Full version of interview with Nikki Randhawa Haley, Governor of South Carolina

Nikki Randhawa Haley became the Governor of South Carolina in November 2010, and is the first ever Indian-American woman to occupy the top job in a U.S. state. At 38 years of age the rising star in the Republican Party firmament frequently grabs headlines with her no-nonsense defence of conservative principles, including her focus on business-led economic growth, limited government involvement in the private sector and strict immigration laws.

As the nation gears up for the November presidential elections, which will likely be a contest between pro-business former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama, Governor Haley gave a rare interview via telephone to Narayan Lakshman. In it she touched upon issues of national significance, and also on what it means to be an Indian-American political leader in America today. Edited transcript:

You recently told your story in a book, “Can’t is not an Option.” If you had to pick one central message of the book, what would that be? Does South Carolina manifest some of its core themes, and if so could you elaborate on that?

The reason that I wrote the book is that after I won the race for Governor I had so many people come up to me and say, “After everything you went through I would never run for office.” That was the total opposite of what I wanted them to take from my race.

This is not a political book. This is a story of a daughter of Indian parents in a small Southern town that went through challenges. But the challenges didn’t define me, but it was how I handled those challenges that did – to look at the progress that was made in South Carolina and to realise that through these tough times – whether it was being disqualified from a pageant or whether it was having the police show up at a produce stand when my dad and I went there.

Those challenges are one thing but the fact that we are now in a state that elected a 38-year-old Indian-American female for Governor speaks volumes for how far we have come as a country and certainly for how far South Carolina has come as a state.

When you spoke of those “challenges,” do you think that they had to do with your background in particular? Do you think that values in America have actually changed in America during your political career?

I think that the challenges had to do with my age, with my gender, with [my] Indian-American [background] and with the establishment. So it was all types of challenges and everyone goes through these challenges. But what we have to do is remember that you have to push forward and that you have to remember that the good that you are able to do will overcome all of those challenges.

Yes, we have come so far. I think that South Carolina shows that we are a new state that isn’t backward, that isn’t negative in its thinking and that does recognise hard work and talent. That’s true for the rest of the country. My parents loved the fact that only in this country could you be anything that you wanted to be, and I think I proved that. I hope that proves that for a lot of other people in the country.

The Republican presidential nomination is settling in favour of Mr. Romney. Two questions on that: first, would you run for Vice President with Mr. Romney if he asked? Second, what in your view should be the GOP’s answer to the Obama administration argument that it has steered America away from an economic depression and is creating jobs each month?

First of all I would decline any request for a Vice-President or Cabinet position, because after you read the book you realise that after all the sacrifices that we made, the people of South Carolina took a chance on me. I think it is my job to fulfil that commitment and keep the promise that I made to the people of this state.

In reference to President Obama, I can tell you that South Carolina is doing well in spite of the chaos in Washington. We have unemployment down for the eighth month in a row, we have recruited over $5 billion in investment, over 24,000 new jobs and that has been in spite of everything that has happened in Washington.

A perfect example of that is the National Labour Relations Board suing Boeing from actually creating a thousand jobs in South Carolina. So what I can tell you is that it is not about what Washington thinks of the economy. It is about how the everyday person feels about the economy. In South Carolina we have had to struggle and fight through it in spite of the fact that we have not been in friendly territory in Washington.

Well looking further at Washington’s role and specifically at other factors that matter for unemployment, such as jobseekers unemployment benefits which are lapsing in South Carolina this month – is that something that you think is good for your state? Or does there need to be more support for those without a job?

Look, what we are trying to do is that we are transforming the way that we train people in this state, so that they can work towards new jobs. South Carolina has in the last year and a half become the state that now builds things. We build planes with Boeing. We build cars with BMW. We are now the Number One tyre-producing state in the country. We are the largest producers of All Terrain Vehicles in the entire world. We are the largest producers of gas turbines in the world.

This is something that we did because we said, “We are going to become a manufacturing hub and we are going to start to build things.” That is why we have companies like Otis Elevators coming to us from Mexico, or Au-Some Candy Company coming to us from China. We are going out [and] we are getting it, in spite of Washington.

We are not going to wait. We are not going to whine about it. We are not going to complain about what we don’t have. We are going to fight and we are going to sell South Carolina and we are going to make sure that everybody that wants a job has a job.

