Network of immigrants push Kamala Harris’ presidential bid

Lorna Owens is cajoling friends to get involved in the 2020 presidential race over coffee at her neighborhood Starbucks in Miami. In nearby Miramar, Florida, Dahlia Walker-Huntington is sending WhatsApp messages to dozens of contacts around the country. And outside Boston, Ramesh Kapur is busy organizing fundraisers in Cleveland, Chicago and beyond.

All three are part of a small, but growing, network of political fundraisers in the Jamaican and Indian diaspora in the US who have sprung into action in recent months with a single purpose: Help California Sen. Kamala Harris win the presidency.

Even in the most diverse group of presidential contenders ever fielded by Democrats, Harris stands out. If elected president, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother would be not only the first woman, but the first Indian American, the first Asian, the first black woman and the first person of Jamaican descent to ascend to the office.

While Harris has said she spends little time thinking about her diverse racial and ethnic background — “I am who I am,” she recently told The Washington Post — her supporters are quick to claim her as their own. And they hope her family’s cultural ties to these immigrant communities will give her a new pipeline of support and campaign money in a crowded primary where every vote and dollar will count.

“She’s our DNA, so we are excited,” said Kapur, a longtime Democratic donor who’s planning an April 28 fundraiser for Harris in Cleveland. “I’m sure it’s how the Catholics must have felt when Jack Kennedy was nominated and became president.”

Walker-Huntington, who emigrated from Jamaica as a teenager 40 years ago and now practices immigration and family law in South Florida, also is raising campaign money for the California lawmaker.

Harris’ candidacy, she said, has “lit a spark in our community.”

An American journey

Harris was born in Oakland, California, to parents who met as graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, graduated from the University of Delhi at 19, earned her doctorate from Berkeley at 25 and became a breast cancer researcher. She died in 2009.

Her Jamaican-born father Donald Harris is an economist and professor emeritus at Stanford University.

Harris’ parents separated when she was five and divorced a few years later. She and her younger sister, Maya, were raised by their mother.

“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” Harris wrote in her recent autobiography, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey.” “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 black women.”

After high school in Montreal — during her mother’s stint teaching at McGill University — Harris attended Howard University, one of the US’s most prominent black institutions. In a 2018 interview on The Breakfast Club syndicated radio show, she said Howard was crucial in helping shape her identity.

“What you learn at an HBCU is you do not have to fit into someone’s limited perspective of what it means to be young, gifted and black,” she said.

Still, her upbringing also was steeped in her South Asian heritage.

Kamala means “lotus” in Sanskrit. And in a speech last year to a summit of more than 200 Indian-American elected officials, aides and activists, she recounted her childhood visits to India to see her grandparents.

Her grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, had been part of India’s independence movement, and Harris said her early lessons about government came as she joined him and his friends on their daily strolls through her family’s hometown of Chennai, then known as Madras.

“There I would be, this young girl, holding my grandfather’s hand, walking with them as they would debate and discuss with incredible passion the importance of a democracy,” she told the summit hosted by the Indian American Impact Project.

But activists in the Indian community say Harris doesn’t have an automatic lock on support from Indian Americans, some of whom are just learning about her Indian heritage as she becomes better known.

“She has a lot for the community to like, but like any other community of voters, they want to know how she feels about their issues,” said Varun Nikore, president of AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC focused on mobilizing voters in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

Growing power

Harris’ rise comes as Indian Americans gain more political clout.

Five Indian Americans, including Harris, now sit in Congress, and dozens hold elective office at the state and local levels, according to Indian American Impact. Two serve as attorneys general of their states: Democrat Josh Kaul, elected last November in Wisconsin, and Gurbir Grewal, appointed by New Jersey’s Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

Indians make up about 1% of the US population but have substantial economic power. Indian Americans have the highest income levels of any group in the country: a median household income of $100,000, according to the Pew Research Center — surpassing the $61,400 for the general population.

