Usha Reddi, a Democrat who launched her Kansas Senate campaign Thursday, never meant for her experience as a survivor of sexual assault to be central to her platform.
But when her father pleaded guilty this summer to raping her when she was a child, Reddi, a city commissioner in Manhattan, Kansas, decided she should be the one to make it an issue.
“My personal life and my public life were about to intersect,” she told CQ Roll Call in an interview. “I thought the community needed to hear about it from me first.”
Reddi, 54, is one of several Kansas Democrats vying to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. Local backlash against the deep budget cuts instituted by former Gov. Sam Brownback has convinced many Democrats that they have a shot at the seat, even though they haven’t won a Senate race in Kansas since 1932 — the longest dry spell for either party in the country.
Those hopes have been compounded by the lack of an obvious Republican front-runner, though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been rumored for months to be weighing a bid. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.
A longtime teacher, Reddi wants to talk about education and her accomplishments in local government. Her proudest feats, she said, include the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity to her city’s anti-discrimination ordinance and the opening of a short-term treatment center for people experiencing mental health or substance abuse crises.
If elected, she would be the first woman of color to represent Kansas in Congress and the first Hindu senator.
Reddi acknowledges, though, that she also can’t avoid talking about her father’s abuse, and the years she spent pursuing criminal charges against him.
Her father, Venkata Yeleti, a retired anesthesiologist who was still revered by many in her family, was sentenced in July to 10 years in prison, with nine years suspended, for raping her repeatedly in the 1970s.
Reddi is among a handful of candidates and lawmakers from both parties who have spoken openly about their experiences as sexual abuse victims in recent years, as the #MeToo movement and discussion about military sexual assault have pushed the once taboo subject into the forefront.
Sol Flores, who lost a Democratic primary bid for a House seat in Illinois last cycle, described her attempts to defend herself from childhood sexual abuse in a campaign ad. This cycle, Brynne Kennedy, a Democrat running in California’s 4th District, divulged in the biography section of her campaign website that she had “survived a violent sexual assault from a supervisor thirty years her senior” at her job.
Reddi said that her decision to talk about her case was not connected to what else was happening nationally.
“I’ve told many people throughout my life about my experience,” she said. “This isn’t something that just happened overnight.”
Reddi immigrated with her family from India when she was 8. They settled in Ohio, where her father completed his medical residency, then briefly lived in Virginia, where he started a practice, before returning to Ohio.
During that time, when she was between the ages of 10 and 16, her father raped her repeatedly, she said.
“Each night was a nightmare,” she recalled. “I was scared to death that if I said anything, I would lose my family, I would end up in foster care, we might end up poor.”
Reddi waited to tell an adult until she was 21, she said. She was advised to let it go and live her life. It wasn’t until much later, when her own children were in college, that she started to think about it differently.
Her son wanted to confront his grandfather. So they met in a hotel room, on neutral ground, and her son — without telling his mother — recorded the resulting confession on a cell phone, she said.
Reddi consulted legal experts in Kansas, where she has lived since 1992.
They said she had no case because the statute of limitations had long expired in Ohio, and that seemed to be the end of it. But her son did not want to let it go, she said.
“He was so angered by it,” she said. “He couldn’t get past it. He said, ‘You can’t carry this with you.’ I promised him I would find a way.”
Reddi called the local district attorney, who asked about all the places she had lived. Virginia, he told her, did not have a statute of limitations for sexual assault.
It had been years since the confession, but prosecutors in Virginia said they had enough evidence to open an investigation, a rarity for decades-old assault allegations. After another year, her father stood in a courtroom and pleaded guilty to his crime.
When Reddi found out about the plea deal, she called a local radio station. They recorded an hourlong interview. After it aired, she said, she was flooded with messages from other survivors.
Her Senate ambitions became linked with her personal revelation. “Usha Reddi confirms Senate interest after father’s rape plea,” read a headline in The Wichita Eagle.
Reddi said the saga has informed her thinking on criminal justice and victims’ rights, including the way statutes of limitations limit prosecutions for sexual assault or how the burden falls on victims to prove that they were harmed.
She wants to talk about those issues during her campaign. She also wants to move on, she said.
“This does not define me,” Reddi said. “But it’s part of who I am.”