had lunch with Rangaswami and a small group of Indian-American business leaders two months ago and he is organizing a lunch with her in April of some 15 “influential” Indian-Americans of Silicon Valley.
“She’s well versed with our issues. But she is just getting started and we are going to brief her (on both Indian-American and India-U.S.) issues,” he acknowledged.
But “She’s paying attention to us and we’re paying attention to her,” Rangaswami said of Harris, noting that