Jigar Ashwin Madia begins his stump speeches with an anecdote about his parents. 'They came to this country with just $19 in their pockets,' he says. 'The first thing they bought in this country was a $11 bottle of champagne.'
Today his parents -- father Ashwin Mohanlal Madia, a retired microbiologist who now teaches at a community college, and mother Niru Madia, a physical therapist, might want to put some vintage stuff on ice. Their eldest son Ashwin, a 30-year-old political neophyte, is being rated a shoo-in for election to the United States Congress from the 3rd District of Minnesota.
Madia, a US Marine with a tour of duty in Iraq under his belt, is part of a growing trend of veterans who, in an electorate that is polarised on the question of the Iraq war, have thrown their hat in the political ring.
In 2006, the Democratic Party had fielded as many as 12 Iraq veterans who called for US withdrawal from Iraq. This year, there are at least 26 veterans contesting -- and they are split equally between the Democrats, who hope to use them to underline the party's core message that the war is a disaster, and the Republicans, who hope to use their own veteran candidates to paint the opposite picture and reclaim the 'tough on security' plank.
And then there is Ashwin Madia -- a former Republican who has switched sides over the war, and over his opposition to the politics and policies of President George W Bush, and who is now strongly tipped to topple the Republican Party from a seat it has held without break for 48 years.
During a recent fundraising visit to Washington, DC, Madia sat down with rediff India Abroad's Managing Editor Aziz Haniffa at the Democratic Club on Capitol Hill, next to the party headquarters, for an extensive chat on the state of his campaign, and his agenda for the future.
You've got the Democratic Farm Labor Party endorsement, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added you to its Red to Blue program for open seats, you've raised over a million bucks, and all the polls indicate you'll beat your Republican opponent pretty comfortably in November. So how do you feel about where you stand today?
The campaign is going very well. I'm excited about our organisation, the fundraising, the people. But I think the most important thing that has me confident is our message: we have a message that is resonating with people across our district, and the message is that we need to redefine patriotism in our country. It's not just about bumper stickers and slogans but actually doing something for your country, and I think, people are ready to hear that. People want to contribute. All Americans want to be part of a solution, and I think people recognise that we need to have the courage to change in this country, a new direction in this country.
You are a political neophyte, your Republican opponent Erik Paulsen is a sitting member of the Minnesota state legislature, so how do you explain the support you've been attracting?
Like I said, the message, the belief that Americans can come together and be part of the solution to this country's problems; the idea that we as a nation can do better, it does not have to be the way it has been for the past several years, that we can come together to forge a new direction. I believe that has attracted people from across the political spectrum.
The message is reminiscent of that of your party's Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama. Do you think the support Obama has been getting has helped put wings under your campaign as well?
I've never met Senator Obama, but I respect him very much. I think that he's going to be a great President of the United States, and I think he personifies change in our country. This idea of a new direction, and that our country can do better, is also in line with his philosophy. So it is an honour to run in the same party as him, and I look forward to serving with him.
It was last October that you made up your mind. You must have known that critics will say you haven't paid your dues, that you haven't gotten your feet wet in local elections, that you are young. And yet you decided to run for Congress first crack out of the box. What influenced the decision?
I served in Iraq as a Marine Corps officer and I had the opportunity of working with some of the bravest people I've ever seen in my whole life, both on the Iraqi side and the American side. They were brave not just in their words, but in their actions -- I saw bravery in action. I thought that is what our country, which I believe is the greatest in the world, needs just now -- for people to be brave, for people to want to be part of the solution, for people to work for change. And you could say that thought made my decision to run inevitable.
You've been in Iraq, you have a feel for the ground realities, and you have made the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq your main campaign plank and the thrust of your stump speeches. What has made you take such a definite posture, and that too in what has been a Republican stronghold for nearly 50 years?
What I advocate is a strategic and gradual withdrawal from Iraq, not an immediate withdrawal. The reason I am adamant about that is, I was a US Marine for four years, and in that time, I've seen the impact this war has had on the military, on the families of our soldiers. I had a chance to serve in Iraq and I saw a little bit about what was happening on the ground over there. I don't believe that we have the troops and the money to continue this level of involvement. At the same time, I don't believe that we can withdraw immediately because I think we'd leave a complete disaster behind, and I think that would hurt both the Iraqis as well as our own country. So what I favor is a strategic and gradual withdrawal, phased out over a period of time, while still leaving some forces back to help the Iraqis take more responsibility for the country.
The Indian-American community has hosted a couple of fundraisers for you recently. Has it been easy, or otherwise, getting the community to back your candidacy?
I've been very excited at the response from different communities, different kinds of Americans. We've been very lucky in that people across the political spectrum, across racial and ethnic backgrounds and religions have all come forward to help this campaign. I think the reason is people want something more inclusive, something different, and not more of the same old style, tired old politics.
