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Thursday, June 24, 2010

South Carolina, not Bollywood, offers a new Indian star

Photo credit: Brett Flashnick/AP
South Carolina politics long have been considered a cess pool that could rival Chicago or Louisiana in terms of dirty tricks. A skim of recent juicier national highlights range from accusations in 2000 that then-presidential candidate Sen. John McCain fathered his adoptive Asian daughter out of wedlock (saying she was instead the product of a black prostitute) to rumors just a few weeks back that not one, but two, men claimed to have had affairs with state Rep. Nikki Haley.

Yet, even against this backdrop Haley – a historic figure in many ways – succeeded this week in her quest to secure the GOP nomination for the governor's mansion after a contentious run-off, beating her opponent like he stole something.

There’s a broader context to place this story, one that received some considerable hype beforehand, but whose culmination was lost amid the McChrystal flap.

One, she’s a woman, and this country, while advancing, has yet to elect women to office in proportions equal to their population. You don’t have to be a woman to represent one, but having actual experience with things sometimes beats plain empathy. Ask any woman who pops Midol or who has birthed a baby.

Of the governors serving the nation and its territories, just a half dozen are female – Jan Brewer of Arizona, Jodi Rell of Connecticut, Linda Lingle of Hawaii, Bev Purdue of North Carolina, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Chris Gregoire of Washington. In fact, Haley would break the tie and add the fourth female Republican governor to the mix, should she be successful, and odds are good that she’ll take the win.

Two, she’s young. Even among her would-be female colleagues, she’d be the only under-50 member. At 38, she’d bring a perspective shaped not by Baby Boomers and their incessant culture wars, but that of the Sesame Street Generation, with a global twist.

Three, she’s not white. Repeat: she’s not white. In South Carolina.

In the whole of the south, there have been two nonwhites elected governor since Reconstruction, the first being Virginia’s L. Douglas Wilder in 1989. With the whole entrepreneurial, up-by-the-bootstraps story Republicans love to tout, expect every effort to catapult her to the top of the media heap upon securing the governor’s mansion. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s star dimmed after his disastrous delivery of the GOP response to the president’s early 2009 address to a joint session of Congress. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin alienated as many as she galvanized during her run as the GOP’s 2008 vice president candidate, reveling in winks and wiles during public presentations . Haley represents the best bet for GOP boosters who have been crossing their fingers for a Great Brown Hope to counter the Man of Hope and Change.

Haley is far from a Repuba-liberal. Her platform is run-of-the-mill GOP: fiscal conservative, anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-Obama-led healthcare reform. But she’s also pushing more statehouse transparency. Her stance on immigration (no undocumented folks desired) is tempered by a sober view that since industry plays a role, it should also share in the pain and punishment, not just the people scrapping for a better way of life.

Her conservative bonafides won her Tea Party allegiance, for better or worse. That she has the backing of Palin and FreedomWorks also may raise eyebrows. Where she’d wind up on the partisan spectrum upon entering office is yet to be revealed.

Some have hailed Jindal and now Haley for not focusing on “identity” politics, but instead furthering “conservative” values. Of course, that has never stopped even fellow “conservatives” from injecting “identity” politics in the mix. If elected governor, it’ll be interesting how she’d work with fellow Republican, state Sen. Jake Knotts, who referred to the would-be governor as a “raghead” – not to mention fend off additional rumors, slights and slurs from her own party due to her difference.

Just as interesting is whether in office she’d simply smile and present a you’re-so-Anglo-I’m-so-Anglo front or if this daughter of immigrants will speak honestly about what it means to rise above the taunts and obstacles hurled her way, just because. She says she’s focusing beyond points of gender or ethnicity, but it hasn’t stopped the former underdog from using them to her advantage.

She may be a woman. She may be Indian-American. But it’s clear she’s a politician with chops. 

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