9:33 am Jul. 20, 20104
There are almost 300,000 South Asians in New York, and zero of them hold elected office. Reshma Saujani, the 34-year-old lawyer and second-generation Indian American who is mounting a well-funded challenge against longtime representative Carolyn Maloney in the September 15 primary, is supposed to change that.
She's a longshot; Maloney is a Democratic incumbent in a liberal district who is not particularly short on cash, who is scandal-free, and who is not particularly controversial, which ought to be enough.
Saujani recognizes that her ethnicity could be a competitive advantage, and is explicitly pursuing a strategy of rallying South Asians to her cause. Which means that stronger-than-expected result, even in the context of a loss, could tell us quite a lot about the local political strength of that group.
While South Asians in New York—particularly Indian Americans—as a group have made an impact at the donor level, cultivating close relationships with the Clintons and influencing foreign policy, there has been no equivalent breakthrough at the voter level. Their strength as a voting bloc, until now, has been negligible.
Saujani is frequently described as "green," and she comes across that way. But she is a compelling figure: a telegenic hedge fund lawyer with high-level Democratic ties. And she has plenty of admirers among the older Indian donor class of bankers and businessmen and Friends of Bill—they know her through her work on Wall Street, or from her fund-raising efforts when she founded South Asians for Kerry in 2004 or when she joined Hillary Clinton's presidential-campaign finance committee in 2008.
"I researched all the prominent South Asians in New York and pretty much stalked them at dinner parties to get them engaged and involved in the Democratic party," she said in a recent phone interview. "This is a group of folks and I've really cultivated and gotten to know since 2002, and many of them think of me like a daughter."
Some of them, in turn, see her as a vehicle for their ambition to realize the potential achieved by previous immigrant groups in New York.
"The simplest way to explain it is that there was the first generation, the immigrant generation, they came here, they focused on learning the new country and getting their feet solidly on the ground," said Anurag Varma, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist for India in his 30s who is vice president of the Indian American Leadership Initiative ("Our mission is to get Indian-American Democrats elected to office, period") and spoke with Saujani before she decided to run.
(Support for Saujani among politically active South Asians is by no means unanimous, as Maloney's endorsement from Uma Sengupta shows.)
Saujani is a charter member of an informal Democratic clique of ambitious, young Indian-American consultants, such as Raghu Devaguptavu, the political director of the firm Adelstein and Liston (which the Saujani campaign has hired), and the six congressional candidates who are each trying to become the third-ever Indian-American member of the House of Representatives.
"We are all friends," Varma said.
Talk to Indian-American groups long enough and it sounds like the flood of money and support could create the perfect moment to win the 14th district, which sweeps from Murray Hill to the neighborhoods west of Jackson Heights. There is a a generous reading, the one Saujani campaign prefers, of the 2008 American Community survey, which counts somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 voting-eligible South Asians (about a third of them are Bangladeshi, many of them clustered in Astoria at the 36th Street stop of the N/Q) in the district.
This sounds like a decisive data point, if you consider that only about 50,000 people usually vote in Maloney's primaries. On the other hand, Maloney—who is taking no chances with for her political life—just announced that more than 23,000 people have signed the petition to get her on the ballot this year.
"What's happened maybe in the last 10 years is the development of a South Asian identity that's shifting into politics," said John Albert, who ran for State Assembly in Flushing in 2002 and is still active in Queens politics. He also says that South Asians are beginning to act like a political bloc, and that the number of South Asians in New York has doubled in the past decade, many of them moving into neighborhoods like Richmond Hill, buying homes and becoming politically active citizens, instead of, as they traditionally have, staying in Jackson Heights and not voting.
"The Bangladeshi may not have a natural connection to a Gujarati neighborhood, but the fact that they're living in the same neighborhood is what draws them together."
Working against their attempts to grow their collective influence, according to Albert, is the fact that there's no critical mass of South Asians in any one legislative district. Without redistricting on every level, he believes, they can only be bit players in the short term.
In no New York congressional district do South Asians make up more than 10 percent of the population, even though they make up about nine percent of the population in Queens. (As a counter example, Koreans make up less than three percent of Queens, but make up more than six percent of Representative Gary Ackerman's district.)
"I feel like its possible to draw a State Assembly, State Senate, and congressional district that covers a wide swath of South Asian communities," Albert said.
