Harry Sidhu hoping to ride Indo-American wave

Harry Sidhu said the major event that pushed him to the Republican Party came in 1974, when he was 17 years old and making $2.65 an hour cleaning a Holiday Inn. About a third of his first meager paycheck went to taxes, cementing the matter for the lifelong conservative. Many other Indians have gone through similar experiences, he said.

“When they arrive in this country, they’re Democrats,” said Sidhu, who came to the United States from India.

But over time, Sidhu says, many hardworking Indians migrate toward the GOP. Now Sidhu is tapping into this community. An Anaheim city councilman for the last four years, Sidhu is challenging Assemblywoman Mimi Walters, R-Laguna, for the 33rd Senate District seat next June. The seat is currently occupied by none other than Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman, R-Fullerton, who is scheduled to be termed out next year, pending the results of the term-limits change on the ballot. The district is considered safely Republican.

Walters has many advantages, including a hefty edge in fundraising through the first six months of this year–she took in $576,000 to his $467,000. She is a trusted lieutenant of Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines, R-Fresno, and is vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful spots available to an Assembly Republican. She has donations from the likes of Assemblyman Bill Emmerson, R-Rancho Cucamonga; Anthony Adams, R-Claremont; and former Assembly Republican leader Jim Brulte. Walters has also wrapped up endorsements from four GOP congressmen, 13 of 15 Republican state Senators, and 29 of the 31 other members of her own Assembly caucus.

But Sidhu said that in recent months he’s been pulling closer, largely on the strength of numerous small donations from the Indian community. About $147,000 of his money has come in about 200 donations from people or businesses with Indian surnames. Four-fifths of these are for less than $1,000 each; three-fifths are for $300 or less.
Over the next three months, he’ll be doing a fundraising tour around Indian enclaves around the state. Stops will include Apple Valley, Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Victorville and Yuba City. He said he’s also been contacted by Indo-American business leaders from Chicago and other out-of-state areas about visiting for fundraising, but has turned these down.

“My base is going to be all the Indo-American communities around the state,” Sidhu said. “This is an untouched funding base. These are people who have never given money before.”

“Where he’s going to different regions in the state, we’re going to different cities in Orange County,” said Gina Zari, political director for Walters’ campaign. She said the vast majority of Walters’ donations have come from Orange County, or nearby areas like San Diego. Assemblyman Mike Duvall, R-Brea, held a fundraiser for her in Yorba Linda in August, Zari said, while Jim Silva will hold one on October 21 in his home city of Huntington Beach.

While Latinos and now many Asians have made huge strides in state politics in recent years, Sidhu said an Indo-American has never been elected to the Legislature or statewide office in California. This is despite the fact that around half a million Indo-Americans live in the state, about a fifth of the U.S. total, according to Inder Singh, president of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin.

This group has something else to offer besides numbers, Singh claimed: the highest average household income of any ethnic group in the country, including native-born whites. He pointed to 2006 U.S. Census Bureau statistics that show while the overall median household income was $42,200, for Asians it was $63,100–with Indian households making slightly more. This wealth, Singh claimed, is increasingly helping lead Indians to the GOP.

“Most of us have come to this country with degrees, or get degrees in this country,” Singh said. “We become professionals.”

However, both candidates in this race are wealthy. Each has given $100,000 to their own campaign. Sidhu describes himself as a self-made businessman. In the late 1990s, he owned 28 fast-food franchises in the Orange County area, including Burger Kings and Papa John’s Pizza outlets. He’s gradually sold these off as he’s concentrated more on his political career, and now owns only two El Pollo Loco franchises.

“My experience has been in signing the front of the check,” said Sidhu, emphasizing his past as a businessman. “She knows how to sign the back of the check.”

Zari took issue with this characterization, noting that Walters and husband David own several businesses, including interests in brokerages and information-technology firms. Walters also worked as an investment banker for several years in the 1980s and 1990s. While Walters was well-off growing up, Zari said, she did come from great wealth, as Sidhu has contended.

“We’re not talking millions,” Zari said. “I think he’s made some incorrect assumptions.”

With neither candidate having to beg for change to get their message out, the race will likely come down to their records and whether an immigrant can run a successful campaign in a majority white GOP district.

Sidhu is a Sikh, a religion that was in the spotlight after 9/11 for the mere reason that many Sikh men wear turbans–something Sidhu does not do. The religion is viewed by many as having elements in common with both Islam and Hinduism, but has been distinct from both for hundreds of years. There are about half a million Sikhs in the United States, with California representing one of the largest concentrations. While most Indo-Americans are Hindu, Sidhu said, there is an Indo-American identity that transcends religion.

Sidhu said he has also gained widespread support across the district, as well. He first ran for city council in 2001 and lost, but came back in 2003 as the top vote-getter citywide. He does not see his ethnicity as a problem among a majority-white electorate–or among an even more majority-white group of GOP primary voters.

He also said that he wants to bring a different style to Sacramento. Sidhu said that one major change he would like to see would be better pay and benefits for teachers, in exchange for the unions making it easier to let go underperforming teachers. This is the type of change that will never happen under the current “obstructionist” GOP caucus–but one that someone used to dealing with different points of view could help pull off.

“I’ll sit down with anyone,” Sidhu said.

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