UPDATE: Harmeet Dhillon lost her bid for State Assembly from California’s 13th district.
Harmeet Dhillon is one of a rare breed – a Republican in Democratic California. Arriving in the United States as a small child, Harmeet was educated in North Carolina and went on to Dartmouth College with an active participation in civil rights issues. She came into prominence when she questioned a music professor about an inappropriate level of political correctness (too much! according to her). An article about the same landed her an interview on 60 minutes.
In California, Harmeet continues to be active in civil rights legislation, providing legal services to political refugees, victims of domestic violence, and plaintiffs in civil rights litigation, including several First Amendment cases. She is also one of the up-and-coming members of the California Republican Party, being the Governor’s appointee to the party.
I spoke to her about her candidacy for the State Assembly from the 13th Assembly District of California, which includes many progressive, liberal, San Francisco neighborhoods.
You have been an active member of the Republican Party in California. What made you decide to run for office?
HD: In every county we have a Republican committee that’s elected by the registered voters of each party. This committee determines party policy in each county. I was appointed to a vacancy in 2004. Then I was elected to the committee in June in this year.. The party then asked me to run for State Assembly.
As assemblyman, what would your responsibilities be?
HD: The State Assembly is like House of Representatives for the state. We have a bicameral legislature that is responsible for passing legislation, coming up with the budget etc.
How Republican leaning is your district?
HD: It’s virtually impossible for a Republican to win in my district. It is probably the most liberal district in the state. About 27% of the voters are registered as independent and I am focusing on them.
In that case, why would you run for office in this district?
HD: They are various reasons why you run. The first generation Indian Americans think the reason to run is to have power. I am doing it to educate the people and grow the party statewide. If I am able to increase the number of people voting Republican, I would consider my job done. I am also increasing my profile, increasing my chances of getting a political appointment. It is a long term view. People who run for office can be arrogant. But they have never been involved in politics, never written op ed pieces. The way it works here , the party has to know you and the party has to back you. Otherwise you have no credibility.
Is party affiliation more important to the voters or the personality?
HD: That depends on your county. In San Francisco, the endorsement of the Democratic Party for ballot initiatives or school board matters a lot. Particularly in the non-partisan race, voters tend to be influenced by the recommendations of the Party.
What are the issues of concern to the voters in your particular district? Could you enumerate your positions on those?
HD: Environmentalism, the budget crisis in California, the economy. A lot of people are concerned about illegal immigration.
Education – We have a terrible system. The main culprit is the teachers’ unions. They grant teachers tenure after just 2 years. After that it is impossible to get rid of bad teachers, we cannot monitor performance. I advocate a full scale reform of the educational system. I support vouchers and more opportunities for home schooling. The state should allow a charter school program. People can go to vocational track. In North Carolina where I grew up, there was a boarding school for the gifted. That’s a great system where general schools deal with the average students and there are special schools for the bright kids. In California they tend to get lost.
Environment – I am a strong proponent of market based solutions. I think we are over reliant on fossil fuels. I am in favor of drilling as a long term solution. I would encourage car manufacturers to develop cars with better mileage. The way to do that is by judicious of tax credits for people and businesses and making it attractive for people to make that choice. In terms of protecting the environment, I am in favor of that. Conservation is a republican value.
Balancing the budget – I think the governor made one mistake in proposing the 3-year one cent sales tax increase. The budget process needs to be started earlier. The Governor should make it clear right now that he will not sign any legislation any bills without a budget.
Crime – This is more of a local issue. It is somewhat related to the immigration issue. Certain cities like SF declare themselves sanctuary cities. This prevents police officers from informing the INS about criminals who are also illegal immigrants. This was horribly put to the test in the case of the Bologna family murders. The killer of the family members, who had previously been in trouble with the police, was allowed to roam free because there was no provision for the police to make sure he was deported.
Immigration – I believe illegal immigrants should get in line like the rest of us did.
Does the latest spell of bad economic news make it more difficult for you?
HD: I’m mot sure it will affect state races. San Francisco is a weird place. The majority of people are renters, so they don’t care about the housing market..they care about protecting rent control, which I am opposed to.
What is your opinion on the budget stalemate in California?
HD:I think the original budget was a terrible budget and I’m glad the Governor stood firm and asked for some changes. Spending now needs to be cut. There are lots of wasteful and inefficient government programs. One, as I mentioned before, is the sanctuary city policy that coddles young criminals. The city allocated 650000 for cultural adjustment training for these young criminals, I think that’s an outrageous abuse of taxpayer funding. There is room to cut teacher’s pensions. The teachers’ unions have negotiated for a lot of unnecessary money. One thing I recommend is that the city and state should not be subsidizing education for illegal aliens. California currently subsidizes education at the UCs and state colleges for illegal aliens. The irony is that they cannot find work once they graduate.
I believe we should spend on infrastructure. I am in favor of the high speed rail initiative and in favor of green technology. But wasteful bureaucracy must go.
I understand that you an ardent supporter of John McCain? Do you agree with all his policies?
HD: I don’t agree with the policies of any politician a 100%. On abortion, I believe a woman should have the right to choose in the first trimester. I think he is correct in that we should get out of Iraq with dignity. I trust him because he is a POW. I agree on his immigration policy where he advocates guest worker program( Senator McCain has said since that he would not vote for his own bill). I support a path to legalization.
Do you have a message for Indian-American voters?
HD: Indian Americans pay more than their fair share of taxes, more that their fair share of the intellectual process, but we are not sophisticated consumers of politics. We don’t run for school boards, state assembly. I am the first person to stand for election with the backing of the party. And we‘ve been here for a 100 years. Nobody’s even trying. We need to be more sophisticated. We need to get out there in the community and give back. Volunteer, work in public service. Take jobs in the public interest.