“The community has come a long way in the past seven or eight years in terms of being more politically active and running for office,” said MR Rangaswami, a Silicon Valley investor who founded Indiaspora, a non-profit group that works to increase the influence of Indian Americans.

Rangaswami said he raised money for Harris’ campaigns for California attorney general and the US Senate and attended her presidential campaign kickoff this year in Oakland.

So far, he’s neutral in the primary in which more than a dozen candidates are racing to collect contributions. He also planned to attend an event for another Democratic presidential contender, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who was born in American Samoa and is Hindu.

“Our community is being approached by everybody,” Rangaswam said, “because they’ve suddenly realized that Indians are the highest-earning demographic group in the country.”

In Massachusetts, Kapur — who has raised money for Democratic presidential candidates stretching back to Michael Dukakis’ 1988 White House bid — said he didn’t hesitate to jump on board when Harris announced for the presidency.

He followed her meteoric rise through California politics as San Francisco district attorney and state attorney general and hosted a fundraiser in 2016 for her successful US Senate campaign.

“Once I met her face-to-face, I knew she had potential and all the ingredients to be president,” said Kapur, who arrived in the US as a college student in 1967 and owns a firm that supplies compressed gas to the medical and biotech industry. “She’s very comfortable in her skin. You can see her charisma and leadership qualities right away.”

“And she can close the deal. She’s done it three times,” he said, referring to her 3-0 record in electoral politics.

Caribbean connections

In South Florida, home to the one of the largest concentrations of Jamaicans outside of the island, another candidate with ties to the community has entered the 2020 race: Wayne Messam, the son of Jamaican immigrants and the mayor of Miramar, announced his candidacy Wednesday.

But Harris already has a committed group of supporters there, including Walker-Huntington.

Walker-Huntington said she recognizes the world Harris has had to navigate.

“As a woman of color, who’s out there working as an attorney, I know how I’m viewed,” Walker-Huntington said. “It’s no small feat (for her) to become the second black woman in the US Senate.”

“And a first-generation American who is the child of immigrants of color,” she added, Harris “epitomizes everything that America is in 2019.”

Walker-Huntington has donated to Democratic politicians for years. In fact, she first met Harris last year at a fundraiser for Florida politician Bill Nelson’s failed re-election bid for the US Senate.

But she has stepped up her political activism this year to help Harris and has banded together with other Caribbean American professionals in South Florida to raise money and spread the word about the campaign.

Owens, a former county prosecutor in Florida who now runs her own lifestyle and wellness company, is among the women in that group and uses gatherings over coffee and wine to lobby other people of Jamaican ancestry to join the cause.

At one of those recent coffees, Owens said, the group landed on what has been a touchy subject: Donald Harris’ decision to publicly criticize his daughter over a crack she made about pot-smoking.

Earlier this year, Kamala Harris joked in a radio interview that, of course, she had smoked marijuana as a younger person. “Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?”

In response, her father sent an unsolicited statement to a Kingston-based online newspaper, saying his ancestors were “turning in their grave” to see their “family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity” connected with a “fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker.”

Harris’ autobiography is sprinkled with pictures of her visiting family in Jamaica, and she describes spending weekends with her father in Palo Alto. But the strains of her parents’ divorce also emerged in the book: At the time of her high school graduation, her parents still were not speaking, she wrote.

And in an essay posted last fall on Jamaica Global Online, Donald Harris described losing a “hard-fought custody battle” in 1972 “based on the false assumption by the State of California that fathers cannot handle parenting (especially in the case of this father, ‘a neegroe from da eyelans’).”

Attempts to reach Donald Harris this week were unsuccessful. Kamala Harris’ campaign declined to comment on the episode.

Owens, 65, said the public chiding by the elder Harris was instantly recognizable to Jamaicans of a certain age, raised by straitlaced parents in the former British colony.

“That’s everybody’s Daddy,” Owens said, laughing. “It’s about love of country … It’s not a rebuke. It’s how Caribbean people are: No matter how far you go in life, your parents expect you to conduct yourself in a certain way.’

“It has nothing to do with her competence or her abilities.”