How the South Was Won
“As many of you will come to know in the weeks and months ahead, the door to my office has a sign for all to see every time they walk through my doorway. The sign says, ‘Can’t Is Not an Option.’
These are the words of Nikki Haley, nee Nimrata Randhawa, the feisty new Governor of South Carolina, the Indian-American daughter of Punjabi immigrants. Haley, 38, has gone from being an obscure Southern legislator to a nationally known rising star on the Republican circuit, the viable face of Conservative values who has been publicly endorsed by Sarah Palin, also known as Sarah Barracuda.
Indeed, the U.S., India and the Diaspora are abuzz with her astonishing victory in South Carolina’s gubernatorial election. She is the first woman – of any color – to preside over the Governor’s Mansion, and like her fellow Southerner, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, is a Conservative Republican, with her own agenda for America.
Haley has proved herself to be unflappable, overcoming all hurdles, pulling through controversies about extramarital relationships while she was running for governor. In the political attacks, even her ethnicity was mocked with a state senator saying, “We already got one raghead in the White House. We don’t need another in the governor’s mansion.” Down South, politics are particularly dirty and there’s certainly an old boy’s network.
As Time magazine wrote at that time, “For weeks, Haley has stood in the center of a Palmetto State mudslinging circus wilder than any in memory, refusing demands that she take a lie-detector test, declining requests for her phone and e-mail records showing contacts with her accusers and calmly dismissing a racial slur hurled by one of her longtime political opponents.”
Yet she weathered all these to become Governor of South Carolina. A fighter, Haley has chosen her battles and made her choices, and Indian-Americans have not always been thrilled with her, feeling that she’s distanced herself from her community and her Sikh faith. But as some have suggested, hers is a pragmatic approach, the only viable approach for succeeding in American politics.
One of the strongest fiscal conservatives in state government, Haley was first elected to represent the 87th District in Lexington County in 2004, when, as a virtual unknown she beat Larry Coon, the longest serving state legislator in a Republican primary. In 2008 she was sent back to the statehouse with 83 percent of the vote.
It all started many years ago when her parents migrated from the Punjab, first to Canada, and then to South Carolina, where both have been academics. Take a look at her first grade class picture, sitting demurely in a skirt with her flowing dark hair in a room full of Caucasian kids, and you can see how she’s had to adjust her life and fit into her surroundings.
“We were the first Sikh family in Bamberg. It was a small town in South Carolina, a closed community at that time,” recalls her father Ajit Randhawa. “Our daughters Simmi and Nikki entered the Little Miss Bamberg contest but the school selected only a White Queen and a Black Queen. So Nikki and Simmi were not eligible as contestants.” Even though she wasn’t accepted, Nikki, 5, belted out ‘America the Beautiful’ – and received a resounding applause.
America has changed a lot and not only has Nikki Haley challenged notions of black, white and brown – but has succeeded in winning the Governorship, in spite of being a woman and Asian. Nikki and her husband Michael, a full time federal technician with the South Carolina National Guard and an officer in the Army National Guard, attend Mt. Horeb United Methodist Church in Lexington. They have two children, Rena, 12, and Nalin, 9. Michael is also taking on the duties of ‘First Man’ at the side of the Governor.
Nikki Haley’s outgoing personality and charisma go back to childhood. Her father remembers her as a cheerful, happy child who made friends easily, was on the Tennis Team, and modeled clothes for the Exotica fashion shows which helped to raised funds for community projects.
She joined Exotica, the family business at the age of 13, handling the books of the company. She graduated from Clemson University in South Carolina with a degree in accounting and finance, and worked with FCR Corporation as Accounts Manager for its seven subsidiaries. She went on to make the family business into a multimillion dollar one, before venturing into public service, as a legislator.
The Indian community has mixed reactions, negative and positive, and the blogsphere is full of comments about the new governor of South Carolina. As one wrote, “I am Indian American and I am proud of Nikki. I don’t care what religion she follows. She is adult female and has every right to change her beliefs at her will. She is not living in Afghanistan to be forced into particular things. She is American born and has overcame so many obstacles to be here today. You go Nikki!”
In her first speech as Governor, Haley did mention her source of strength. “You see, my mother was offered one of the first female judgeships in her native country, but was unable to serve on the bench because of the challenges of being a woman in India,” she said. “Now she sits here today watching her daughter become Governor of South Carolina, the state she proudly calls her home. When you grow up with a mom like that, the word ‘can’t’ is not in your vocabulary.”
© Lavina Melwani
(This article first appeared in Hi Blitz)