The political rise of Senator Kamala Harris: From California attorney to Congress
Indian-American publications write about her regularly. Her first name means “lotus” in Sanskrit. She takes pride in grinding her own Indian spices. And she has been known to reference slogans that were used by Indian independence fighters like her grandfather.
If Kamala Devi Harris runs for president, the Democratic senator is poised to be championed by Indian-Americans, a constituency with significant representation in the donor community, growing numbers of political activists and candidates—and a sizable presence in states that will play key roles in the Democratic primary, from California to Texas.
“She will change the game if she runs for president,” said Anurag Varma, a Democratic donor who frequently supports Indian-American candidates and “absolutely” would back Harris. “She will create a new game if she becomes president.”
Harris, of California, is the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who was born in India, and Donald Harris, born in Jamaica. The senator identifies as both African-American and South Asian-American, according to her Senate website, which notes that she is the country’s first South Asian-American senator— a background that opens doors with a diverse set of voters.
“She’s a woman, she’s African-American and the child of immigrants, and so much of those communities now seek a voice,” said North Carolina State Sen. Jay Chaudhuri. “In many ways she embodies all of those communities.”
Among Indian-Americans, Harris is well-positioned to claim something of a hometown advantage should she run for president, a decision she has said she will make over the holidays. In a crowded Democratic field where more than 20 candidates may be running and dividing up the vote, that’s an edge—even with a relatively small community—that could be relevant in primary contests from Florida to North Carolina to Virginia, and certainly in her home state of California.
“There’s obviously a lot of enthusiasm for Sen. Harris if she decides to run,” said Gautam Raghavan, the outgoing executive director of the Indian American Impact Project and Fund, an initiative that promotes Indian-American political participation and Indian-American leaders through a nonprofit and a separate PAC.
“The first time there’s a viable Indian-American for president is a pretty big deal. Generally there’s a lot of enthusiasm for her, for her story,” he said.
Raghavan is also the incoming chief of staff to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus. Jayapal’s family, like Harris’s, is originally from Chennai.
“Somehow our families know each other,” Jayapal said at a recent Impact conference for Indian-American women, speaking onstage with Harris’s niece, Meena Harris. “I mean, this is how it is.”
“Of course they do,” Meena Harris, an activist and entrepreneur, responded as the crowd laughed.
Kamala Harris grew up visiting her grandparents in India “every two years, at least,” she said at another Impact summit over the summer, detailing the walks she would take with her grandfather and his friends, who had been active in India’s independence movement.
“There I would be, this young girl holding my grandfather’s hand, walking with them as they would debate and discuss with incredible passion the importance of a democracy,” she said.
“As I reflect on these moments,” she continued, “I know those were the earliest moments that I formed my perspective and philosophy about what a democracy should and can be.”
Harris can plainly discuss her personal connections to the community — but nationally, in addition to her professional resume, she is often better-known as the second African-American female senator in history (the first Asian-American elected to the Senate was Hiram Fong of Hawaii).
“My Indian mother knew she was raising two black daughters,” Harris, who is a Christian and is a graduate of the historically black Howard University, told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “But that’s not to the exclusion of who I am in terms of my Indian heritage.”
Her office declined an interview for this story.
Harris was elected in 2016, and certainly, she doesn’t yet have a lock on the Indian-American community.
The Asian American Voter Survey, a poll of around 1,300 registered Asian-American voters, found this fall that 52 percent of Indian-Americans had a favorable opinion of Harris, while 20 percent had never heard of her, 10 percent didn’t know and 16 percent had an unfavorable view. Several other potential Democratic presidential candidates had a higher favorability rating, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren—perhaps, in part, a reflection of name identification, but also a sign that Harris would have some introducing of herself to do even among Indian-Americans should she run for president.
“If she showed more love for the Indian-American community publicly, I think that love would be returned in the form of activists’ support, campaign contribution support, you have a lot of prominent Indian-Americans in party activist positions,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, the director of AAPI Data, a group that focuses on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and was heavily involved in the survey.
Ramakrishnan estimated that there were about 1.2 million registered Indian-American voters in 2016, and said it’s likely that that number hits 1.4 million in 2020. That’s a relatively small number, but Indian-Americans tend to vote at especially high rates.
“She can’t take Indian-American support for granted,” he cautioned.
Yet many Indian-American donors and activists are eager to embrace her, and expect that if she enters the race, her family story would rapidly become known to the national community, yielding opportunities in donor networks and key primary states.
“She is most known to the Indian American community in California but word is spreading quickly to other cities and states and will continue to do so,” said Raj Goyle, the co-founder and chair of Impact and a former state representative from Kansas.
Added Chaudhuri, “I would say the community has some awareness of it, but as she decides to raise her profile even more, I would think more Indian-Americans would catch on. A large source of information for a fair number of Indian-Americans will come from the national Indian-American publications. Sen. Harris gets pretty consistent coverage in national Indian-American publications.”
Indeed, outlets like India Abroad and India-West cover her aggressively, writing up everything from her book deal to her wedding details and reporting on speeches she has given to the Indian-American community that don’t typically receive mainstream coverage.
And her name alone might also give her a boost.
“It’s a very typical Indian name,” said Sanjay Puri, chair of the U.S.-India Political Action Committee. “So with a name like, obviously, Kamala, there’s a high level of recognition.”
Certainly, noted Raghavan, the Indian-American community is hardly monolithic. Other potential Democratic presidential candidates, including Biden and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, have longstanding ties, and Booker joined Harris in addressing the Impact Summit.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the first Hindu in Congress, has also been conducting outreach to some donors and leaders in the Indian-American community ahead of a possible presidential run.
“I’m very positively inclined” toward Harris, “but Tulsi is another one that is also kind of approaching the community,” said M.R. Rangaswami, a frequent Democratic donor and Indian-American activist who has donated to Harris in the past.
“Hindu-Americans might be very interested in a Tulsi Gabbard, but then there will be another significant portion that likes Kamala Harris, too,” he said. “So it’s not going to be one where initially there’s going to be coalescing around one candidate, that’s what I’m sensing. But again, all things could change if one of them doesn’t run.”
Meantime, Harris spent much of her midterms cycle helping other candidates—in particular, women of color. And she hit the campaign trail with several of the highest-profile African American candidates of the cycle, including Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida.
She also appeared with Indian-American candidates like Anita Malik and Hiral Tipirneni, two House candidate who ran unsuccessfully in Arizona.
In an interview, Tipirneni stressed that, as with any other constituency, the Indian-American community doesn’t vote on shared identity alone.
“I don’t think there’s like a blank stamp of approval from the Indian-American community,” she said. But “there’s a lot of pride—don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of pride when an Indian-American woman makes such progress.”