American Turban

When a Sikh runs: a recap of the Ricky Gill campaign

Ricky Gill makes a speech during his campaign to represent California's 9th Congressional District in Congress(source: IndiaWest)

Ricky Gill makes a speech during his campaign to represent California’s 9th Congressional District in Congress (source: IndiaWest)

It was just over a week ago that we learned of the results of the elections in the United States, including that to represent California’s 9th Congressional District in the House of Representatives. In that race, a Sikh American named Ricky Gill challenged incumbent Representative Jerry McNerney to represent the district in Congress. Rep. McNerney would win this election by receiving almost 55% of the vote.

As a Sikh American, I followed the Ricky Gill campaign on this blog. His was an interesting case study about a Sikh American — a visible minority that has had its share of issues with discrimination and stereotypes — running for political office in this country. I had written about Ricky Gill’s campaign frequently, and as I mentioned last week, I wish to offer closing thoughts on the Ricky Gill candidacy and campaign. I do so below.

A recap

I first became aware of Ricky Gill’s candidacy in the spring, as I was surveying potential Sikh American candidates for this election cycle. As a member of this small but very visible minority, I was interested to document the progress these candidates would make. Gill’s candidacy was especially interesting, because this was a candidate from a Sikh American family who was running in a district with a sizable and historic Sikh population (and contained within the oldest Gurdwara in the United States).

Shortly thereafter, when another article appeared which described how Gill did not “dwell on his heritage” in his campaign, my eyebrows became raised, because this was similar to the strategy that Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley — a Republican who went to length to downplay her own Sikh background during her election — also used. In fact, she endorsed Ricky Gill’s candidacy, which only highlighted the parallel between the two.  That this dissociation from his heritage was occurring in a district that is home to many Sikh Americans was perplexing. I contacted Ricky Gill’s campaign at that time to offer the opportunity to discuss his background further. They did not respond.

As the spring turned into summer, and Gill officially became the Republican candidate in June, I kept my eyes and ears open during his campaign, curious about whether Gill would ever openly acknowledge the Sikh community. Additional attempts to contact his campaign (and invitations published on this blog) were met with silence, and that also extended to any acknowledgement by Ricky Gill or his campaign of his Sikh background. Indeed, the word “Sikh” would never even be openly said — except, as it would seem, at community events and fundraisers. At a Sikh community celebration in April, he gave a speech in which he attempted to frame imminent media coverage of his family’s more suspect business connections as attacks on not just him or his family, but as attacks on the community.

During these months, Gill would continue to attend fundraisers organized by Sikhs in and outside of his district, quietly collecting donations for his campaign without making any public acknowledgement of these events or of the community. While Gill’s other events were described and documented on his campaign website, social media sites or in interviews with media outlets, such description of events involving the Sikh community would appear nowhere (other than occasionally  in South Asian media).

As the summer — and this behavior — progressed, it became a disturbing trend. His actions seemed to send a message that engagement with the Sikh community must be swept under the rug and be kept under the radar of mainstream media.  In essence, he was validating the marginalization of the Sikh American community, particularly that of his district.

Despite my own concern about this type of behavior, there were clearly others (including commenters on this blog) who did not agree. In fact, Ricky Gill raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Sikh community and was strongly supported by many Sikhs inside and outside of his district. Often, the justification was that the Sikh community should do what it could to elect “one of our own” to Congress regardless of the public recognition by him of the community, or lack thereof.  His actions were seen to be of necessity — that voters would discriminate against him if he spoke of his religious or ethnic background. Thus, his attempt to keep any association with the Sikh community out of the public eye was considered a necessary evil that wouldn’t reflect upon his actions once elected.

However, the Sikh community was split on this topic. There were many Sikhs who found this strategy unacceptable, and some wondered whether he was simply telling Sikh Americans what they wanted to hear while not openly committing to anything. My thoughts aligned with those who felt that regardless of whether or not a Sikh candidate intends to be a voice for the community, this person shouldn’t consciously downplay his or her background, and further, that this type of behavior couldn’t be ignored when determining whether that Sikh candidate would be a voice for the community in Congress. It was reinforcing the message that if a Sikh wanted to achieve something in this country, their identity would hold them back.

