An army of Indian American campaign staff and volunteers made history Feb. 3 as they propelled former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg to victory in the Iowa Presidential Caucus.
“It was a tremendously historic moment,” Surajit Bose, administrator of the Twitter group Desis4Pete, told India-West. “It did diffuse a lot of concern about whether an openly-gay man could win,” he said, noting that Iowa is “heartland America” with traditional values.
“It was heartening to see a gay man call out his husband and say he couldn’t have done it without him,” said Bose.
“I was very surprised that we won Iowa. It is a testament to our coalition,” Swati Mylavarapu, who serves as national investment chair to the campaign, told India-West. She noted that the candidate won delegates in both urban and suburban regions, and added: “This is definitely a predictor of what’s to come.”
Iowa Caucus night was marred for Democratic candidates by a faulty app, which did not allow the party to immediately declare a winner between Buttigieg and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. On Feb. 9, the Iowa Democratic Party announced it would allot 14 delegates to Buttigieg, based on vote totals; 12 to Sanders; 8 to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren; 6 to former Vice President Joe Biden — who led the polls ahead of the Caucus — and 1 to Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. Both Buttigieg and Sanders have asked for a re-canvass of vote totals.
Buttigieg did equally well in New Hampshire Feb. 11, tying with Sanders for the number of delegates — 9 each — and finishing second to Sanders, who beat him by a narrow margin of 1.3 percent.
Buttigieg, the youngest candidate in the crowded race, has several blue chip Indian Americans on his campaign staff, including Swati Mylavarapu, who serves as National Investment chair; National Policy director Sonal Shah; Avika Dua, who serves on the digital ad team; Hari Sevugan, the deputy campaign manager for brand and media; Shreyes Seshasai, Engineering director; and Aalok Kanani, director of “Pete for America.”
Mylavarapu told India-West she has known Buttigieg since she was 18, as they both attended Harvard and then Oxford University as Rhodes Scholars. At Oxford, the pair organized a group of students who would get together to discuss democracy in America, she said.
The “Pete For America” campaign has amassed almost $77 million in campaign contributions. The candidate has been criticized for his reliance on large donors, but Mylavarapu noted that the average campaign contribution is $35.
“This country is hungering for the fresh breath of leadership that Pete provides,” she said, noting that her parents are quite enthusiastic about Buttigieg.
One of the candidate’s key positions that she supports is using economic development to address systematic racism. Mylavarapu is the managing partner at Incite, which funds early stage companies and provides grants to non-profit organizations.
Shah, who served as the director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation at the White House during Barack Obama’s first term, and then headed up Google’s Global Development Initiatives, told India-West that Buttigieg’s policy-focused campaign reminds her of her former boss, President Obama. “He has a vision for where the country can go,” she said of Buttigieg. “As a mayor, he’s had to address so many of our country’s challenges at the ground level.”
The interest in Buttigieg has really picked up post-Iowa, said Shah, predicting that the candidate would do well in New Hampshire. She said the candidate’s moderate stance on health care — allowing people to opt in to a government subsidized plan, but not taking away existing plans — resonates with voters, along with his proposals for small business development, making higher education affordable, and forgiving loans for graduates who work in public service.
Sevugan, who worked on Obama’s campaign, and served as spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, told India-West he had initially thought he was done with campaigning. But Buttigieg’s candidacy enthused him with its “vision of what America can and should be.”
“He is inclusive, and honors pluralism. People of color feel the pain of this presidency more sharply than others.”
“Pete is the son of an immigrant. He understands what it means to give up everything to build a better life for your family,” said Sevugan. “There’s a hunger for people to come together to restore the social fabric of our country.”
Bose, who has spent several months canvassing for Buttigieg in towns on the peninsula of San Francisco, Calif., told India-West he has seen a tremendous upswing in enthusiasm for the candidate since the Iowa Caucus. People no longer simply politely take his door hanger. “They’re talking and listening to me,” he said, noting also that Desis4Pete has experienced an uptick in followers on Twitter.
Bose, who coordinates Peninsula4Pete, said he is surprised by the number of people he encounters who are still undecided. He believes the Buttigieg campaign can win over those voters.