Indian-Americans Priming the Pump

Posted October 19, 2009 at 6:51pm

On the last day of the third quarter, Democrat Manan Trivedi hosted a fundraiser for friends and family — his extended network of “Uncles and Aunties— — that raised $10,000 in two hours at the Lantern Lodge, an Indian-American-owned restaurant and hotel in southeastern Pennsylvania.

As one of three higher-profile Indian-American candidates running for Congress next year, Trivedi estimates that 20 percent to 25 percent of the $127,500 he raised in the first three weeks of his campaign for Pennsylvania’s 6th district open seat came from his connections to the Indian-American community. And he said he’s only begun to tap into the affluent ethnic network, which has recently become fertile fundraising ground.

Fellow physician and Indian-American candidate Ami Bera (D) raised more than $600,000 in five months for his campaign in California, while Kansas state Rep. Raj Goyle (D) raised $403,000 in the past three months for his open-seat bid. According to Bhavna Pandit, a Democratic fundraiser who specializes in the Indian-American community, the influx of Indian-American candidates this cycle is unprecedented.

“This is a deluge,— Pandit said. “We’ve never had this many people running for office. It’s kind of insane.—

Bera, who is running in the primary for the opportunity to face Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), estimated that about 50 percent to 60 percent of his money came from Indian Americans.

“The Indian-American community has responded overwhelmingly in a way that I don’t think they’ve responded previously,— Bera said. “Obviously, there’s a fair amount coming out of our community and also from the broader medical community, and the overlap between the two.—

The goal for politically active Indian-Americans has been to elect one of their own to Congress ever since now-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) left the House in 2008.

Although Jindal is the highest-ranking Indian-American elected to office, the community as a whole leans to the political left, as demonstrated by the trio of Democratic Congressional candidates running next year.

But even with their vast fundraising network, all three candidates have a long and challenging path to Congress.

Goyle faces an uphill battle in the race to replace Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) in a conservative Wichita-area district. And both Bera and Trivedi will need to continue fundraising at a torrid rate in order to be competitive in their Democratic primaries. In Pennsylvania, Trivedi faces a self-funding Democrat in the primary and another self-funding candidate in the general election, while Bera’s primary is also competitive.

But many in the community say the increasing interest from candidates and donors is a sign that Indian-Americans are on their way to having one of their own in Congress again.

“I think this goes towards again the political growth of an emerging community,— said Raghu Devaguptapu, a Democratic consultant. “We’ve seen the numbers rise on the state legislative level and it’s only a matter of time until they reach the Congressional level.—

After Iraq War Veteran Ashwin Madia (D) lost a competitive open-seat race in the 2008 cycle to now-Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.), it wasn’t clear when the next viable candidate would come along.

Madia raised about $2.4 million for his race. His fundraiser, Pandit, estimated that 25 percent to 30 percent of that money was from the Indian-American community.

Pandit said many Indian-Americans look to the Jewish community as their model for political activity.

“I think sort of emulating the Jewish community is what we’re doing right now,— Pandit said. “Our goal is where they are now, we’re aspiring to get where that community is. We don’t have the history of being in this country that a lot of Americans do.—

Goyle’s parents, for example, immigrated from the Punjab region of India and did their medical residencies in Cleveland before settling as doctors in Wichita in the mid-1970s. Like many first-wave Indian immigrants, the parents of all three of this cycle’s candidates eventually landed highly skilled jobs in secure fields such as medicine, engineering or higher education. Their children eventually branched out to less traditional careers — such as politics.

“Over the last 10 years, Indian Americans have begun to become more politically engaged in the life of the nation now that they’ve achieved a certain degree of economic success,— said Anil Mammen, a Democrat who runs the political consulting firm the Mammen Group.

Mammen is also the son of Indian immigrants, who earned degrees at southeastern Pennsylvania universities despite having what he said was “no money.—

“You wouldn’t have had political consultants in my parents’ generation,— Mammen said. “They just didn’t have that cultural connection with this country.—

At the age of 51, Maryland state House Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D) has seen the change in the community over the course of his 20 years in office. Barve recalled that at the beginning of his career, Indian-Americans were hesitant to donate to candidates, ­and that they often times only did so to get a photo with a politician to hang in their homes.

“In the ’90s, it was like pulling teeth getting Indian-Americans to part with their money,— Barve said. “They just didn’t understand the importance of having one of their own at the table.—

But he said “something clicked— in the late 1990s that changed the community’s mindset. Nowadays, the community is a wealthy network with a sometimes unique way of delivering support for its own candidates.

“In the Indian-American community, you have to have another person ask on your behalf in order to be successful,— Barve said. “Because Indians don’t want to give their money to anybody. We’re cheap.—

Indian-American candidates typically hit up their parents’ generation — otherwise known as the “Uncle and Auntie— generation of well-educated and affluent immigrants — when they are on the hunt for donors.

And while most politicians dial for dollars on the phone, Indian-American candidates sometimes make their appeals at the home of an Indian-American through an intermediary trusted in the community.

Devaguptapu, a first-generation Indian-American, said his community is especially powerful for candidates because it tends to be large but close-knit. Because India is such a big and diverse country, he said it’s easier to have a larger community here in the states because immigrants tend to worry less about regionalism.

“I guess the benefit of the Indian-American community is you tend to have larger friends and family units,— Devaguptapu said. “And that’s where all the early money comes from.—