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An Emerging Political Star: Nikki Haley

Indian American gubernatorial candidate in South Carolina, Nikki Haley has made it to the cover of Newsweek with a story on her transformation from "obscure state representative" to front runner in South Carolina governor's race. The magazine recounts how an "earthy, attractive, articulate" and the Republican Party's "newest star in a fast-changing South," Haley "proceeded to dispatch a US congressman, the lieutenant governor and the attorney general in the Republican primary and runoff."

"For the November elections, Haley is pitted against Democratic nominee Vincent Sheheen. If elected, she'll be South Carolina's first female Governor and the second Indian American Governor after Bobby Jindal of Louisiana," the US newsmagazine noted.


State Rep. Nikki Haley, receiving a campaign donation from former S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins in this file photo.

"Now she's the hottest thing in South Carolina politics. And if she wins in November becoming the state's first female and first non-white Governor, she'll likely rocket to national prominence and secure a spot in the GOP (Republican) firmament," the Newsweek said.

"She brings something new to our party," said Henry McMaster, the attorney general who lost to her in the primary and later endorsed her. "We have a new leader for the conservative movement in this country, right here in South Carolina."

Born Nikki Nimrata Randhawa in a Sikh family, the mother of two who overcame allegations of extramarital affairs and ethnic slurs, Haley shies away from talk of breaking racial and gender barriers.

"She says she's proud of her heritage and of the accomplishments of Indian-Americans - their educational attainment, their income levels, their philanthropy." But that's about as far as she'll go.

"The fact that I happen to be an Indian female, of course that brings a new dynamic. But what I hope it does is cause a conversation in this state where we no longer live by labels, but we live by philosophies."


Speaking to local Girl Scouts on the importance of growing up smart, strong, and unafraid to do what is right.

Noting her transformation after former Alaska governor Sarah Palin endorsed her and the Tea Party movement embraced her, Newsweek says: "Haley is attractive and earthy, with a gleaming smile and a steely resolve."

"While the former Alaska governor often seems tongue-tied and uninformed, Haley comes across as sharp and articulate. She's remarkably poised for someone fairly new to politics. And she's a natural at the art of schmoozing," it said.

"Eager to shed their image as the party of old white men, national Republicans are salivating," the magazine suggests.

"The GOP has long struggled with expanding the base of our party," it cites Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) as saying. Haley offers "a big chance for us to bring ethnic minorities into the party."

Overcoming a sex scandal, racial slurs and estrangement from the local GOP establishment, Haley won the Republican nomination for South Carolina governor in June 2010, putting her one step away from becoming the state's first female and first minority governor.


Nikki Haley's transformed from "obscure state representative" to front runner in South Carolina governor's race.

As a state representative, Haley pushed for reforms that would promote transparency and accountability, putting her at odds with the state GOP establishment.

She also proudly opposed President Obama‘s 2009 stimulus package. Competing against three other candidates, Haley was unable to win a flat-out majority in the GOP primary, though her 49 percent was well ahead of her opponents. In a runoff two weeks later, she won 65 percent of the vote. Haley will face Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D) in the general election.

Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, Haley grew up in Bamberg, S.C. where her Sikh parents were the first Indian immigrants the small town had ever seen. Her father, Ajit Randhawa, was a biology professor at Voorhees College in nearby Denmark, S.C.; her mother, Raj, started Exotica as a gift shop.

Growing up in such an environment was sometimes difficult. She has described her family's effort to blend in as "survival mode." "You learn to try and show people how you're more alike than you are different," she said.

Years before she received her degree in accounting from Clemson University, Haley worked for her mother's clothing shop, which sells gowns, suits and jewelry — she started keeping the books at age 13. After graduating from Clemson, Haley worked as an accountant for North Carolina-based waste- management firm FCR before returning to her mother's upscale clothing line, Exotica International. She served as chief financial officer and helped it become a multi-million dollar business.

Haley joined the political sphere in 2004 when she defeated veteran state Rep. Larry Koon (R) in a district undergoing demographic changes. She was reelected in 2006 and again with a resounding 83 percent of the vote in 2008.
While in the South Carolina legislature, Haley pushed for smaller government, transparency and restrained spending. She was known for alienating colleagues in the legislature in her pursuit of greater transparency.

In May 2009, Haley joined the race for governor as the only woman competing against three more prominent Republicans. She stayed in last place for almost a year before climbing in the polls. GOP politicos attributed her rise to her message of reform and charismatic campaign style.

At times, Haley put South Carolina's Republican primary in the national spotlight as much for the scandals swirling around her as for the groundbreaking nature of her campaign. Haley had to battle a sex scandal of her own: two men connected to the South Carolina GOP claimed to have had trysts with the candidate. One allegation came from conservative blogger and former Mark Sanford spokesman Will Folks and another came from lobbyist Larry Marchant, a former campaign advisor for Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, one of Haley's opponents in the Republican primary. Haley categorically denied the charges and the scandals seemed to do little to hurt her popularity.

In the June 8 primary, Haley finished well ahead all three of her rivals, but with only 49 percent of the vote, she did not win the party's nomination outright. In the June 22 runoff, Haley delivered a decisive 65 to 35 percent win over runner-up Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.). Though Democrats are confident in their candidate, they admit that he is the underdog in this red state.

Like the disgraced outgoing Gov. Sanford, Haley espouses more hard-line conservative ideas than most members of the state GOP.

She supports smaller government, lower taxes and restrained public spending. An accountant by profession, she has promised to eliminate excess spending from the state budget and has plans for tax reform.