I try not to focus too much on the ethnicity of different people. I think the last breakdown I saw was that the district was about 95 percent Caucasians and 5 percent were Asian Americans and Hispanics. I am shooting to represent the entire district, all the people irrespective of their backgrounds, so I haven't been too caught up in those numbers.
In terms of the fundraising, though I am sure being way ahead of your Republican opponent makes things look good, how much more do you think you need to raise as the election gets closer?
I'll be honoured to have people's financial support in this campaign. I mean, I've been very blessed so far to receive so much financial support from across the political spectrum. But you're right, this race is going to be expensive and the reason for that is we need to communicate with 700,000 people across the district. In order to do that, I need to run television advertisements, radio advertisements, and those are expensive. So far, we've raised over a million dollars but our budget total is about $2.5 million. So I need to raise at least $1.5 million more.
With regard to what you have received thus far, has the contribution come from a diverse group of people, or have there been particular pockets of groups in the district and the state that have been particularly helpful?
It's actually come from a wide variety of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, all across the political spectrum. I think that is indicative of what I have been saying -- that Americans as a whole want change, and therefore support is coming not from any particular group but across the spectrum.
Has Minnesota state Senator Satveer Chaudhary come out strongly in support of your campaign?
Yes. Senator Chaudhary was one of the earliest supporters of our campaign, and he actually gave a great speech on the day of our endorsing convention on my behalf. I am very proud to have his support as well as that of others like (US Senator) Amy Klobuchar, (US Congresswoman) Betty McCollum, (US Congressman) Keith Ellison, (US Congressman) Tim Walz, people from all across the political spectrum, small businesses and labor groups, veterans' groups.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Congressman Chris Van Hollen seems very supportive of your campaign. How exactly do you expect the DCCC to help in your campaign?
I am not too focused on the national party. I am more focused on the district, and just talking to voters across the district and we've got a great message that's resonating with them. I am honored that the national party has decided that this message is something they want to support, but I am not too focused on them and their politics.
During your Washington, DC visit you've been meeting labour leaders, some US lawmakers and Democratic National Committee and DCCC officials, as also young Indian American political activists and professionals. What are these meetings about?
Sometimes it helps to come out to Washington; there are several people here that we wanted to reach out to personally. I want young people from all backgrounds, from all different political persuasions, to come to Minnesota to help with this campaign. We need the help, we could use it and I'd be honoured to have it. Part of the energy and momentum of this campaign has come from young people from across the country who have been coming to spread our message. Additionally, for those that can't really afford to take the time off from work or school to come to Minnesota, I'd like them to tell their friends about us. I'd like them to use e-mail and Facebook and MySpace and all the different Internet tools that are out there to help spread our message, because I think there's something very special that we are doing in the 3rd District and I'd like to have as many people involved as possible.
I find that you've hired a professional consultant and legislative affair pro here in Washington -- Bhavna Pandit of the Bonner Group, who has been putting together all of your meetings in DC. What exactly is her role?
I reached out to her very early on, as she's been involved in many different campaigns before and she came highly recommended. So I asked her if she would help me and she graciously agreed and she's done a great job.
There has been some concern in the Indian American community, including among some of your most staunch supporters, about where you stand in terms of the US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. Could you clarify your position on this?
I believe that ultimately it's undeniable that India is a strong strategic partner of the United States. It is going to have power needs in the upcoming future, and the United States can be a strategic partner there. It can also be a strategic partner in fighting terrorism, because India has a terrorism problem of its own. So I think that India is going to be a long-term strategic partner of the United States, and I support that alliance.
If the deal spills over to the new Congress, and you are elected, do you see yourself voting for the deal?
I've had a chance to talk to a lot of people on both sides of this issue, particularly people that had worked very hard to see that it's supported, and I understand that India is going to have nuclear power needs for the very near future given its population and given its need for energy. Provided this nuclear power is used just for energy, of course, I don't have any objection to that.
In terms of domestic policy issues of concern to the Indian-American community, like immigration and threats to the family reunification provisions, work visas etc, what are your positions?
In terms of domestic issues, the issues that my district cares the most about -- the primary one -- is the economy. People want to see this economy get on track again. Some of the ideas that we've been talking about is to help form a new direction for our economy. First of all, to invest in a renewable energy economy -- things like wind and solar and bio-fuels -- and provide ready alternatives to oil, that will help bring the prices of oil down. Second is to balance our national budget. We've been running huge deficits every single year, and that's been devaluing our dollar, and I think we can do better. Third is to cut taxes for small business and the middle class, to help spur our economy in the short term and unleash small business by cutting some of the administrative burdens on them, since they are the number one employer in the entire country.
Fourth is to invest in education, particularly in science and engineering, and to make sure that we have the most educated workforce in the entire world and we can compete with workers anywhere in the world. And fifth is, as you mentioned, to change immigration laws a little. One of the problems we are having right now is that we are devaluing the cost of labour by not having any control of our borders. All immigration should be legal immigration -- that's important. And I want to help make sure that's what happens in our country.