This top-heavy political power structure among local South Asians was reflected in the strategy of the Clintons, who built a network of Indian donors (with help, eventually, from Saujani) by focusing on high-level access and foreign policy.
Bill famously courted billionaires like hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal and his son Vivek and Vikram, all of whom were major backers of Hillary's campaign. (Bill attended Vikram's notoriously opulent wedding.) After leaving the White House, he focused a lot of his foundation work on India.
"A lot of the Indian community was a big admirer of Clinton," said Samir Desai, a businessman in Massachussetts and major Democratic donor who is close to John Kerry and supported Hillary in the 2008 primary campaign.
"When he gets up and says something, it says a lot more."
Desai remembers joining other donors and Clinton on 2001 for a trip to Gujarat, right after an earthquake ravaged the northern Indian province. It was one of the first things Clinton did after the formation of the American India Foundation, which gave grants to Indian N.G.O.s and had a board stocked with Clinton allies like retired Citigroup executive Pradeep Kashyap.
Saujani, a graduate of Yale Law and Harvard's Kennedy school, stepped into this world when she came to New York in 2002. She participated in voting drives in the Queens part of the district, and met Desai during the 2004 campaign, when she volunteered with his daughter Megha and founded South Asians for Kerry. (Megha donated $100 to Saujani's campaign; her father gave the maximum of $2400.) Saujani became close with Desai and spoke to him before she ran, and he in turn threw a fund-raiser for her in Massachusetts earlier this year that attracted a wide swath of Indian donors.
"We were also fairly slow in getting involved in politics," said Desai, who first got seriously involved in American politics when Michael Dukakis ran for president in 1988. "We were a little behind our progress in every other field, which is science and business and medicine."
"It's a change in mindset," said Bhavna Pandit, a consultant in Washington who works with IALI and is also part of the young professional clique that is focused less on foreign policy and more on political success. "Maybe 10 years ago, you had a lot of people whose parents were looking to get involved in political stuff; these people now, the second generation, they are at the age we're they are running for office."
Pandit added that focusing on foreign policy issues was difficult—opinion in the American South Asian community differs across a large enough spectrum (see: Pakistan and Bangladesh, much less the splits within India) that the gulf is wider, and the listening population is much smaller, than, say, American Jews. In contrast with the older generation of donors who, along with Varma, were major proponents of the U.S.-India nuclear deal and helped set up USINPAC, the India lobby group modeled off AIPAC, there is a more granular focus on winning.
"The thing that we have not done as well as other communities is organize our base," Pandit said, directing the focus more to the idea that South Asians need a representative voice. "There's not like one single-issue community, where you have one big issue."
And often foreign policy could just mean foreignness—the Saujani campaign is something of an exception nationally in that there is a local ethnic base for her to mine; many of the Indian-American political succcesses, like Louisiana Governer Bobby Jindal, South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, and Kansas Democratic State Representative and congressional candidate Raj Goyle all come from regions where they've had to take steps to emphasize their American heritage.
Saujani's ability to raise money, more than anything else, is the reason she has stayed on the radar—she is close to Maureen White, who is Steve Rattner's wife, and their daughter, Rebecca Rattner, has worked for the campaign as a paid aide.
Even though Maloney has shown in recent quarters she is still a formidable fund-raiser (including a $2400 donation in the second quarter of 2010 from Jeff Koons) and has leveraged the powers of incumbency to bring in PAC money, Saujani has successfully kept a pipeline running to the kind of donors that led the Obama campaign to mock Clinton in 2007 as the Senator from Punjab. Donors in this most recent cycle include Victor Menezes, another former Citigroup executive and a A.I.F. board member, is a former Maloney donor who gave to the Saujani campaign recently; Arvind Ragunathan, a former Deutsche Banc honcho who bundled more than $100,000 during the Hillary 2008 cycle; and Arshad Zakaria, a former Goldman Sachs executive and a partner at New Vernon Capital, who also happens to be brother of foreign policy pundit Fareed Zakaria.
Saujani described her ability to mobilize South Asian support as "one piece of a larger strategy, which is getting our Obama-surge voters—people who have not traditionally been part of the political process. Like, we spend a lot of time on Upper East Side moms under the age of 45 who have house parties for us after drop-off."
After a pause, she added, "I've spent a significant amount of my time in Queensbridge and Ravenswood and Astoria housing and in public housing."