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'We can completely identify with Obama'

September 16, 2008 00:16 IST

Mumbai-born real estate developer Sunil Puri, like the other Obama delegates from Illinois, Ann Lata Kalayil and Selma D'Souza, has also known Barack Obama long before his run for the United States Senate in 2004 'through mutual friends who are also state legislators'.

"Our families have visited and got to know each other and I've supported him in the US Senate run and held fundraisers for him. This is why the Obama campaign asked me to run as a state delegate."

"This being my fifth convention and, having been a strong supporter of the Clintons for years, it was truly a challenge especially last July, when Barack's poll numbers were at 3 per cent and Hillary's close to 40 per cent," Puri said.

"I remember Senator Dick Durbin [of Illinois, who backed Obama from the beginning], a very dear friend and really Barack's mentor -- the only Senator who endorsed him and was a lone supporter then -- calling me and saying, 'Sunil, you've got to do this [support Obama]."

Puri said at the time he hosted a fundraiser for Obama, virtually all of the Senate Democrats, except for Durbin, were behind Clinton "and so, it was a big risk to take. But Senator Durbin had gone out on a limb from the word go and he asked me, Who's the last President we've had from our state -- Abraham Lincoln. So, we've got to take this chance. These things come only once in a lifetime. We've got to step up and we got to do what it takes."

He said, "I know this has been said over and over again, about him having immigrant roots, etc etc. But think about it and how all of us can relate to it. He grew up overseas and he knows what being an expat is. He has a father from one continent and a mother from Kansas and myself, being married to an American woman, Jenine, I look at my children – Ashwin, Chandan, and Anjali – and I see him in them, what they could be. "I told him if you can make it, they [his children] could too."

Puri said, "Forget empathy, first of all, we can identify with him. When you look into somebody's eyes and you see yourself -- this unique struggle. I mean, the second generation didn't go through that struggle but at least the first generation, the original immigrants -- I remember cleaning bed pans at a nursing home, working my way through school. And, when you see a guy, who's been the underdog and working his way through and achieving what he has, you completely identify with him and then comes the empathy."

Puri said it is imperative that "we Indians have got to realise our influence. You can raise $1 million, which is a drop in the ocean, or you can get him the support of 600 doctors who endorse him, each of whom is an influence maker. The AAPIs [American Association of Physicians of Indian origin] and the AAHOAs [Asian American Hotel Owners Association] of the world have got to use their influence as huge employers and use that power to be part of the political empowerment."

When the nation was so divided, everything will be decided by the last four percent, he said. "These people have far more value than the lousy $3 million to $4 million they are going to raise and get their photo-ops. So, this is something we got to do."

Puri said the second generation understands that, though older people did not.

"Why should the leaders in the community end up being doormen instead of door openers -- instead of ending up controlling access rather than providing access?" he asked.

Puri migrated to the US in 1979 to attend Rockford College, where he graduated in 1982 with a BS in accounting. He then pursued graduate studies both at Rockford, the London School of Business and the Harvard Business School.

In 1984, he co-founded the real estate firm, First Rockford Group, Inc and is the president and sole owner of this business, which is a diversified real estate development firm based in Rockford, Illinois.

Over the years, he has developed various projects valued in excess of $800 million. His company develops retail, office and warehouse projects.

While most of his projects are located in Illinois and southern Wisconsin, he has also developed properties in California, Arizona and Florida. In 1988, Puri was a principal in the development of a technology office park in Pune, and now pursues varied real estate opportunities in India, besides private equity investments in Dubai and China.

Aziz Haniffa in Denver, Colorado