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The Apprentice now bids for Congress

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
November 25, 2005 17:04 IST
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Raj Peter Bhakta, an alumnus of the popular Donald Trump television show The Apprentice, will run for US Congress from Pennsylvania's 13th District on a Republican ticket, and attempt to unseat freshman incumbent Allyson Schwartz, a Democrat.

Bhakta, who gained a fan following for his amusing antics and witty repartee, while gaining a rep as the quintessential ladies-man last fall on the NBC show, announced November 16 the formation of an exploratory committee to seek the Republican nomination for the state's 13th District.

'My optimism that our finest hour is yet to come is powerfully shaped by my experience as the son of immigrants — a first generation American, I am living the American dream. I have seen with my own eyes the greatness of this country, and perhaps above all, I want to run to keep the American dream alive — whether you are a first or seventh generation American,' he said, while announcing his intention.

Though he is contesting as a Republican, Bhakta said he was 'deeply concerned with the direction of the federal government on several fronts: on wasteful pork barrel spending; on the failure of effective reform on key issues like the environment, and a government drunk on its own power.'

Describing himself as 'a Teddy Roosevelt Republican,' he recalled that 'It was Teddy Roosevelt who, as an environmentalist, established our national park system; who, as a progressive, established the Food and Drug Administration; who took on big business and broke monopolies; and who, as a conservative, led to building America's might.'

Bhakta, president of Vanquish Holdings that has interests in real estate and automotive technology, told Rediff India Abroad he has nourished an interest in politics and public service since his pre-teen years. "I was going to get involved by the time I was 30 or a billionaire, and 30 came first," Bhakta, who turns 30 December 7, quipped.

The candidate has launched his own political organization called the Coalition for the Advancement of the Republic, that claims to promote a reform agenda centered on reducing the size and scope of government while empowering individual citizens. He said he was a shoo-in for the Republican nomination and did not expect any challengers in the primary; he also said the state GOP committee had already expressed its willingness to support him.

"It seems that barring any unforeseen circumstance, the endorsement is mine to lose and that's the word of the chairman of the committee here."

Bob Asher, a Republican national committeeman, said Bhakta represents the new face of the Republican Party, 'which is one of diversity'. Ken Davis, Montgomery County GOP chairman, said, 'Any candidate who decides to do this and is as organized and as thoughtful as I think he is, you have to take them seriously.'

Former Republican State Committee chairman Alan P Novak said Bhakta's throwing his hat into the ring 'could be a great coup for our party — someone with youth, energy, charisma and celebrity'; while Seth Grove, chair of the York County Young Republicans predicted, 'His celebrity status helps to bring in young people, to whom…the Social Security issue should be of greatest concern.'

Discussing his chances in the election proper, Bhakta said "There is no question that she (Schwartz) is vulnerable, in the sense that I think if the voters in this district — which is a moderate district, almost the definition of a moderate district — have a choice between choosing a career politician and someone who's been part of the process of getting us into the situation we are today, versus a fresh perspective and a new voice and a progressive Republican candidate, I think they will choose me."

He described the district as one that "combines some of the wealthiest areas of the country with some of the densely populated blue-collar areas of Philadelphia."

Asked if he intends to take advantage of his Apprentice celebrity status, Bhakta said, "Frankly, having been chosen out of many hundreds of thousands of people to compete — to run a major company at the age of 28 – is a positive. I am proud of it and to that extent it is going to be an advantage. I don't expect it to be something that can win an election. However, I don't see how it hurts me at this point."

Bhakta reckons he will need at a minimum $2 million to run a viable campaign "because Allyson Schwartz is a very effective campaign fund-raiser." He was, he said, optimistic of his chances. "We've got a good message, we've got a fresh progressive voice and now it's a question of fund-raising. And, I'll be frank, part of my strategy is going to be trying to mobilize the Indian community in the United States to begin to convert their financial success into a political voice."

Bhakta said he would be looking to groups like the Indian American Republican Council, not simply to endorse him but to put their money where their mouth is. "I believe that in no small part, my initial fund-raising capacity is going to be based on fund-raising through my base in my community, which is my family here, my extended business contacts who happen to be Indian. So from the community and from those people who have not yet donated and also groups like the Indian American Republican Council, getting them mobilized and getting financial support is absolutely critical."

Helping Bhakta in his campaign will be Phillip Stutts, who ran Bobby Jindal's campaign during his unsuccessful bid for the Louisiana governorship in 2003.

"The folks at the National Republican Congressional Committee put me in touch with Philip because he has a proven track record, and they thought it's an interesting combination because he had run Bobby's previous campaign," Bhakta said. "He is a young guy, and he specialises in challenger campaigns."

He said he would look for an endorsement from Jindal, and hoped the Louisiana Congressman would stump for him when his campaign gets into gear. But Bhakta stressed that he was a progressive Republican, and not a far right conservative like Jindal, particularly on social issues like abortion; he said he absolutely believes in the right of abortion in cases like rape and incest.

"I feel we have to accept the fact that Roe v. Wade is the established law of the land. That having been said, I don't think anybody is for more abortion, and that we need to find alternatives to abortion, like adoption.

"In my personal sentiments, I am pro-life. I can't imagine anybody not being pro-life. However, I don't think it is in my purview to restrict a woman's choice," he said.

On issues such as racial profiling and hate crimes, "You really got to take a common-sense approach to law enforcement," Bhakta said. "One of the great things about the American ideal is that it provides an opportunity for everybody to have an equal chance before the law and not be discriminated against.

"I think frankly, at the end of the day you see lawmakers and a lot of Americans realising that Indians are making a phenomenal contribution to America and America's success, punching way above their weight in numbers in terms of making a contribution to this country, certainly economically, and I think it's important to get the message out there."

On foreign policy, he said if elected, he would push strongly for a US-India strategic partnership. "I believe if an alien came down from outer spacer and reviewed the geopolitical situation in the world, they would report back that an alliance and close relationship between the US and India is an absolute no-brainer."

On a lighter note Bhakta, who on his Apprentice appearances wore a signature bow-tie as part of his personality, said he had no intention of shedding this during his campaign. "The bow-tie stays."

His father, Bharat Bhakta, is from near Surat in Gujarat, and is in the hotel and real estate business besides being part of Vanquish Holdings. His mother Mary, is originally from Ireland and is a home-maker. He has three siblings, all sisters —Asha, 28, a teacher; Mira, 25, in marketing; and Priya, 22, a college student.

Bhakta graduated from Boston College in 1998, double-majoring in economics and history and a concentration in finance.

Following college, he had a stint at the investment banking firm of Violy & Company, and from there, in 2000, at the age of 23, he founded his first company, Automovia, Inc. in Fort Washington, Pa.

In 2003, he shifted his focus to real estate, and created Vanquish Holdings, also based in Fort Washington, which acquired and redeveloped a hotel, retail, and condominium project in Vail, Colorado, which in two years increased the revenue on these assets by nearly 300 percent.

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