In a stairway just off the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Ami Bera walks past a portrait nearly every day of the late Congressman Dalip Singh Saund, a Democrat from California elected in 1956 and the first Asian-American to serve on Capitol Hill.
He was the first Indian-American, as well.
And while their ranks on Capitol Hill have not swollen, Indian-Americans have been making political inroads, from city councils to state capitols. One is even flirting with running for president.
“We certainly are looking at how to get Indian-Americans more engaged in politics,” said Bera, a Sacramento County physician and currently the sole Indian-American in Congress. “They should think about running for office.”
Asian-Americans, which include Indian-Americans, are the fastest growing demographic group in the U.S., according to Pew Research Center.
Nearly 600,000 of the country’s 3.1 million Indian-Americans live in California, and the state boasts a number of notable elected officials. Besides Bera, who was born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents, they include Californian Attorney General Kamala Harris, who could become the first Indian-American elected to the U.S. Senate.
Ash Kalra, a member of the San Jose City Council, is vying to become the first Indian-American elected to the California legislature.
“The longer the Indian-American community has been in this country, the more it has matured,” Kalra said. “And part of that maturity is becoming more politically active.”
Last year, technology lawyer Ro Khanna, a Democrat, sought a seat in Congress, while former U.S. Treasury Department official Neel Kashkari, a Republican, ran for governor. Though both challenged popular incumbents and lost, their efforts are emblematic of the rise in Indian-American political engagement.
Barve, the first Indian-American elected to a state legislature in 1990, is running for the House seat of Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who’s making a bid for the Senate seat of another retiring Democrat, Barbara Mikulski.
Barve said he won his first election with hardly any Indian-American votes. Even today, Asian-Americans in total account for only 8 percent of the population of the congressional district he seeks to represent.
“We have to prove ourselves to a very diverse electorate, which I think makes stronger elected officials,” he said.
Though Americans of Indian descent account for only 1 percent of the U.S. population, they are the most affluent and best educated of any immigrant group in the country, according to Pew. They lean strongly toward Democrats, yet two Republican governors, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, are of Indian descent.
They include doctors, engineers, tech entrepreneurs and educators, and form a rich donor base. However, Indian-Americans are more spread out than other ethnic groups, and Indian-American candidates in expensive races often have to go out of state to raise funds.
Harris will have to seek contributions to run in a state with some of the costliest media markets in the country. Asian-Americans could form a crucial part of her campaign.
“When it comes to political contributions, that aspect of her identity will become important,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside.
Having a large concentration of Indian-Americans in your state or district doesn’t always translate to victory, nor does a lack of Indian or Asian-American voters mean defeat.
Khanna, who was born in Philadelphia, ran last year in California’s 17th District, which is home to about100,000 Indian-Americans, more than any other House district in the country. It encompasses much of Silicon Valley, and Khanna leveraged the deep pockets of the tech sector. Though he out-raised and out-spent incumbent Democrat Mike Honda, he ultimately lost a close race.
Indian-Americans are only 2.4 percent of the population in California’s 7th District, where Bera has won twice, though narrowly. He did so last year in challenging political terrain: a district where party registration is evenly divided, a midterm election with low turnout and against a Republican, Doug Ose, who’d been elected to Congress before.
James Lai, director of the ethnic studies program at Santa Clara University, said that Bera’s success involved focusing on issues that were important to the district, including jobs and the economy, health care and education. Harris will likely run on her accomplishments as state attorney general.
“Any successful candidate of Asian descent will have to run as kind of a mainstream candidate,” he said. “You always have to go to your constituency.”
A Pew Research Center report last year found that 65 percent of Indian-Americans identified as Democrats or leaned toward the party, the highest level of affiliation among Asian-American groups. Asian-Americans as a whole overwhelmingly voted for President Barack Obama in 2012, even outpacing Latinos.
Asian-Americans generally have trended away from the Republican party during the past two decades, including once reliably Republican Vietnamese-Americans. The party’s stance on immigration is a major factor, political observers say, as well as security policies enacted after 9/11 that increased racial profiling.
“The Republican Party has a long way to go with Asian-Americans,” Lai said.
Republicans Haley and Jindal have succeeded by aligning themselves with their states’ largely white, conservative electorates. Both have twice been elected governor of their states. Jindal, who previously served in Congress, is weighing a presidential bid in 2016.
Last year, Kashkari, who worked for President George W. Bush, defeated a tea party favorite in the gubernatorial primary. Still, in a year that favored Republicans almost everywhere else in the country, he lost by a wide margin to three-term Gov. Jerry Brown.
It could be a very different outcome for Harris, the twice-elected state attorney general widely considered the front-runner in the California Senate race. Harris, whose mother is Indian-American and whose father is Jamaican-American, would be the first Asian or black American elected to the Senate from California.
She’s running in a presidential election year, which means higher voter turnout overall and more Democrats coming to the polls. Her candidacy showcases the diversity within the Asian-American community and has generated a lot of excitement, said UC Riverside’s Ramakrishnan, who’s extensively studied Asian-American voters and candidates.
“She’s a formidable candidate who has a lot of support in many communities, not just Asian-Americans,” he said.
An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect percentage of Indian-Americans relative to the total U.S. population.