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In Kamala Harris' presidential campaign, Indian Americans want more opportunities to connect

While the California Democrat has caught the eyes of South Asian voters, some say her ethnic background isn't enough for them to identify with her.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a rally launching her presidential campaign
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at a rally launching her presidential campaign on Jan. 27 in Oakland, California.Noah Berger / AFP - Getty Images

Shiv Dass, 82, recalls fondly the time he met Hillary Clinton when she visited Jackson Heights, in the Queens borough of New York City, while campaigning in the 2016 presidential election.

Dass, the owner of Lavanya, an Indian apparel store on 74th Street for almost a quarter century, described the Clintons as having a close relationship with the Indian-American community, owing in part to what he said was Bill Clinton’s support of India when he was president.

Now that a woman with Indian roots, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is running in the 2020 presidential race, Dass, a Democrat, will have some decisions to make.

“I am proud that she is Indian, but I will not support her because she is Indian,” Dass, who immigrated to the United States in 1966, said. “I will support her if she is good for us, good for the country.”

Harris, who kicked off her campaign in her hometown of Oakland in late January, was born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. She supports policies such as Medicare for all, debt-free college, and a tax cut that will benefit working families.

But she has yet to pick up a huge amount of traction among Indian-American voters, with pollsters finding that many of those voters don't know her.

Community leaders say many Indian Americans and South Asians remain unaware of Harris’ Indian heritage, even with a Sanskrit first name like Kamala, which means “lotus,” and with frequent coverage of her in Indian ethnic media.

“They think of her as black,” said Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corp. in Jackson Heights, an organization that advocates for the housing needs of New York City’s South Asian community.

Seecharran speculated that Harris’ last name might fuel that perception.

In interviews with Indian-American immigrant shop owners and clerks along 74th Street, a busy thoroughfare dotted with jewelry and Indian apparel stores that Hillary Clinton visited before the 2016 New York presidential primary, many who spoke to NBC News said they didn’t follow politics or knew little or nothing about Harris.

If elected, Harris, 54, would make history in several categories: she would be the first woman, the first African-American woman, the first Asian American and the first Indian American to serve as president.

Indian Americans are part of a growing Asian American and Pacific Islander voting bloc, courted by Democrats and Republicans alike, that is expected to account for around 5 percent of the country’s overall electorate by 2020.

One key attribute of the Indian-American community, which is spread out across the United States, is that it is among the most highly educated in the country with the highest incomes, according to Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of AAPI Data and a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside.

When it comes to campaign donations, “their capacity for giving is higher than most other Asian-American groups,” Ramakrishnan said.

In interviews with NBC News after Harris announced her bid, Indian Americans generally said they were excited to see a woman of Indian descent run for president, even as parts of the community were unaware that her late mother was an immigrant from India.

And while some, including community leaders and fundraisers, said they felt Harris has not always been active with the Indian-American community, they added that they believe she has become more involved in the last year or two.

“She’s made this effort that she didn’t make earlier to show up at events and be seen and talking about her roots,” said Shekar Narasimhan, chairman and founder of the AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC focused on mobilizing Asian American and Pacific Islander voters.

A Black Daughter With South Asian Roots

Harris, who was California’s attorney general before winning the Senate seat and San Francisco’s district attorney before that, joins what is shaping up to be a crowded field of Democrats vying for the party's nomination.

That list includes Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; Cory Booker of New Jersey; Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is Hindu though not of Indian descent.

In her recently released biography, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” Harris writes about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, leaving India at the age of 19 to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley, and about her parents meeting and falling in love there while taking part in the civil rights movement.

Harris’ mother raised her and her sister following a divorce.

“My mother, grandparents, aunts, and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots,” Harris writes.

“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” she continues. “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

Harris’ father, Donald J. Harris, is a professor emeritus at Stanford University; her mother died in 2009.

M.R. Rangaswami, an Indian-American community leader in San Francisco, said he attended Harris’ presidential campaign kickoff in Oakland and noted that Harris brought up her Jamaican father and Indian mother at the beginning of her speech.

Rangaswami said Harris has a very positive immigrant story, though one that might not have fully been told.

“I don’t think she was hiding anything,” said Rangaswami, who has raised funds for Harris during her bid for attorney general and later the Senate.

“When you’re running for (district) attorney or attorney general, I don’t know that’s as important, you know?” Rangaswami added. “It’s more like, hey, I’m qualified for the job, I live in the city or the state.”

Harris’ speeches, while tending to focus more on the issues, have mentioned her family and childhood over the years, though she usually does not discuss her parents' heritages. In one speech, however, she did go into detail about her mother’s background, her mother’s family, and her own childhood trips to India. That was at a September 2018 gala in New York City held by Pratham, an organization that works to improve the quality of education in India.

The speech came a little less than four months before Harris announced her 2020 presidential bid.