Haley made accountability and transparency the trademark of her time in the South Carolina legislature. She pushed hard for the adoption of more roll-call votes, rather than anonymous voice votes, a fight she took public in speeches across the state. She also called for term-limits and stiffer rules governing financial disclosure, reforms she pledges to see through if elected governor. These issues made Haley extremely unpopular with her fellow legislators. As a result of her push for more roll-call votes, she was removed from a powerful committee that she had been vying to chair.

But her estrangement from the state Republican establishment only made her more appealing to voters.

Along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Haley is thought to represent not only a fresh face for the Republican Party, but also for the South. However, the Palmetto Patriots, a local group that fights "attacks against Southern Culture," singled her Haley for questioning on the Civil War because of her ethnic background.

Religion turned out to be a more persistent concern for voters. Raised in the Sikh tradition and baptized in the Methodist church in 1996 when she married her husband, Haley said in 2004 that her family attended services for both faiths.

"My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life and I look to Him for guidance with every decision I make. God has blessed my family in so many ways and my faith in the Lord gives me great strength on a daily basis. Being a Christian is not about words, but about living for Christ every day," she has said on her website.

In the 2010 election, however, she spoke of having "converted" and included more explicitly Christian language in her web site biography, leading some commentators to question why repudiating the religion of her childhood was so necessary for Haley to win.

"She is telegenic and a fresh face, and she's saying all the right things in terms of transparency and changing the ‘good ol' boy' system," said Chip Felkel, a veteran Republican political strategist in Greenville, South Carolina, who says he is not involved in the race.

"She gives [the] image of diversity within the party leadership, without there being a diversity to the party platform and ideology," said University of South Carolina political scientist Todd Shaw.

The itch to enter politics finally came in 2004…"I had no interest in that path — I wanted to change state government. My motivation came from my frustration about how hard it was getting to make a dollar in South Carolina and how easy it was for the government to take it. My parents always taught us to not complain, so I decided to do something about it. I did not realize what a challenge it would be."

Haley, one of the strongest fiscal conservatives in state government, was first elected to represent the 87th District in Lexington County in 2004, when, as a virtual unknown she beat the longest serving state legislator in a Republican primary. In 2008 Representative Haley was sent back to the statehouse with 83 percent of the vote – the highest percentage earned by any lawmaker facing a contested South Carolina election that year.

For her efforts to cut taxes and slow the growth of government spending, Nikki was named "Friend of the Taxpayer" (2009) by the S.C. Association of Taxpayers and a "Taxpayer Hero" (2005) by Gov. Mark Sanford. She has lifetime "A" ratings from the South Carolina Club for Growth, the Palmetto Family Council, and the National Rifle Association. Nikki has also received the Palmetto Leadership Award from the S.C. Policy Council for her expertise on policy matters and the Strom Thurmond Excellence in Public Service and Government Award from the S.C. Federation of Republican Women for the outstanding constituent service she provides to her district.

Nikki's husband Michael is a full time federal technician with the South Carolina National Guard and an officer in the Army National Guard. She was previously a board member of both the Orangeburg and Lexington County Chambers of Commerce and a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners. Currently, Nikki sits on the board for Mt. Horeb United Methodist Church, Medmission, and is a proud member of the West Metro Republican Women and the Lexington County Republican Party.


With husband Michael, son Nalin and daughter Rena

Nikki and Michael live in Lexington with their two children, Rena, 12, and Nalin, 8.

Nikki's take on various issues confronting people in South Carolina
On Economic Prosperity:
Economic development is the most important issue facing our next governor. We have to make South Carolina a good place to own a business, and doing so starts with taking care of the businesses we already have. That means reforming our tax code – beginning with eliminating the small business income tax – so it's flatter and fairer and no longer places so much of the burden on the small businesses that drive our economy. It means taking advantage of our tech schools and skilling the workers our employers need. It means fighting to preserve South Carolina's status as a ‘right-to-work' state. The truth – in spite of most politicians trying to convince you otherwise – is governing isn't rocket science; it's just common sense. If the businesses in this state have cash flow and profit margins they will hire more people and our economy will grow, and it's time we take the necessary steps to make that a reality. I will fight to make South Carolina a great place to own and run a business – only then will business outside of our state look to South Carolina as an attractive place to set up shop.

On Health Care:
American freedom has reached a critical moment as we find ourselves fighting for control of our own health decisions. Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi have pushed an unconstitutional takeover of healthcare – and we must fight back. I will form a coalition of conservative governors to take the federal government out of your doctor's office, and expand access to healthcare using free market principles. Simple steps like allowing insurance competition across state lines, insurance pools for private citizens and strong tort reform, will go a long way towards solving the healthcare problem – without a government mandate.

On Immigration:
We are a nation of immigrants but we are also a nation of laws. It is vitally important that the United States maintains its sovereignty through the process of legal immigration.

On Education:
I have two children in public schools and am fully invested in seeing the quality of our education improve not just for them but also for all children in South Carolina. Our students deserve a government that is committed to actually improving our worst in the nation education system, not just throwing dollars at it. Money does not help a child if it has to go through thousands of bureaucrats and 85 school districts to get to the classroom. I went to a rural school in Bamberg where everyone took care of everyone else. I've lived in Orangeburg where teachers struggle so much with discipline they don't have the opportunity to teach – and kids don't have the opportunities to learn. And now I represent Lexington where every public school is like a private one. That disparity is wrong, any way you look at it. We owe it to every child in this state, no matter where they live, to make their education a priority and that means completely reforming our education funding formula.  [ By D.Dave ]

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