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Religion and Culture: Indian-Americans surge in Calif. politics, but not LA

When Ali Sajjad Taj won a seat on the Artesia city council last November, his friends threw him a party and invited more than 500 guests, including the Pakistani Consul General in Los Angeles, Tasawar Khan.

The reason: Taj had become one of the few Pakistani-Americans elected to political office in California. Even a small victory, like winning a city council seat in a town of 16,000 people, was a big deal.

“You don’t see Pakistani and other non-Indian South Asians active and involved in California politics the way you do in New York and at the national level,” explains Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, and director of the National Asian American Survey.

RELATED: Religion, politics and culture: Stories from USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

In contrast, Indian-Americans have recently been called a rising force in California politics, with Republican Neel Kashkari’s campaign for governor hailed as the latest example of this trend. But that momentum has been slow to arrive in Los Angeles County, where Taj remains a rarity not only as a Pakistani American politician, but also as one of the few South Asians elected to serve office.

Los Angeles County is home to 17 percent of the state’s South Asian population – defined as people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal – while the San Francisco Bay area represents 47 percent, primarily due to the significant number of Indian-Americans employed in Silicon Valley.

When people talk about the growing presence of Indian-Americans in California politics, they are often referring to candidates in Northern California, like Democrat Ro Khanna and Republican Vanila Singh, who are both vying for Silicon Valley’s congressional seat.

Not one of L.A. County’s congressional candidates, on the other hand, is South Asian.

“In the Bay area, you have a greater concentration of South Asians – both geographically and by industry. And they have a lot of money,” says Ramakrishnan. “You don’t have the same type of community in L.A., either in terms of numbers or their socioeconomic status.”

Los Angeles also doesn’t have a long tradition of electing Indian-American leaders – as is the case in the Central Valley, historically home to a large Sikh population.

Difficult to attract volunteers, donors

These factors, Ramakrishnan says, make it difficult for South Asian candidates in L.A. to attract volunteers and donors, key components of a successful campaign.

That could well change in the next months, as Neel Kashkari’s campaign for governor gets underway. Since announcing his candidacy in Sacramento, the Laguna Beach resident has traveled to Downey, Riverside and Fresno to speak with small business owners about his plan to improve employment.  

In Artesia, a multiethnic community with a large number of Indian-American-owned businesses, “there is definitely excitement and support for his campaign,” says councilman Ali Sajjad Taj.

Kashkari’s straightforward platform – jobs and education – is designed “to resonate with all voters, including within the South Asian community,” according to the campaign’s press secretary, Jessica Ng. “Previous studies have pointed to high long-term unemployment and poverty rates among Asians, meaning that the status quo is failing these communities, too,” Ng wrote in an email.

Across ethnic groups, South Asians tend to vote Democrat. In exit polls conducted after the 2012 presidential election, 96 percent of Bangladeshi Americans said they voted for President Obama, followed by 91 percent of Pakistani and 84 percent of Indian-Americans.

Still, a significant number of South Asians are not enrolled in any party. They might be persuaded to vote for Republican candidate Kashkari, who has publicly stated support for some form of federal healthcare reform, a key issue for South Asians.  

Indian-Americans traditionally show a high level of voter participation, and many first-time voters of Bangladeshi and Pakistani descent turned out for the 2012 election. But voter turnout is usually much lower for gubernatorial elections than presidential ones.    

If elected, Kashkari would join Republicans Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, of South Carolina, as the third U.S. governor of Indian descent. But while Jindal and Haley both converted to Christianity, Kashkari is Hindu.

“Religion seems to make a difference at the margins,” says Ramakrishnan. “Jindal and Haley, both running under a Republican banner in conservative states like Louisiana and South Carolina – it seems unlikely that someone who is not Christian would have won.”

Religion may prove less of a hindrance in California. Indeed, Ramakrishnan considers Kashkari’s history at the U.S. Treasury and his role in engineering the bailout to be a greater sticking point for Republican voters: “I wouldn’t dismiss the importance of religion altogether – but I think in California other factors play a role as well.”

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This spring, students will report and write on Southern California's Indian community and travel to Pune and Mumbai in March, where they will cover religion, economics and politics.