Hopes for advocacy and community representation aside, it would take months for Ricky Gill to even minimally say the word “Sikh” to a newspaper, only finally doing so briefly in October when asked by a local reporter about his faith, and this came two months after the mass shootings of Sikhs at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

In the August prior, Gill’s response to the murders of these Sikhs was interesting. He offered a two-sentence statement of condolence on his Facebook page that did not even contain the word “Sikh”, which seemed unusual considering his own background. In the alarm felt from within and outside of the Sikh American community, Gill sat to the side and allowed other politicians and Sikh representatives attempt to deal with the aftermath, despite having some prominence as a Sikh American on the national stage. He did, however, quietly attend a vigil in his district in memory of the victims (as did his political opponent, Jerry McNerney), but this was evidently not publicized by his campaign either.

As the Sikh American community was reeling from the murders in Wisconsin, Gill’s silence was so much so that when he gave a nationally televised speech at the Republican National Convention only a few weeks after the shootings, he bypassed making any identification with the Sikh community. However, later on the same stage, another Sikh American would proudly state his religious identity, as the Republican National Committee invited Ishwar Singh, a local Sikh American in Florida, to give an invocation. While the RNC was apparently comfortable recognizing the Sikh faith, Ricky Gill, himself a Sikh, would continue his silence about Sikh Americans.

Later in October, I had my first chance to see Ricky Gill in person when I traveled to Stockton, California, to attend the centennial celebrations of the oldest Gurdwara in the United States. At that function, Gill made a speech to offer his congratulations to the community, and described his own childhood experiences in that Sikh house of worship. In addition to his brief appearance at this celebration that evening, Gill would attend another event honoring the US Navy, and his campaign posted a photo of that event on its Facebook page.

However, Gill’s attendance at the Sikh community function was ignored, again. No picture or public mention was made by the Gill campaign about the celebration at the Stockton Gurdwara, and after I took note of this, the Gill campaign would happen to delete the US Navy function photo from their page.

Ironically, Gill’s opponent, Rep. Jerry McNerney (a Democrat), would evidently not have the same issue. After also attending the Centennial event in Stockton, Rep. McNerney would publicly congratulate the Sikh community on his Twitter account, and also make mention of the murders of Sikhs during his debate with Ricky Gill later (about which Gill wouldn’t make mention).  The McNerney campaign was also very responsive and forthcoming about the Representative’s work on behalf of the Sikh community in Congress.

And, notwithstanding Ricky Gill’s behavior, the support that the Sikh community received was not just from Democrats, but from Republicans as well. Representative Tom McClintock, who represents a nearby district and who, like Gill, is a Republican, also attended the celebration in Stockton, but unlike Gill, he has been vociferous in his support of the Sikh American community. Clearly, Rep. McClintock did not view the open support of the Sikh community as politically disadvantageous.

Finally, about a week before the election, in partnership with the blog The Langar Hall, Sikh blogger Sundari Kaur and I sought to give the candidates of California’s 9th Congressional District — Rep. Jerry McNerney and Ricky Gill — the opportunity to provide their positions on domestic Sikh American issues. We sent a questionnaire to both campaigns, and while Rep. McNerney’s campaign responded quickly with a completed questionnaire, the Gill campaign declined to answer (on the basis that we had objected to Ricky Gill’s candidacy). Both responses were posted on this blog and on The Langar Hall.

While I have been critical of the Gill campaign’s behavior towards Sikh Americans, they apparently felt it to be more beneficial to decline this invitation to express Gill’s positions on Sikh American issues rather than provide this information to Sikh Americans, despite stating that Ricky Gill was “proud of his Sikh heritage and faith”. This certainly was a missed opportunity by his campaign, and certainly wasn’t a shared behavior with others seeking re-election.

