As the congressional polls approach, in the state of Maryland, Indian-Americans and gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich are betting on red over blue.
With the mercury rising all around the United States as the November Congressional elections approach, it is the political drama of states that will dominate the attention of voters, pundits and the contestants themselves.
Yet even within the states, November will be about much more than just the fight for the House of Representatives and Senate — it will also be about battles for 38 state and territorial governorships, four territorial legislatures and numerous state legislature and local races.
While every one of these races will be decided by different local communities, in the state of Maryland it may well be a community of professionals and industrialists that turns the tide — Indian-Americans.
Maryland as a state has been staunchly Democratic for most of its history, even dating back to the Civil War years. Within the state, politics has been dominated by three main areas — Baltimore and the suburbs of Washington, DC; Montgomery County; and Prince George's County — all three mostly voting Democrat. Other parts of Maryland, such as Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, have usually sided with Republicans.
Yet the Indian-Americans, and their gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich, are betting on red over blue. And it may well be a strong bet given the deep disenchantment with the economy and unemployment. While Maryland is not haemorrhaging jobs like some other states — in fact there was a net addition to jobs between March and June — the situation is still bleak for many.
Ehrlich's Indian connection
But for Mr. Ehrlich his connection to the Indian-American community is about more than economics and elections. “It is personal,” he says, and he's not exaggerating. As the first Republican Governor of Maryland in four decades Mr. Ehrlich hired Indian-American Dilip Paliath as Chief Counsel for his Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
While he lost the 2006 gubernatorial race to Democrat and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley by a margin of 53 per cent to 46 per cent he has since built more bonds with the community and now firmly believes that the entrepreneurial nature of the Indian Americans and the success they have had in their ventures is a “natural marriage with my philosophical orientation.” He added that the community consisted of a lot of professionals and a lot of business people, “people that have lived the American dream.”
There is more to the relationship than abstract values, however, and Mr. Ehrlich was also a key force behind the creation of a trade office in Bangalore, which was later closed under the Democratic state administration. Not missing the irony in the fact that Washington Democrats and the White House have actually been pressing to stop jobs getting “Bangalored,” Mr. Ehrlich said that he had every intention to reopen the office and it would facilitate “getting mutual trade agreements.”
“Mutual,” is the key word, and Mr. Ehrlich said that it was India's with its thriving markets, democracy and growing wealth that were the main reasons for his ambition to build and take advantage of ties with the country. He argued, “If we can bring jobs to Maryland through a trade office, then why not?”
‘A tough state for Republicans'
But given that Maryland has been a virtual bastion of Democratic heavyweights, such as House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, the success of Mr. Ehrlich and his Indian-American support base is by no means guaranteed.
Mr. Ehrlich admitted, “It is a tough state for Republicans,” adding however that his party was well positioned and expected to win. If the dream comes true in November then the priority again will be jobs. Mr. Ehrlich said, “A couple of big business deals, corporate headquarters — maybe even of an Indian company. With the Indian corporate sector fuming over a bill passed in Congress — which hiked visa fees for Indian firms with U.S. operations by $2,000 or more — the strategy of gubernatorial hopefuls such as Mr. Ehrlich may be heartily welcomed by Indian industry.
Mr. Ehrlich however would take it a step further. According to him one reason behind the “impetus from the Indian-American community towards the Republican Party” was that the rhetoric and voting record of the Senate, combined with the platform and policies of the Obama government, suggested that the current federal administration was protectionist.
Mr. Ehrlich said that Democrats in the U.S. today believed in the heavy hand of government as exemplified repeatedly by their regulatory policies. Indian-Americans, contrarily, were “capitalists and free-traders” and so they were being driven towards the Republican Party, he added.
The other deep concern for the former Governor is deficits, in particular Maryland's projected “$1.6bn deficit over next fiscal year.” Lamenting the spending binge in Washington and in Annapolis, Maryland's capital, Mr. Ehrlich is a strong votary for “getting Maryland off its stimulus addiction.”
In the context of the federal stimulus plan he said that if the Obama government had offered Maryland money for a bridge or a tunnel to be built that would help get some people back to work based on a one-time expenditure. “But when they say they are going to cover your bandage this year and next year and then they are going to stop but we can keep increasing our spending you are just asking for long-term trouble,” he said.
Strength lies in technology
And Maryland will bounce back, Mr. Ehrlich insisted, highlighting in particular its inherent strength in higher technology sectors such as nanotechnology and biotechnology, and also an IT presence and traditional manufacturing for higher technology.
It is after all home to a host of agencies involved in cutting edge research and development including the Johns Hopkins University, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Institute of Mental Health, the federal Food and Drug Administration, the Celera Genomics company and, rather famously, the J. Craig Venter Institute.
However Mr. Ehrlich cautioned, “We have this undergirding of federal expenditures that does help prime our pump but it makes Annapolis lazy and we tend to do anti-business things as a result of federal spending being here.”