Indian Americans a growing political force in both parties

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 27, 2010 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's trip to India days after the Nov. 2 election will be watched with interest by 2.8 million Indian Americans. For now, however, they're concentrating on matters much closer to home: the outcome of political races across this country.

A record half-dozen Indian Americans — all Democrats — mounted runs this year for the House of Representatives. One lost in her primary challenge to an incumbent in New York. The others face uphill general election bids in districts in California, Kansas, Louisiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

If Republican Nikki Haley wins the governor's race in South Carolina, she'll be the nation's second Indian-American governor. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a Republican, became the first with his election three years ago.

Indian Americans are too small a potential voting bloc — less than 1 percent of the population — to sway the outcome of state or national-level contests.

However, as Indian Americans amass wealth and become more active in politics, they're being increasingly sought out, especially as donors, by Democrats and Republicans. They're disproportionately wealthy, well educated and employed at high levels in fields — such as health science, technology, engineering and energy — politicians see as key to the nation's economic future.

More than three-dozen Indian Americans have served or are serving as presidential appointees in the Obama administration. Indian-American actor Kal Penn grabbed headlines for serving in Obama's Office of Public Engagement; he's since gone back to Hollywood. However, Indian-Americans also were tapped to play important roles on Obama's National Security Council staff, as the head of USAID, as the federal chief information officer, and as lawyers, spokespeople and advisers throughout the White House and various agencies.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is scheduled to give the keynote speech Thursday at a State Department event, connected to Obama's trip, examining ways that prominent Indian Americans can expand U.S.-India ties.

The past decade, meanwhile, has marked the rise of several Indian American-led issue and political advocacy groups.

Last week, the New York-based Sikh Coalition issued a press release expressing disappointment over reports that Obama won't visit their treasured Golden Temple while in India next month. The group has launched a letter-writing campaign to urge Obama to reconsider.

The bipartisan USINPAC was heavily involved in the approval of the 2008 U.S.-India nuclear agreement. Other prominent advocacy groups include the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.

Democrats have the Indian American Leadership Initiative. Republicans have the Indian American Conservative Council and the Republican Indian Committee.

Indian Americans come from a variety of religious, linguistic and geographic backgrounds. Some are here on temporary work visas. For every Indian-American engineer or cardiologist, there are cab drivers, convenience-store clerks and middle-class workers. Those who become citizens and vote support candidates in both major U.S. political parties, although activists say Democrats have the edge in the Indian-American community, for now.

Rajeev Sharma, an Indian-born, American-raised business owner and Democrat, recently got a call from party officials: Could he throw together a big-ticket fundraising dinner for Senate candidates at his home in the Maryland suburbs on just one week's notice? And could the president drop by?

For Sharma, the biggest thrill of hosting the Oct. 18 fundraiser wasn't meeting Obama, whom he'd met last year at another donor event.

It was the chance in his own home to introduce his parents and his wife's immigrant parents to the pinnacle of American power, and in doing so to validate their gamble in moving to this country. "All the hard work, all the investments, the time, the sacrifices," Sharma said. "The opportunity to be involved in the political process really represents inclusion."

Overall, the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey data paints this picture of Indian Americans:

  • Their median household income is $88,538, compared with $50,221 for the total U.S. population.
  • Of those who work, 65.4 percent are in managerial, professional or related occupations compared with 35.7 percent of the total population.
  • Four in five have private health insurance, compared with two-thirds of the total population.
  • Just 5.1 percent of families live in poverty, compared with 10.5 percent of the total population.
  • The percentage with graduate or professional degrees is 37.5 percent, compared with 10.3 percent of the total population.

"They're obviously an enormously entrepreneurial group, and they've also contributed through science and research in the United States and around the world," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Both in terms of domestic politics but also playing a role as a bridge to American investment in India, the Indian-American community plays a very important role."

The first major wave of Indian immigration to the U.S. came with President Lyndon Johnson's expansion of immigration in the 1960s, followed by another wave in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, the children and grandchildren of Indian immigrants are more socially integrated into schools and their communities, and experts say that accounts for their increased political participation.

"People want to talk about some sort of an Indian-American trend going on; I just think it's a natural trend of an immigrant group coming here," said Anil Mammen, a direct mail expert who works with Democrats. Mammen, born in Philadelphia to Indian immigrants, said about 5 percent of his clients are Indian American.

"In the early years, any particular group is just trying to be accepted, trying to make it," he said. "The next step, to become part of leadership or to become influential on the leaders, that takes two or three decades." The transition may be easier for Indian Americans than for some other ethnic groups because past British rule of India made English a common language.

In the U.S., a rising set of younger and middle-aged donors are joining the ranks of a smaller cadre of established Indian-American donors such as Democrat tech investor Kamil Hasan of California or Republican physician Zach Zachariah from Florida.

The newer players include men and women such as Sharma, who was born in northern India in 1961 and moved with his family to the U.S. at age 3, after his father was accepted into a Ph.D. program. Today, Sharma is the chief executive of ABSi Corp., an information technology company with government and private sector work, and has begun investing in renewable energy projects in India.

Now, Sharma's 17-year-old son has told his father that he's interested in getting into politics.

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