The race is heating up for the November elections. South Asian Americans have moved from the passive role of fundraising for candidates to running for political offices themselves. The game has not changed much since Will Rogers’ observation 37 years ago: “Politics has got so expensive … that it takes lots of money to even get beat with.” Not surprisingly, one of the problems that candidates of South Asian origin also face is raising funds for their campaigns, and playing the game of “checkbook politics.” In spite of efforts to reform state and federal campaign financing, the cost of running for office is escalating.
There has been a long lacuna in political participation by South Asian Americans since Dalip Singh Saund went to Congress in 1957. The present generation is correcting this gap. This generation is more concerned with local politics than geopolitical issues. “Work in government at the local level,” advises Subodh Chandra, who is running for Ohio Attorney General. “Recognize that Washington, D.C., is fun, but it is not the center of the universe and some of the most important politics and public policy in America takes place at the local level.”
It’s at the local level that attorney Raj Abhyanker intends to start his political career. He is running for City Council in Cupertino, Calif. Cuperino has a majority Asian-American population, out of which about 10 percent is Indian American. Although there are only 26,000 registered voters in the city, getting your word out can still be an expensive proposition.
“It’s important to send at least one mailer to registered voters,” explains Abhyanker, “because you can’t reach everyone in person or via phone.” He estimates that it would cost his campaign $7,500 to mail to even half of the registered voters.
In a local election money is not everything, though, and a candidate who musters other resources may come out ahead. For example, Abhyanker says that he has enlisted the support of about 80 volunteers to put up lawn signs and call registered voters. “I find that Indian-American high-school students, and grade-school students are a great source of potential volunteers to call registered voters,” says Abhyanker, who was born and raised in the United States. “Many students, especially those who aspire to careers as attorneys or in politics might be interested in volunteering in my campaign.”
South Asian Americans number only about 2 million, but their voices are getting louder, reminding the nation of its diversity. In a recent interview with India Abroad, Virginia Governor Mark Warner pointed out that Indians are not only making financial contributions and excelling in the professions, but are also running for elected office, showing that the new face of Virginia is not only black and white, but also Asian, Indian, and Hispanic. He also said, “We have an Indian woman who is running for the House of Delegates in Virginia Beach … I have heard excellent things about her.” The Indian woman he referred to is Supriya Christopher, the daughter of Indian immigrants, born and raised in Rochester, N.Y. Virginia’s Democratic Party has endorsed Christopher to represent the 84th District of the City of Virginia Beach in the November elections.
Christopher feels energized, she said, by the amount of support she has received from organizations and individuals. Besides her own network of family and friends, she has been “given some super fundraisers at the homes of local supporters.” Gov. Warner is a major supporter. The Indian community throughout Virginia has been generous in both financial support and in spreading the word.
Chandra has had a different experience. He said, “Raising money has not been difficult, but it has not been easy either.” In the first 30 days of his campaign, he crossed $100,000 in funds. “I came in second among Democrats running for non-gubernatorial statewide office and the fellow who came in first had been at it for over six months.” At a June fundraiser strongly supported by Ohio Governor Richard Celeste, Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell, and State Senator Eric Fingerhut, Chandra netted $20,000. The money came from “the people, South Asian Americans and non-South Asian Americans alike, who care about good government and expect little in return.” Contributions ranged from $10 to $10,000. His challenge is to inspire potential donors to take risks on the possible, and pave the way for future Indian-American politicians.
Facing the same challenge is Shyam Reddy, a native Georgian, who would like to be the state’s next Secretary of State. “Since very few people from the Indian-American community have run for office or solicited funds from the community in support of such runs, many Indian Americans are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the political process,” notes Reddy. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s degree in public health from Emory University, and a law degree from the University of Georgia. Reddy helped found The Red Clay Democrats and is on the board of the Atlanta chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs. Reddy wants to promote a strong business environment in his state, bring about election reform, clamp down on investment fraud, administer professional licensure, enforce licensure standards, and preserve Georgia’s rich culture.
These are lofty and doable goals, but a campaign runs on the oxygen of money. Chandra, Abhyanker, Christopher, and Reddy, all agree that raising funds is an uphill task. The U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), perhaps the most powerful Indian-American PAC, provides financial support to Indian Americans of both parties, but only at the federal level, according to Megha Choksy, the director of communications and media relations. They helped Bobby Jindal get elected to Congress.
For Christopher the Asian American Action Fund, a PAC that supports Asian Americans running for elected office at local, state, and federal government levels, organized a successful fundraiser. Several business leaders like Sanjay Puri, Sudhakar Shenoy, Hemant Kanakia, and Rakesh Gupta have also made individual contributions. Christopher’s campaign has so far raised over $100,000, and remains neck-and-neck in overall funds with her opponent’s. She said that this financial support covered field operations and phone banking. But these days campaign spending runs into millions of dollars. Much more is needed. Nevertheless, Christopher is optimistic. “I am excited about inching closer to Election Day and am hoping for the best in November,” she says.
“The big challenge of fundraising in the South Asian-American community,” Chandra said, “is that many want a low-risk process in which they are backing only a sure winner.” In other words: incumbents. And so persuading some to put their hard-earned money on a dark horse is a challenge. Chandra found this attitude frustrating. “Without risk, there is no reward. That is a fundamental principle of investing. Many so-called leaders of a community—ironically enough, those who claim to encourage political involvement and even lead the organizations that supposedly do so—are nowhere to be found. They don’t return telephone calls or make promises and don’t deliver.”
A campaign starved of funds can fizzle even before it gets started. Reddy particularly stressed the importance of early financial support. It is crucial to obtaining the party’s nomination. “According to people who have done fundraising in the Indian-American community, many Indian Americans feel more comfortable giving after the candidate makes it through the primary. Well, this mentality hamstrings Indian-American candidates seeking financial support.” Firm financial commitment from business leaders with big bucks, or even Indian-American PACs, is not forthcoming during the early stages of a campaign. To get to the primary phase of a campaign requires a lot of money, Reddy said.
However, he has had some measure of success in his first round of fundraising. He is the frontrunner among the Democratic candidates at the end of the first reporting cycle on June 30. Since India is fast becoming a major player on the world stage, with the added advantage of being the largest democracy, it is in the interest of Indian Americans, Reddy said, to help one of their own get elected and play an important role in shaping public policy. It is a matter of educating Indian Americans about the importance of sending their people to positions where they can have clout and educating takes a lot of time.
All four candidates have impressive qualifications and offer attractive platforms. Their youth (they’re all in their 30s and 40s) and optimism should enable them to overcome the financial odds. Grassroots voters are willing to take a risk on them but the big business leaders are not yet forthcoming. Former Governor Richard Celeste of Ohio said it best at a recent fundraiser for Chandra, “Money will not win a campaign, but not having it can lose it for you.”
Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.