As mayor of a city that hosts one of the largest Asian populations in Indiana, Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard has celebrated many Diwali and Mooncake festivals.
So when facing a primary challenge this spring, the Asian community was a logical place for Brainard to try to get out the vote. Supporter Raju Chinthala volunteered to do some outreach, but when he scanned the roll of registered voters for Asian surnames, he said he found not even 100.
“It is so surprising these people are not involved,” said Chinthala, a Carmel resident who now is on a mission to get Asian-Americans registered to vote and eventually running for office. He formed the Asian-American Indiana PAC to support candidates from either party.
While there’s no burning issue that would spur Asian people as a group to get more involved in Hoosier politics, Brainard said it’s important that they don’t overlook civic engagement.
“There’s more to it than elections,” he said. “There’s [serving on] boards and commissions and feeling that your voice matters.”
Asians are a small but fast-growing segment of the Indiana population. There were 124,000 Asians in the 2010 census. Their numbers had grown 102 percent over the decade and make up 1.9 percent of the state.
While Asians concentrate around Indiana University in Bloomington and Purdue University in West Lafayette, there are also significant post-college populations in Bartholomew, Marion and Hamilton counties. In Carmel, Asians are the largest minority group, at 8.9 percent of the 80,000 residents.
With support from prominent business leaders like Albert Chen, founder and CEO of Telamon Corp., and Bharat Patel, CEO of Sun Development & Management Corp., Chinthala’s PAC could raise large sums. Chinthala reached out to business leaders for feedback and moral support, but he said his goal is to form a grass-roots network.
His first priority is to see more Asians registered to vote for the 2016 election. Perhaps in five years, he said, the PAC will have Asian candidates to back.
Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IUPFW, said Chinthala faces a steep challenge in engaging Asians in politics. They are a small minority, and as immigrants, many might not be eligible to vote.
“It becomes harder to think about how, as a bloc, they would influence legislation or the outcome of an election,” he said.
One of the hurdles Chinthala faces is diversity within the Asian community. Even among Indian immigrants like him, he said, languages and cultural traditions vary. He hopes to overcome those barriers by working with leaders of the many cultural societies.
While social groups avoid politics, Chinthala said, they could be the ideal vehicle to organize bipartisan candidate meet-and-greet events. Personal introductions are crucial to Asians’ political engagement, he said. “It’s a friendship and a relationship. That’s where they’re losing that interest, because they’re not able to meet the candidate.”
Chinthala is one of few Asians to ever seek state office in Indiana. He and Alex Choi were part of a diverse group of candidates who sought the House seat vacated by Republican Steve Braun’s appointment to commissioner of the Department of Workforce Development last year. Donna Schaibley was selected in the December caucus.
The success of second-generation Indians Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, is inspiring, said Tony Samuel, an Indiana lobbyist and one-time congressional candidate whose parents emigrated from the territory that is now Pakistan.
At the same time, Samuel said he doesn’t place a high priority on seeing Asian-Americans run for office.
“It should be the most qualified candidate and appeal to a broader base,” he said.
Chinthala, 47, didn’t grow up in a political family but he gravitated toward leadership roles in school. When he came to the United States in 1994 on a work visa as a speech pathologist, he became a fan of former President Bill Clinton. Soon, though, he realized his world view aligned with the Republican Party.
The first place Chinthala and his wife, a psychiatrist, settled in Indiana was Pike Township in Marion County. He worked on an Indianapolis City-County Council campaign in 2003, five years before he became a U.S. citizen and could vote.
Chinthala said getting involved in local politics at that point seemed natural. He was interested in business and immigration issues, and he said he figured it was up to him to reach out to elected officials. “The way I look at it, if I don’t involve [myself], I don’t expect them to change it.”•