Indian-American candidates concerned about racial intolerance

More Indian-American candidates than ever are running for office in 2010, and there are worries their ethnicity could become a factor.

The most prominent of those candidates, South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley (R), won a nasty primary in which a state senator called her a "raghead." He later apologized.

Sanjay Puri, who heads the U.S.-India Political Action Committee, suggested that in an election year that has seen contentious debates over immigration and a proposed Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, he's not surprised that tension is present in some races. He didn’t point the finger at any specific campaign, however.

But the campaigns of two Indian-American Democrats running for Congress say their GOP opponents are employing subtle nods toward their ethnicity.

In Pennsylvania's 6th congressional district, where Democrat Manan Trivedi is challenging Rep. Jim Gerlach (R), the Republican's campaign is painting Trivedi as a far left-winger and has said Trivedi "doesn't share our values."

Trivedi claims that can be taken as a nod toward his race. "There are some signs that he might be pushing the 'he's not one of us' arguments," Trivedi said of his Republican opponent in an interview with The Hill.

Gerlach's campaign called the accusation false and said if anyone is playing the race card in the campaign, it's Trivedi.

"What we are saying is that Trivedi is a far-left fringe candidate who does not share the common-sense values of the taxpayers, families or seniors of the 6th district," said Gerlach campaign spokesman Mark Campbell.

"The only one who has played the race card here is him, by going to Indian-American groups to raise money," said Campbell.

Trivedi is one of six Indian-Americans running for Congress in 2010.

Puri says the exchange between the two campaigns is part of a pattern emerging in races involving candidates of Indian descent.

"When you have political operatives trying to find some level of advantage, people raise the question — what is different about these candidates?" Puri said. "The answer usually comes back to ethnicity."

An incident earlier this month in Kansas resulted in a formal apology from the campaign of Republican Mike Pompeo. In the race for Rep. Todd Tiahrt's (R-Kan.) open seat, Pompeo's campaign tweeted a link to a blog post that included a racial slur aimed at Democrat Raj Goyle and labeled President Obama a Muslim.

The Pompeo campaign said the link to the post was sent in error and the candidate apologized.

"The statements of the blogger in no way reflect my views," Pompeo said in a statement. "There is no place in campaigns or in public discourse for language of this nature."

In the immediate aftermath, a spokesman for Goyle's campaign suggested the link was sent out intentionally, but both campaigns declined to comment further on the incident.

In California, Rep. Dan Lungren's (R) campaign has made an issue out of a $250 donation Democratic nominee Ami Bera received from a donor affiliated with the Council on American Islamic Relations. California Republicans alleged the group is "tied to terrorists," a charge CAIR forcefully denies.

Bera returned the donation, but given Lungren's attack over it and his focus on plans for a mosque near Ground Zero, Bera's campaign accused Lungren of "using the diversionary tactics of fear and race in order to deflect from jobs, the economy and healthcare — what our campaign is all about."

A spokesman for Lungren shot back, "Was it race-baiting when Barbara Boxer withdrew an award from the very same CAIR executive director? Bera is a rookie candidate making rookie mistakes."

Lungren spokesman Saulo Londono said the campaign is ultimately about jobs and the economy, "which is why [Bera's] alliance with Nancy Pelosi on higher taxes, government-run healthcare and deficit spending is going to sink his candidacy.”

The mosque issue is also present in Pennsylvania's 6th district race, with Gerlach repeatedly pressing Trivedi for his stance on the plans.

In a statement to The Hill, Trivedi said, "Look, I'm proud to have served my country as a battalion surgeon in Iraq and I risked my life to defend the entire Constitution, and that includes freedom of religion. While I think building it there is insensitive, if the people of New York decide that's what's best for them then that's their decision. But what I'm not going to do is try to score political points by grandstanding like Jim Gerlach."

Along with these three, the other Indian-American House candidates include Reshma Saujani, waging a primary campaign against Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.); Ravi Sangisetty (D), running for the seat left open by Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.); and Surya Yalamanchili (D), challenging Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio).

Democrats are putting a spotlight on Trivedi's campaign this week, with Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine heading to Philadelphia to raise money for him. It's part of a campaign swing led by Kaine that focuses on Indian-American and Asian-American candidates running in 2010.

The uptick in Indian-Americans running for political office is reflective of the community's increasing political involvement, said Puri. Broadly speaking, he said Indian-American Democrats tend to outnumber Republicans, but the community has offered strong financial backing for Indian-American candidates of both parties.

Puri said he hopes the dynamic developing in a handful of contentious races this year doesn't overshadow the fact that Indian-American candidates have increasingly run credible campaigns over the past few cycles and the community's political involvement is on the rise.

"The political dynamics are shifting to a large extent," Puri said. He notes that Haley and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), who both have had electoral success in Southern states, demonstrate that "voters are looking beyond this and asking, 'Is this person capable of representing my district?' "

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