What It’s Like
What It’s Like … to Run for Office
Harmeet K. Dhillon: paving the way for Indian Americans and women everywhere
-Julie Ryan Evans
Harmeet K. Dhillon is running as a self-described “underdog” for the 13th State Assembly District in California. Born in Punjab, India, she is the first Indian American ever to win a major party nomination (Republican in this case) in California. She is an internationally recognized and passionate civil rights activist with an impressive career history, including starting and running her own law firm.
Betty recently caught up with Harmeet to find out what it’s like to run for office, what led to her decision to pursue politics and what it takes to balance her personal life – including dating – and other commitments while running a major campaign.
What’s it like to run for office?
It’s a pretty huge undertaking, which to be honest with you, I probably didn’t realize when I undertook it. It’s really more than a full-time job in addition to whatever else you’re doing in your life – most women are already doing something. I’m running a business; I’m a partner in a law firm I started a couple years ago with my law partner. I also do a lot of volunteer work and am on several boards, and this is all layered in on top of that.
So it’s been pretty overwhelming; running for office is a 24/7 kind of thing. You’re constantly thinking about how you’re going to get out there and meet as many voters as possible, how you’re going to get the attention of the media – if you’re an underdog like me that’s particularly a challenge. Raising money is a constant challenge-how are you going to raise the money you need to pay your staff and pay for the literature and mailers and signs billboards and advertising you need to communicate with your voters in a big district like mine. I would say that from the minute I get up in the morning-first of all I’ve been dreaming out it all night-every minute of the day as I’m doing other tasks I’m constantly thinking about what needs to be done next and managing that whole new area of my life.
What’s it like trying to balance your career and personal life?
It’s been a constant challenge throughout my career. I’ve been married before, and I’ve been a high powered lawyer in a sense of trying to have an international career for 15 years. I also am very active in civil rights, domestic violence and human rights activism. I guess I just sort of do what turns me on and is interesting to me, and unfortunately, given a broad amount of interests, that is pretty all consuming.
So things are constantly in balance and out of balance. It’s a constant struggle. Even though I’m not married, I do have friends, I have parents and grandparents; I have two nieces and a nephew and my brother who live nearby, and I like to see them regularly. I have a life in terms of dating, and I do date. All of those things have continued during the campaign, except probably not as much dating.
Do you think it’s intimidating to men that you’re running for office?
It’s hard to answer that question without sounding pompous. Having been an international lawyer who’s practiced in New York, London, Silicon Valley and started my own business, that’s pretty intimidating to most men to start out with. You add to that running for office … I’m in the public spotlight quite a bit because of that; I’m always busy; I’m the center of attention in two different staffs … I think definitely the average male ego isn’t well suited to dealing with that.
When did you become interested in politics and what about it appeals to you?
I am a first-generation immigrant: I came here as a small child. My parents left India because of their political views. They believed they wanted to have more opportunity and more freedom, and they didn’t like socialism. So growing up around the dinner table my dad talked about a lot of the issues that mattered to him and why he became a Republican when he registered to vote. And that was a dislike of big government, a desire to have freedom, a desire to be able to work really hard and then be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor. My folks held fundraisers for politicians in the area where I grew up in North Carolina … they felt it was very important as immigrants to invest in their community and to have friends in high places, and that involves getting actively involved in politics. So that was a value I learned at home.
When I went to Dartmouth I was kind of a fish out of water there because I was an Indian American from the Deep South; it was sort of an Ivy League, elitist type of situation. It was very socially liberal in terms of political correctness, and I didn’t like that. One opportunity I had to change things was to get involved with the Dartmouth Review … I became involved in a lot of political issues: Apartheid; the struggle in Central America between the Sandinistas and Contras were very active at that time; the Soviet Union was still an evil empire back then, so we talked about these issues in our newspaper. I eventually became the editor-in-chief of that paper and actually achieved some national prominence through that work that I did.
I had gone to college thinking that I was going to go to medical school; my grandfather and my father and a lot of other people in my family had been in that field. But I got really excited about public policy issues, and eventually decided I would go to law school rather than pursue that career in medicine.
What’s the most challenging part of running for public office?
