By Krissah Thompson, Washington Post Staff Writer
Five years ago, a group of Indian Americans who worked as staffers on Capitol Hill started up a club. They called themselves the “Desi Power Hour,” and met to share their experiences and help each other get a leg up in Washington. Small in number and short on experience, they may have been Desis — children or grandchildren of immigrants from India — but they had little power.
Today, though, that once-casual gathering of legislative aides, communications consultants, tech gurus and fundraisers has grown into an influential political network that undergirds the record number of Indian Americans running for political office this year.
Gautam Raghavan, for instance, is deputy White House liaison at the Department of Defense and has helped build a network of young Indian American political donors. Toby Chaudhuri, former director of communications at the Campaign for America’s Future, is a political strategist who helps candidates craft their messages. Anil Mammen is a direct-mail consultant and the go-to guy for those in the community who aspire to political office.
In addition to Nikki Haley, the barrier-breaking Republican nominee for governor of South Carolina, Indian Americans are campaigning this year for congressional seats in Pennsylvania, Kansas, California, New York and Ohio. More than a dozen serve in senior positions in the Obama administration, including U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and USAID chief Rajiv Shah. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the first Indian American governor, made the Republican short list for vice president in 2008.
“We used to be accused of being those that wrote checks and had photo ops, but never actually did anything in policy,” said Shekar Narasimhan, co-chair of the Democratic Party’s Indo-American Leadership council. “It is now very legitimized for people to run for office in our community. Five years ago, it wasn’t.”
That legitimacy came from winning elections, as Jindal did in 2007, and through the tangential success of political operatives, said Parag Mehta, who attended many Desi Hour lunches and later worked as the Democratic Party’s director of internal communications.
“We’ve built the bench up,” Mehta said. “We are in senior positions and can help each other. There’s a camaraderie.”
Like Haley, most of the politicians in races this year are second-generation immigrants who volunteered for local political campaigns, served in state legislatures or worked on Capitol Hill.
Manan Trivedi, a doctor and Iraq war veteran, recently won the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District. Before running for Congress, he served as a health-care adviser to the Obama campaign.
Raj Goyle, who has served in the Kansas legislature for three years, is running in the Democratic primary in the 4th Congressional District, which includes his home town of Wichita. Reshma Saujani, a Democratic fundraiser in the South Asian community, says she is the first Indian American woman to run for Congress.
“I always wanted to serve, but I never thought someone with my name could actually run,” said Saujani, who is challenging Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) in the Sept. 14 primary.
The increased political involvement is an indication of “successful assimilation into mainstream American society,” said Dino Teppara, chair of the Indian American Conservative Council and former chief of staff for Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.).
The nation’s 2.5 million Indian Americans rank among the most highly educated ethnic groups in the United States, according to Census figures, and they have the highest per-capita income.
Although the community leans Democratic, according to a 2009 survey by the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, its wealth has attracted aspiring candidates of both parties.
Individual donors connected to Teppara’s council have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Indian American conservatives and other Republicans, he said. Democratic candidates get financial support through the decade-old Indian American Leadership Initiative. That group has endorsed both congressional and local candidates this year, and late last year it formed a political action committee, which has raised $100,000.
The money “obviously” makes a big difference, said Sanjay Puri, chairman of the nonpartisan US India Political Action Committee, which raised $75,000 in the first quarter of the year and $300,000 in 2008 to support Indian American candidates and others who have pro-India views. “The money is there. The candidates just have to prove that they are credible.”
Still, Indian American candidates remain sensitive to being viewed as outsiders. Questions arose about Jindal’s and Haley’s religious beliefs; Jay Goyal (D), now the 29-year-old majority whip of the Ohio legislature, emphasized in his first political campaign four years ago his family’s decades of work in their central Ohio town. Similarly, Trivedi and Goyle emphasize on their Web sites deep roots in their respective communities.
The clear signs of political progress impress the man known as the dean of Indian American politics: Kumar P. Barve, majority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates. When he ran for office in 1990, few in the Indian American community would contribute money or time to his campaign. “Most believed it was really idiotic,” he said.
Although Barve worries that many of the Indian American candidates will probably lose this year, he sees their efforts as an investment in the future. “Regardless of the outcome,” he said, “you have to see this as a big victory for the Indian American, which is becoming a part of the political landscape.”