Kansas Democrat would be first Hindu in U.S. Senate if she wins 2020 race

Usha Reddi
Usha Reddi

A Manhattan city official would be the first Hindu to serve in the U.S. Senate if she succeeds in 2020.

Manhattan Mayor Pro Tem Usha Reddi officially kicked off her campaign Thursday for the seat that will be vacated when Republican Sen. Pat Roberts retires at the end of the current term.

A Democrat has not won a Senate race in Kansas since 1932, but Reddi is hopeful that last year’s election provides a guide on how a Democrat can win in the GOP-leaning state. Reddi joins former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom and former Rep. Nancy Boyda in seeking the Democratic nomination.

“I think there is a path forward. I think Laura Kelly winning the governorship, as well as Sharice Davids winning in her district I think there’s a strong momentum for something different,” Reddi said.

Reddi, 54, said she reached out to the Democratic governor and congresswoman before launching her campaign. Davids made history as the first LGBT person to represent Kansas and one of first two Native American women elected to Congress.

Reddi would break barriers as the first Hindu to serve in the Senate and the first woman of color to win statewide office in Kansas. She thought her religion would be an issue when she first ran for the Manhattan City Commission in 2013, and was surprised that the subject rarely came up.

“When you’re in a local community you don’t talk any identity stuff because you just want to get things done,” said Reddi, who served two years as mayor in the commission’s rotating system.

Reddi said her two proudest accomplishments in local government are the establishment of a new crisis mental health center, set to open this year, and Manhattan’s decision to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its non-discrimination ordinance in 2016.

Her campaign launch comes just five weeks after she disclosed her status as a sexual abuse survivor.

Her father, Venkata Yeleti, pleaded guilty last month in Virginia to raping Reddi as a child. He will serve one year in prison as part of a plea agreement.

“I came forward because I am the openly admitting survivor of sexual assault and rape who had it come to justice with my dad, but every time I talk to a different leader or woman they’ve had similar experiences,” Reddi said.

Reddi has worked as a teacher at Ogden Elementary School since 2005, shifting to part-time after joining local government. She has taken a leave of absence to campaign.

She said her experience as a union leader at the school spurred her into politics. Frustration with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is one of the reasons for a Senate run.

“I think being a teacher and working in the community with families and children every day as an elected official I saw the impact every day of state and federal policies affecting us,” she said.

Reddi came to the U.S. from India when she was 8, a journey that informs how she sees the immigration debate.

President Donald Trump was elected on a promise to curb illegal immigration, but Reddi noted that his administration has made life more difficult for legal immigrants with new rules that pose hurdles to green cards or citizenship.

“There’s a lot of people that are wanting to come to the United States for the same reasons I came… It saddens me because there’s a lot of people trying to find the correct path and they can’t,” she said.

“We are not only talking about undocumented immigrants. We are talking about documented immigrants.”

Reddi said economic prosperity has “kind of flown over Kansas,” and her goal as a senator would be to champion policies to help close the gap between Kansas and other states.

“I fear that some of the policies whether it’s with tariffs or trade or immigration, they have impacted our communities in a negative manner and local communities are having to make tough choices,” she said.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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