“I will tell you my grandfather was one of the most influential people in my life,” Harris said, recalling walks on the beach in India that she took with him and his friends, who were active in India’s independence movement.

“One of the things that he definitely taught me is that freedom and democracy are not given to us,” she said. “We have to fight for it.”

Rangaswami said that while Harris is starting to tell this narrative about her family and her roots, she needs to talk more about it and explain what it means.

“People are going to be curious, you know, especially at the presidential level,” he said. “You’re under a microscope.”

Harris told The Washington Post in an interview that she wrote her biography to provide readers with such details of her heritage and career.

She also disagreed with claims that she has not emphasized her Indian background, adding that she has “been focused on the Indian community my entire life.” Harris cited her advocacy for the community after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when South Asians found themselves the target of violence and abuse.

Harris added that the view that only more recently has she embraced her Indian background wholeheartedly was “a matter of what people are aware of and what the press has focused on.”

“I grew up with a great deal of pride and understanding about my Indian heritage and culture,” the senator said in that interview. She added that she calls herself simply “an American.”

Harris’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

What’s In A Name

Still, for Indian Americans, a group for which Democratic party identification is strongest among Asian Americans, Harris appears to lack the same name recognition as some 2016 presidential contenders.

The 2018 Asian American Voter Survey, which interviewed more than 1,300 Asian-American registered voters between Aug. 23 and Oct. 4, found that 30 percent of Asian Indians had never heard of the California senator or don’t know her. (The survey was sponsored in part by the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, affiliated with the AFL-CIO.)

By contrast, only 4 percent of Asian Indians said the same for Hillary Clinton and 12 percent for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., according to the survey, conducted by the national nonpartisan group APIAVote, AAPI Data, and a number of nonprofits.

Compared to 2020 presidential candidates who have announced their runs and were included in the survey, Harris’ favorability (52 percent) among Asian Indians fared better than Booker’s (42 percent) but fell short of Warren’s (56 percent).

Harris landed in between Warren (24 percent) and Booker (36 percent) for survey respondents having never heard of or not knowing them.

Part of the unfamiliarity with Harris in Queens might be because she’s from California, whereas Hillary Clinton was the first lady and a senator from New York with a strong presence in the city, Ramakrishnan said.

“Part of her challenge will be to get Asian Americans in the Northeast and other parts of the country to know who she is and to support her,” he added.

As the election cycle progresses, Seecharran said she believes the South Asian community will generally back Harris once they learn her heritage, adding that people tend to vote along ethnic lines.

“When people become aware that she is brown and she is one of them, she’s going to get their support,” Seecharran said.

A Matter Of Policy

When Harris was running for the California Senate seat, Rangaswami said he and other Indian Americans briefed her on the community’s views toward immigration, education and relations with India.

“She’s fully aware of the main issues and priorities,” he said.

Harris, a member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, has placed a strong emphasis on immigration, an issue that 92 percent of Asian Indians believe is somewhat, very or extremely important.

She has opposed the Trump administration's proposed rule that could stop some immigrants from receiving green cards or adjusting their visa status if they receive certain forms of public assistance. She has written to the Department of Homeland Security, urging it not to revoke employment authorization for spouses of high-tech H-1B visa recipients, many of them from India.

And just last week, Harris introduced a bill with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would remove per-country caps on employment-based green cards, a move that could ease the long lines of becoming a lawful permanent resident. India has some of the highest wait times.

Then there’s health care.

In the Senate, Harris has leaned progressive, signing on to a Medicare-for-all bill backed by Sanders. Even while wanting to eliminate private health insurance, Harris and other senators have also backed legislation that expands a Medicare or Medicare-like option to more people without ending employer-based insurance.

The 2018 Asian American Voter Survey found that 64 percent of Asian Indians agreed with the government expanding health care for all immigrants, regardless of legal status.

Dass, the apparel store owner who is also president of the Jackson Heights Indian Merchants’ Association, expressed skepticism about how Medicare for all would be funded.

“Where’s the money?” he asked. “You pay? I pay?”

Narasimhan said it’s difficult to take an issue like Medicare for all and slice it for the diverse Indian-American community.

“Do Indian Americans, given there’s such a high concentration of people who are doctors, for example, believe that health care should be accessible to all? Yes,” he said.

“Do we all completely agree on how we’re going to execute all of this, and if Medicare for all is the right answer, and that we can afford it, and that it can properly be done?” Narasimhan continued. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Some South Asians also question whether Harris, who has described herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” is truly a progressive, according to Seecharran.

But being one might not necessarily bode well with some South Asian voters either.

“The Indian-American community and the South Asian community tends to be more conservative, though they’re Democratic,” Seecharran said.

“As a community, broadly speaking, I think we have some old-style Republican sort of values,” she added.

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