I have two answers. One is … balancing your preexisting life and maintaining whatever it is that people believed in that made others ask you to run for office. And in order to maintain that being a real human being, you have to keep doing real things. A lot of politicians have from day one had the desire to be a politician, and all of their life is focused on that. I think Barack Obama is one person like that. That’s fine; I respect that, that’s a respectable career choice. But that hasn’t been my choice. My choice has been to achieve a lot of different things in my life. I have to maintain some of those things I do. I have continued to be the civil rights chair of the South Asian Bar Association; dealing with hate crimes, racial profiling and other issues that affect my community, running my law firm and learning the ropes of politics. Balancing all of that is tough. I’ve caught myself cutting friends off or not being able to spend enough time with them or my family or my job; it’s a constant feeling of guilt and having to catch up on different things. That’s tough.
On a more pragmatic note, the biggest challenge of running for office is having to raise money. It’s a full-time job. Every waking moment you’re thinking about: How can I get people to the next fundraiser? How can I position myself to get the endorsement of this political action committee or that political action committee and get their money and what am I going to use that money for? So that is something new I hadn’t really thought about before.
What’s it like to be such a leader for Indian American women and conquering these firsts?
I’m a woman in a society in which increasingly Indian American women are educated, but they are expected to bear the dual burden of bringing home the bacon, but also cooking the bacon. I think guys are almost frightened in many ways by empowered women who take on challenges like this. Of all the Indian American politicians I know in California, west of the Mississippi in fact, I’m the only woman, so that’s unusual.
I’ve gotten a lot of kind of underground support from women at parties and fundraisers, and they come up and sort of whisper in my ear and say we really love what you’re doing, and I wish I had the chance to do that, and I wish my husband would let me do that … particularly younger women. I’m getting a lot of very positive feedback from young women and from parents – from men and women who want their daughters to meet me and say look a woman can do whatever she wants to in America. That’s been very empowering and that’s been one of the very positive things of this campaign. I’ve been disappointed in many ways with the older generation being stuck in their ways and not getting involved at this level. But on the other hand, there’s been this outpouring of support from young women and women my age who are cheering me on, and that’s been really rewarding.
What are you most proud of?
That’s a tough question. Pride is sort of a sin in my religious world view. I don’t really dwell on my accomplishments or brag about them. But if you came to my office and looked at my wall you would see there are some framed things on my walls, and those are my diplomas, the decision from the first case I ever won and awards I’ve won from civil rights groups. The first case I took to trial was for policitcal persecution in India … I helped him get political asylum. That was a case I’m very proud of. I’ve helped numerous women escape domestic violence situations; I consider myself to have saved their lives. And I’ve helped a lot of people who’ve been victims of racial discrimination and religious discrimination to keep their jobs, get new jobs, to go to school, to stop suffering and stop bullying in the schools. I’m proud most that I’ve been able to use my law degree to give back to the broader community. Regardless of where my career goes … I hope to continue to do that.
Rapid Fire Questions:
1. When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a neurosurgeon.
2. What type of kids did you hang out with in high school?
I was pretty much of a loner at school. I skipped a couple of grades, and I was kind of a nerd. I spent a lot of time reading books and not much time hanging out with other kids.
3. What women from the past do you most identify with?
Margaret Thatcher is definitely a heroine of mine.
4. What’s your workout?
I don’t really workout much. I do walk quite a bit – I walk to work and walk to meetings … that’s about it.
5. Cat or dog?
I don’t have either. But growing up we had many dogs; I’m fond of dogs.
6. What do you do when you want to completely tune out?
I knit baby sweaters and watch my backlog of silly TV shows on my DVR.
7. What book is sitting on your shelf waiting to be read?
I was a classics major in college so I recently ordered some … the Plays of Sophocles and I’ve also been wanting to reread T.S. Eliot’s collective poetry.
8. If you could have dinner with any two people, who would you choose?
I would choose Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
9. What is the one thing you want or do not want the next generation of girls to encounter?
I don’t want them to encounter the glass ceiling and the sexism that we’ve seen all too starkly in this presidential race from both parties.
10. If there were one thing you could change in your life, what would it be?
I’d love to be in college again and make the most of that time. I think I spent a lot of time on nerdy issues, and I might have wanted to play a little more … perhaps a little more of that self discovery that your average American kids does in their teens and 20s, which your average Indian American doesn’t do.
For more information about Harmeet, visit her campaign Web page.