Politics & Government

Indian Americans advance in national, California politics

Rep. Ami Bera, left, D-Elk Grove, and Sacramento Kings Chairman Vivek Ranadive talk with Kings rookie center Sim Bhullar before the Kings game with the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday. All three men are of Indian descent, and Bhullar is the first such player in the NBA.
Rep. Ami Bera, left, D-Elk Grove, and Sacramento Kings Chairman Vivek Ranadive talk with Kings rookie center Sim Bhullar before the Kings game with the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday. All three men are of Indian descent, and Bhullar is the first such player in the NBA. The Associated Press

In a stairway just off the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. Ami Bera walks past a portrait nearly every day of the late Rep. 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 California 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 state’s 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, Democratic technology lawyer Ro Khanna sought a seat in Congress, and 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.

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 significant base of political donors. However, Indian Americans are more spread out than other ethnic groups, and Indian American candidates in expensive races often can 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 about 100,000 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 outraised and outspent incumbent Democrat Mike Honda, he ultimately lost a close race.

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, outpacing even Latinos.

Republicans Haley and Jindal have succeeded by aligning themselves with their states’ largely white, conservative electorates. Both have twice been elected governor of their southern states. Jindal, who previously served in Congress, is weighing a presidential bid in 2016.

Last year, Kashkari, who worked for the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush, defeated a tea party favorite in California’s gubernatorial primary. Still, he lost by a wide margin to three-term Gov. Jerry Brown.

Harris, the twice-elected state attorney general, is 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.

This story has been changed from print and online versions to correct that Americans of Indian descent make up 1 percent of the U.S. population.

Contact Curtis Tate at ctate@mcclatchydc.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tatecurtis.

Indian American demographics

More Indian Americans are advancing in politics as their numbers swell nationally and in California. On average, they make more money and have more education and are reliable political donors.

3.1 million: Indian Americans in U.S., 2011

600,000: Indian Americans in California, 2011

800,000: Indian Americans in U.S., 1990

$88,000: Indian American median household income

$66,000: Asian American median household income

$49,800: total U.S. median household income

70 percent: Indian Americans with bachelor’s degree or higher

49 percent: Asian Americans with bachelor’s degree or higher

28 percent: total U.S. with bachelor’s degree or higher

Source: Pew Research Center, U.S. census data