When they want a job and can’t find one we’re helping them get trained so that they can actually get one. That is the more proactive way instead of saying, “That’s ok, let the government take care of your benefits and everybody complain about it.” That is not how I was raised. I was raised [to think,] “Don’t complain about it. Do something about it.” In South Carolina we are doing something about it.

It was interesting that you mentioned Mexico and China as you recently had a meeting with the Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao. Can you talk a bit about your interaction with her and why the U.S.-India relationship matters to South Carolina? Does South Carolina offer any economic advantages to Indian companies that may potentially set up operations there?

Actually I told her that it was very important that we have a strong business relationship between South Carolina and India – that is very important to me. She is a woman of great strength and grace and brilliance, and I was so proud to be able to meet her.

But what we also agreed is that we are going to partner. We are going to partner on trying to make sure that we can bring business from India to South Carolina. We are going to make sure that we continue to be a good, friendly ally to India as we need to, and see how we can get the two to partner up.

Indians are great at everything that they do, whether it is business or education or medicine or law – all of those things. What we want to do is make sure that we are doing more business together but then we are also realising that there is a place for the Indian community in government.

What I fight for is, “How do we get companies to come into this state? How do we keep the cost of doing business low? How do we make sure that the trained workforce is strong and how do we make sure that we continue to be one of the least unionised states in the country?”

She knows that that is what I am trying to do and she certainly sees that my wanting of Indian companies in the state is strong and we have agreed to work on that together.

The Republican nomination debates saw a lot of attention focused on the question of immigration, and it is also a subject that some of the U.S. courts are considering in the wake of immigration laws passed in Arizona and South Carolina. What is your view on immigration and has your family background shaped that view in any way?

I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants that came here legally. They [took] the time and paid the price [to] come here the right way. What we are trying to do is remind everyone that the U.S. is a country of laws. When you give up being a country of laws you give up everything that makes this country great.

While we believe that you have to follow the law to come into this country, I am also working with the federal delegation to see how we can expand the worker visa programme; how we can make sure that we have more opportunities for those areas that need to have immigrants come in to work, that we do that.

There is a lot of talent that comes to the U.S. and attends universities. We don’t necessarily want that talent going back. We want to keep some of that talent in terms of engineering, and in research and development, and all of that.

So [there are] two sides. One, whatever we do, we have to do legally. Two, we have to make sure that we are keeping the good talent that we want to keep and we are not just letting it go by the wayside.

Well this came up in the debates as well, but where does that leave persons are already here and came here illegally, but are people who go to church, pay their taxes, have integrated into their communities and have been law-abiding. What would your solution be for those people?

I think we need to find a process to deal with that. Governor Romney has said that we should give everybody a certain amount of time [and] we should let them know that we have to follow the law. Give them the paperwork to fill out and have them start with the paperwork. But we cannot give priorities to those people who came here illegally, and give them a pass – that’s not going to work because then you are being unfair to all of those who are fighting to come here the right way.

I think we are going to have to go through a process of getting everybody signed up, getting everybody that wants to stay, getting all that paperwork worked out, but also letting them understand that we are not going to let [them] go to the front because [they] got here – you are going to have to go to the back of the line, you are going to have to go through it the way everybody else did and the way my parents did. That way we can go through it the right way.

Touching upon your own example, could you explain how the role of Indian-Americans in U.S. politics changed since your parents’ generation? Might we ever see a member of this community occupy the Oval Office?

I think that this country has a great respect for the Indian-American community because they have seen that [this community] has excelled in medicine, business, teaching, in everything they do. The work ethic of Indian-Americans is amazing.

The one thing we have not been very active in is government. So what I hope our generation realises is that our parents sacrificed a lot to get us to this point. Now it is up to step up to the next level and get involved in government, in giving back and in service.

I think that we will also see that we can be successful in government and politics as well. It is important for us to show what a great community we are. I always brag to everyone and say that we are one of the highest educated minorities in the country. We are one of the highest per capita income minorities in the country. We are the minority that is one of the least dependent on government assistance.

And the one I love: we are the minority that is the most philanthropic of all minorities. That speaks volumes about who we are and where we came from. Getting involved in government is just stepping that up one more time.

So do you actually think we might have an Indian-American President some day?

I think that in this country anything is possible. I think that no one thought that we could have an Indian-American female for Governor in South Carolina.

Read abridged version of interview here.

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