The case of Republican candidate for Congress Ricky Gill, running against incumbent Jerry McNerney to represent California’s 9th Congressional District, makes for an interesting study about a Sikh American seeking public office in this country. His campaign, and his reluctance to publicly acknowledge his Sikh background, has been a recurring topic on this blog.
On Saturday night, I had the opportunity to observe Ricky Gill in person. I had attended the Centennial celebration of the Stockton Gurdwara — which is located in the 9th District — that evening, and Ricky Gill was among the dignitaries who spoke. I was interested to hear what he had to say, given his aforementioned reluctance to even say the word “Sikh” in public.
After being given a rather gracious introduction by the masters of ceremony (yes, both) that involved the invocation of Dalip Singh Saund (the first Asian American and only Sikh to serve in the House of Representatives), Ricky Gill offered a loosely-pronounced Sikh greeting, and then made his opening statement: “This is a bipartisan effort.”
This statement was, and still is, somewhat baffling. It was not clear as to what “bipartisan effort” Ricky Gill was referring, particularly in relation to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Stockton Gurdwara. Other than the fact that members of both political parties were in attendance, I’m not sure where partisanship was involved. Perhaps Gill’s mind is so saturated with politics, that in non-political events this fixation is revealed in his unscripted statements.
During a discussion about the Sikh concept of seva (selfless service), Gill included references to his performing seva in the langar hall of the Gurdwara as a child. He also did suggest a connection to Sikhism by using the pronoun “our” when making references to the Sikh faith.
Also curious was that while he opened his speech with traditional Sikh greetings, he did not close it the same way (as is the custom), notably concluding his comments with “may God bless you all.” This is not at all normal for a Sikh who is addressing a Sikh audience.
Despite his statements associating himself with the Sikh faith, what is rather telling about this entire episode is that on Ricky Gill’s campaign Facebook page, there is not a single photo nor even a mention of his attending the Stockton Gurdwara Centennial celebration. While his campaign has posted a photo of his attendance at a birthday celebration for the US Navy* that same night, there appears silence by his campaign around Gill’s attendance at the Stockton Gurdwara’s event.
On the other hand, the person that Ricky Gill is working to unseat — Jerry McNerney — was more open about his presence at the same event, posting the following congratulations message on his Twitter account that evening:
It is unclear as to why Gill refuses to make a similar public statement about attending this Sikh function — or any Sikh function for that matter. Perhaps, as a Republican, he is forced to walk a tightrope to balance other political forces at play, as displayed by prominent Republican governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley:
Jindal was raised Hindu and converted to Catholicism; Haley is a Sikh who became evangelical. There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of their conversions. But both also seem aware that maintaining the non-Western religious traditions of their birth would have imperiled their political careers. In 2007, when Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution recognizing the Hindu and Sikh festival of Diwali, Jindal abstained. Before running for governor, Haley noted that her family attended a Sikh Temple as well as a Methodist Church, but today she studiously avoids any reference to being born Sikh and as the campaign has progressed, her website has been updated to stress in increasingly emphatic terms her devotion to Jesus Christ.
The curious case of Ricky Gill begs the question: is it politically inexpedient to make any public association with Sikhs when running for office, particularly as a Republican, and particularly as a Sikh American?
*10/16 UPDATE: the photo showing Ricky Gill at the US Navy birthday celebration on Saturday night has since been mysteriously removed from Ricky Gill’s campaign Facebook page.