The first ever Indian-American Impact Project Summit, held on June 7th at the National Education Association Auditorium in Washington, D.C., described as the largest gathering in recent years of Indian-Americans brought together dozens of Congressional and state Assembly aspirants, incumbents, community leaders, political activists and donors, numbering over 200.
Sponsored by the Indian American Impact Project, the day-long meeting was attended by nearly 200 Indian Americans.
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), the first-ever Senator of Indian origin, delivered the keynote address. Harris’ remarks were followed by the other tag team: Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, also both Democrats. Together the group forms an entity Krishnamoorthi affectionately calls the “Samosa Caucus.”
“Like many of you in this room, especially those who are pursuing elected office or may think of pursuing elected office, at the time in 2002, when I decided to run against him, I was told like many of you may have been told or will be told, ‘Hmm, nobody like you has done this before.’ “ she said. “ ‘Maybe, it’s not a good time, maybe they are not ready for you, it will be a lot of hard work.’ I didn’t listen. And, part of why I am here today, is to say, don’t you listen. This moment of time is a moment in time to that moment of time when my parents were active in the civil rights movement,” she said. The moment, she said, requires the community to be part of the fight for American ideals. Even in the face of powerful voices that are sowing hate and division among us, I know it to be true and believe we have so much more in common than what divides us,” she said.
“The summit was first-ever event of its kind,” said Gautam Raghavan, executive director of the newly minted Impact Project. “We are thrilled to host the first-ever gathering of Indian American elected officials, candidates, philanthropists, community leaders, and political strategists. I am particularly excited that we have over 30 Indian American candidates and elected officials attending the Summit. Many of them are eager to connect with one another, to share stories from the campaign trail and lessons learned along the way.”
He said the rationale behind it was to brainstorm on strategies to get candidates elected and give others mulling entry into the fray the necessary training and resources for viable campaigns “This historic summit is proof that the Indian- American community has truly arrived on the political scene,” said Raj Goyle, cofounder of Impact and a former member of the Kansas House of Representatives. “Together, we can shape a future in which talented and patriotic Indian-Americans are fully represented at every level of government, from City Hall to the White House.”
Deepak Raj, a cofounder of the project, called the energy, enthusiasm and talent of those gathered “truly inspiring. Impact is proud to stand with them — and we look forward to expanding their ranks at every level of elected office.” He said the stated goal was to have at least 15 to 20 Indian- Americans in Congress “and our community should be represented in many, many places —city council, state houses, Supreme Court, state governors mansions, and who knows, thinking big, one day in the White House.”
David Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Comcast Corporation, one of the summit’s sponsors, noted that while “Americans’ ambivalence to politics remains very much with us, yet good things happen when good people get involved in the political process. That’s what’s happening here,” noting it was a reason for the Comcast sponsorship. He said the Indian-American lawmakers on Capitol Hill and “political leaders like Nikki Haley — the daughter of Sikh immigrants from Punjab, and a popular governor of South Carolina and now our ambassador to the United Nations,” provided even more encouragement, as do the 60 Indian-American candidates for office at various federal, state and local levels. The Indian-American community is spreading its political wings. And the time is right.”
“I do realize that I am an ideological minority here, but I am proud to be here and thank you for the invitation,” said Harry Arora, GOP candidate for the House seat in Connecticut’s 4th District. Arora and fellow Republican Aakash Patel, candidate for Hillsborough County Commission in Florida, shared places on a panel “Running and Serving as an ‘R.’ “ An invitation had also been extended to another Republican, two-term Ohio State Rep Niraj Antani, who did not attend.
At a panel discussion on public service and the path less traveled, featured Hoboken, New Jersey’s Mayor Ravi Bhalla; former diplomat Sri Preston Kulkarni, the Democratic nominee for the 22nd District of Texas; Maryland lawmaker Aruna Miller, the front-runner in the Democratic primary in Maryland’s 6th District; and continuing health care advocate Ram Villivalam, Democratic nominee for the Illinois State Senate from the 8th District.
Bhalla, an attorney, recalled his own candidacy after volunteering for both the mayoral campaign of Cory Booker, who is now a senator, and the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. He was asked “how many Sikhs are there in Hoboken?” and he had replied, “My brother and I.” He said he was told: “You are not Irish, you are not Italian…where are you going to draw your vote?”
Villivalam said he too had naysayers who discouraged him when he challenged a 20-year incumbent in the Democratic primary. He got comments, he said, such as “you are a dark man knocking on doors of older white ladies at 8 p.m.” In four months, he said, he was able to win their vote.
Another panel featured women in politics, with participants including congressional aspirant, Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, Democratic nominee for Arizona’s 8th District; Dr. Megan Srinivas, candidate for Iowa’s state assembly; Padma Kuppa, candidate for the Michigan state House, and Dita Bhargarva, candidate for State Treasurer in Connecticut. Kuppa urged more young Indian-American women to consider a candidacy. “The important thing to remember is that we are great candidates — and also that we are women.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey delivered the closing keynotes. His address was preceded by the tag-team of Indian-American members of the House of Representatives, Ami Bera and Ro Khanna, both Democrats from California. In the sporting arena of politics, Indian-Americans can – and should – punch above their weight class, said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) In his address, he noted the community’s capacity to excel in academia, technology, business and the arts. “In every area,” he said, “Indian-Americans have been out-punching [their] weight class – look at the Fortune 500 companies — except for one [class] that has been in elected officials.” He said the absence of Indian-American involvement there on a grand scale has left “the one big hole in American society.” It is a time, he said, “when the very idea of America is under assault” most notably, by bigotry.