Coda

The attention I have given to Ricky Gill’s campaign was not out of some personal motive. I am not a constituent of the district in which he ran, and I do not know him nor his family personally. As I mentioned at the outset, my interest in his campaign was related to the topic of this blog: as a reflection of the Sikh American experience.

Further, my interest in his candidacy was only related to that dimension. It was beyond the purview of this blog to evaluate his positions on other topics, be it on the economy, healthcare coverage,  canal water, or other issues. It was not my interest to determine who was the better candidate, but more to observe the unique situation where a Sikh American is running for federal office, and secondarily to observe how Sikh American issues are dealt with by politicians. Perhaps, looking at the whole of his candidacy and what he had to offer, he was a strong candidate. But, about 18,000 additional voters believed Rep. McNerney would better serve that district, and that is why he was re-elected.

Did the criticisms of Gill on his reluctance to publicly recognize or support the Sikh American community hurt his chances in the election? It is difficult to ascertain, but obviously bringing up this issue openly wouldn’t have helped. However, I also don’t think that my maintaining silence about his silence would have resulted in 18,000 votes coming his way instead of to Rep. McNerney. Even if all of the Sikhs who voted in that district supported Gill, it’s not likely he would have made up the margin. While I brought up issues around how he handled being a Sikh American candidate and the Sikh American community, there were other broader issues in play as well, including concerns about his age, lack of experience and questions around his campaign strategy.

It is still unclear to me as to why Ricky Gill was so reluctant to self-identify as a Sikh, or more importantly, even publicly say the word or acknowledge his engagements with the community. Suggestions have been made that Gill wasn’t particularly devout, and so perhaps this was why he wasn’t interested in attaching himself to that identity. Or, perhaps the Gill campaign was concerned that a public association with Sikh Americans would not be palatable to the mainstream electorate (presumably as Nikki Haley might have believed) — would photos of a brown man standing among people with turbans and beards be hurtful to chances of election?

So, it may have been an aspect of his campaign strategy to downplay any association to his faith group. Yet, we were told by his campaign that he was proud of his heritage, even though he nor his campaign seemed to behave that way. And, when the behavior seemed specifically directed to the Sikh American community, it appeared to be discriminatory. Finally, in considering posterity, the legacy that this strategy would have left, if Gill was successful, would not be one I would have been proud to share with Sikh children. All Sikhs, like any American, should experience the benefits of freedom of religion, and in this country, the faith a person follows should not hold them back from opportunity.

Was such dissociation by the Gill campaign a good strategy? Again, it is unclear. But, we do know that candidates in other districts in the country were successful in this same election cycle while being open about their religious identification. Voters in Hawaii elected the first Hindu American to Congress, Tulsi Gabbard, who openly discussed her faith, and they also elected the first Buddhist Senator to Congress,  Mazie Horono:

Hirono and Gabbard will join an increasingly diverse Congress. The first Muslim to join the House or Senate, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), was first elected in 2006 and reelected for a fourth term on Tuesday. In 2008, Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) was the second Muslim elected to Congress. In 2008, Rep. Hark Johnson (D-Ga.), another Buddhist, also joined Congress, making history with him and Hirono the first Buddhists to be elected to Congress.

Thus, for Ricky Gill, to openly acknowledge his own faith, and/or that of a substantial portion of his district, shouldn’t have been political suicide. It wasn’t for his opponent, or other Republicans within California, as Representatives Jerry McNerney and Tom McClintock demonstrated. And, it certainly was not the case for those who have run while being transparent about their backgrounds.

Perhaps Ricky Gill will run again for a different office, or for Congress again, and there are those who believe that he will indeed make it to Congress sooner or later. If he does, it will be interesting to see how he chooses to run his campaign again (or how his campaign is run for him), and whether a Sikh American who runs for office needs to run from his own identification to be successful.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: The Top 5 Sikh American Stories of 2012: Honorable mentions « American Turban

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