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SOUTH ASIAN

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SOUTH ASIAN AMERICANS IN U.S. POLITICS By Roopa Nemi and Amala Nath* A sian Americans as a group, are largely underrepre-sented in United States politics. However, as the sec-ond largest and fastest growing demographic, there is a pressing need for our political leaders to reflect the people they represent. This article will highlight the careers of three South Asian American politicians and their efforts to balance the needs of the minority community and the interests of their constitu-ency. REPRESENTATIVE SWATI DANDEKAR Iowa state Representative Swati Dandekar was born in India and moved to Iowa after getting married.1 She ini-tially got involved in the community by volunteering to teach elementary school children.2 After having her two sons, she remained actively involved with their education by serving as a school board member.3 It was her desire to improve education that launched her political career. As she served on the board, others im-pressed with her work recommended she run for the Iowa House of Representatives.4 She approached her campaign with a focus on building a grassroots foundation.5 She went door to door to chat with her fellow citizens to hear their concerns and also to inform them of the issues she planned on addressing.6 Her campaign strategy allowed people in her community a chance to get to know Rep. Dandekar as a person beyond the color of her skin because7 she did not try to flaunt nor hide her ethnicity.8 Her opponent, Karen Balderston, questioned Rep. Dandekar’s ability to represent the community because of her ethnic background.9 She expressed this concern in an email, which after being intercepted by the media, cost Karen the support of her own party: “While I was growing up in Iowa, learning and reciting the Pledge of Alle-giance to the Flag, Swati was growing up in India, under the still existent caste system. How can that prepare her for legislating in Iowa or any other part of our great United States?”10 Rather than respond to her opponent’s attack, Rep. Dandekar chose to run a positive campaign.11 She believed that people in Iowa treated her as just another member of the com-munity regardless of the color of her skin.12 In turn, she sought to take the same approach in her campaigning. She reflected on how values in the Indian community and the Iowa community are similar since both focus on education and family.13 There was no need for her to specifically address just the South Asian American community. When asked about what she felt were important issues for her as a South Asian American politician she responded, “I think the issues important for Asian American politicians are the same as those for any other politician - they are issues of education for your children, the economy, family security, and health care.”14 As a result, Rep. Dandekar’s cam-paign addressed issues such as improving education, encourag-ing new businesses to come to the community, improving the quality of jobs, and property tax relief.15 By representing herself as a member of the Iowa community rather than just the South Asian American community, Rep. Dandekar became the first South Asian American woman elected to a U.S. legislative body in 2002.16 SENATOR SATVEER CHAUDHARY Minnesota state Senator Sat-veer Chaudhary has also made sig-nificant strides for South Asian Americans in U.S. politics.17 Unlike Rep. Dandekar, Sen. Chaudhary was born and raised in the United States in his home state of Minnesota.18 Sen. Chaudhary has acknowledged that being born in Minnesota made it easier to tran-sition to public office as a South Asian American because he was able to enjoy the “dual enrichment” of both cultures.19 Sen. Chaudhary initially became involved with social issues during high school.20 He then joined Minnesota’s Democratic Party where he held various state offices.21 However, it was not until law school, when he served on the campaigns of several local representatives, that Sen. Chaudhary considered politics as a career.22 In 1996, he became the first South Asian American elected to the Minnesota legislature.23 In 2002, at the age of 30, Sen. Chaudhary was looking to become the youngest member of the state senate.24 He acknowledges that his appeal to supporters during the campaign “stem from the fact that I am a politician for everyone and not just Indian Americans.”25 Like Iowa, the South Asian American community in Minnesota is small, around 16,000.26 Thus, he had to appeal to the community as a whole during his election campaign. Sen. Chaudhary believes that his “first priority is to the geographic area” that he represents but he also recognizes that his unique situation as an Indian-American politician “cannot be denied...and so I do shoulder extra du-ties.”27 Similar to Rep. Dandekar, when asked about what the concerns of South Asian Americans, Sen. Chaudhary re-sponded, “Indian issues often coincide with mainstream issues, such as education, health care, technology, freedom from dis-crimination, and so taking up those causes often serves a dual purpose.”28 With his belief in representing the community as a whole and his strong work ethic, Sen. Chaudhary defeated his Spring 2005 15opponent to win a seat in the state senate.29 As a senator, Satveer Chaudhary still considers the full rep-resentation of his geographical community to be his first prior-ity.30 This was evident when he was invited to help brief the President on his visit to India but declined to do so because of his duties in Minnesota.31 Sen. Chaudhary has also shouldered the responsibility of being a South Asian American politician through his involvement in reviving the South Asian language program at the University of Minnesota and by helping to speed up alien labor certification.32 However, with these projects, Sen. Chaudhary is quick to point out that while they do address some of the South Asian American’s community’s needs, they are meant to serve all Minnesotans.33 CONGRESSMAN BOBBY JINDAL Perhaps the most promi-nent South Asian American in U.S. politics today is Con-gressman Bobby Jindal. Rep. Jindal’s origins mirror that of countless other immi-grants who came to the U.S. to fulfill their own personal and professional aspirations as well as to provide a better future for their children. Rep. Jindal’s parents migrated from India to the U.S. a few years prior to Rep. Jindal’s birth in Baton Rouge in 1971.34 Al-though his parents


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