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.
I’ve followed your thoughts on this matter for a while now and while I share your concern, would it not be more correct to say, his position reflects American society as a whole?
Doing away with the patriotic statements of America, the Land of Opportunity etc, is not more accurate to say that American is SO deeply patriotic that the people, in general will simply not accept anyone they see as being un-American?
Here we’re not talking about the values of the concerned persons but their appearance and tenuous associations. When you have political arguments on a national level, doubting the authenticity of the current President’s nationality, fueled by his rivals repeatedly publicly, is it any wonder any inspiring politician is going to shun their roots to appear more “American” and thus electable?
I believe what you say is part of the under-current of what is going on. In this specific case, it appears that Ricky Gill is downplaying his roots in order to be more electable. However, in doing so, he is discriminating against his own community.
Moreover, Gill’s behavior itself caters to an un-American belief as it runs contrary to the principles of equality and freedom of religion espoused in the founding of this country and in the decades since. Instead of capitulating, in the spirit of American values we should be challenging such behavior.
When we talk about visible minorities becoming a larger constituency of the American population, what is it then to appear “un-American”, and who is making that determination?
There are other politicians, non-Sikhs, who are proud of their associations with the Sikh community. On the federal level, Representatives Judy Chu and Mike Honda (who both represent California districts) have openly advocated about issues important to the Sikh community in the federal government. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has as well. At the state level, Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada has been a strong ally for the Sikh community, as well as others within the California state government. Gill’s own opponent, Representative Jerry McNerney, has also not been shy about reaching out to the Sikhs in his district.
Gill is running in a diverse district with a historic and substantial Sikh population. He courts the Sikh vote, but does not give the community the same respect that he does others. However, he is quick to wrap himself in the community cloak when it is convenient to him.
It is surprising that Gill receives support from Sikhs in his district, but also not surprising is that many are not at all impressed with his behavior.
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I would argue the media and the politicians are the primary proponents of determining who is “un-American”. When you consider a large portion of the film industry has continually sought to display “foreigners” as being different and at odds with the “American Way”, it’s no surprise that Americans (all humans) react negatively to something they don’t know/understand.
Politicians have used this state of mind to cast doubt and discredit an opponent as highlighted in the case of Huma Abedin by certain Republican congresswoman/men. Fortunately in her case there were certain Republican politicians who challenged this assertion but it is scary that people in such senior and responsible roles can cast such aspirations so easily and without recrimination. Another point in time, those who defended her may not have had the courage or the political weight to step up to the plate. This state of mind is imbued in the psyche of the average American, if a politician is able to get away with such, why can’t the average Joe do so as well.
Freedom of speech appears to be a cloak for irresponsible, baseless rhetoric. I don’t deny the ideals of America are great but they are just words espoused and words without meaning are…well meaningless.
All of this is placed under a microscope if you happen to be aspiring politician of a certain ethnic minority and I can understand why some politicians would follow this path, it is after all the “American Way”.
Now, I don’t disagree with you highlighting Ricky Gill’s behavior, in fact I commend you for it because his failure to acknowledge is roots and deliberately distance himself from the people of his ancestors highlights a greater concern about his character, he’s likely no friend to anyone, be it Sikh, Christian, white, black, brown and this is the most dangerous sort of person to elect to office. He will undoubtedly only serve himself ultimately.
Unfortunately, our people are victims of their own making, by supporting and donating to his campaign just because he looks like us or his parents are Sikh’s they are committing the greater crime and my bone of contention would lie with THEM more so than Ricky Gill.
This guy has no problem along with his parents asking all the Sikh doctors and successful business people for money. They have been getting a ton of money from MANY MANY people in the Bay Area and Central Valley. What a shame….
Among donations of greater than $200 (i.e. high-level donors), Jerry McNerney has collected from more donors outside of the district, and from larger cities. This is typical for an incumbent.
However, we don’t know what the trend is among smaller amount donors, which would certainly include individuals and those who attend fundraisers in cities in the Bay Area or Central Valley.
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