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Indian Americans fuel Madia's fundraising success

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Ashwin Madia
Ashwin Madia, the DFL candidate running for the seat currently held by retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., greets supporters at the grand opening of his new headquarters in Maple Grove.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Ashwin Madia's stump speech usually begins with his parents' journey from India to the U.S.

"I'm the son of immigrants. My parents came to this country over 30 years ago. They had next to nothing," Madia told an audience of DFLers earlier in his quest to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn.

But when asked at a recent press conference how much financial support he's been getting from fellow Indian Americans, Madia demurred.

"I don't view them as Indian Americans or African Americans," he said. "I view everybody as Americans. And Minnesotans, people in our district and people across the country have been very excited at this message. So, we haven't really been paying attention to distinctions like that."

But if you donate more than $250 to a political campaign, the Federal Election Commission publishes your name, where you live and exactly how much you gave on its Web site.

All Minnesota Public Radio intern Srini Radhakrishna had to do was take Madia's list of 740 names and pick out all the Indian ones.

"It was fairly easy," Radhakrishna said. "Being Indian-American, a lot of names are similar to my family members or people I knew growing up."

He identified 164 Indians names. That's one in five of Madia's big donors. They gave combined total of $160,000.

The Madia campaign says it doesn't track the ethnicity of its supporters or go out of its way to court Indian-American donors.

Hindu Temple of Minnesota
Scaffolding surrounds the central spire of the Hindu Temple of Minnesota in Maple Grove. Construction is scheduled to be completed next year, but the temple has been open since 2006. There are some 20,000 Indian Americans living in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

"[Madia] is Indian American and has Indian-American donors," communication director Abe Rakov said. "But he's Indian-American and has many more white donors than Indian-American donors. There's not one group that's behind him. It's a huge group."

Indian Americans make up less than one percent of the overall U.S. population, but they are one of the fastest growing and most affluent immigrant groups. That means there's plenty of potential for political fundraising there.

Still, there have been only two Indian Americans ever elected to Congress, and there are none serving right now.

Kanwal Rekhi wants to see that change. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist has given $4,600 to Madia, the maximum allowed by law.

"We have done well in all other walks of life, in professions, in businesses, and now even in the entertainment area," said Rekhi, who supports Indian-American candidates around the country, both Democrats and Republicans. 

"The two areas where we haven't done well are politics and sports. And why not those two areas, too? I want to see some Indians get into the NFL and Major League Baseball, and in politics."

Madia has also won the support of the U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPAC). It's a relatively new group; it's been around for less than a decade, but it already has 60,000 members. 

One way USINPAC helps its candidates is by introducing them to potential backers.

"We would connect them up with other Indian Americans around the country who are generally politically active," Chairman Sanjay Puri said. "Then obviously it is up to the candidate to present the case for their candidacy, the issues that they believe in, the positions they stand on."

Madia has raised $100,000 from Indian Americans living outside of Minnesota, but he's also drawn significant support from the local Indian-American community.

Nayana Ramakrishnan
Nayana Ramakrishnan, president of the Hindu Temple of Minnesota, stands outside the temple. She sees DFLer Ashwin Madia's candidacy for U.S. Congress as a sign Minnesota's Indian American community has "come of age."
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Nayana Ramakrishnan, president of the Hindu Temple of Minnesota, has watched her community grow and prosper over the last four decades.

"When I was a little girl here in the early '60s, there was just a handful of people," Ramakrishnan said. "I would say about 100 Indians, and now there are something like 20,000."

She says her generation of Indian-Americans focused on succeeding in areas like business, medicine and engineering.

"But we never really did anything about caring, perhaps, or even knowing about politics in this country," she said. "We sort of steered clear of it in the past."

Rahmakrishnan says now Madia's generation wants to have a voice in the government, too.

"Ashwin represents the hopes and dreams, you could say, of all of us," she said. "In a sense, our community has come of age if we can have a candidate like him. And hopefully that will get all of us out there and voting and campaigning for him."

Rahmakrishnan says at the very least she hopes Indian Americans in Minnesota and around the country continue to support Madia's campaign financially.