Haley's Story: S. Carolina Governor tells an American Story
South CarolinaGov. Nikki Haley has been the talk of the nation over the last week, making itto the cover of USA Today, being featured in the New York Times and severalother major print outlets and television programs. All this attention was theresult of a memoir she released April 3, and the book tour she was on the wholeweek promoting “Can’t Is Not an Option.”
In virtually allher interviews, Haley rejected the idea of running as vice president on anyRepublican ticket for the November elections. She also made other statementsthat drew national attention. “Women don’t care about contraception ... theycare about jobs, the economy and raising their families,” she declared on theABC television show “The View,” riling a few conservatives. “What is amazing iswhat a bully President Obama has become,” she asserted on Fox News.
All good for booksales, no doubt. Her book is about growing up in the South, converting toChristianity and the travails of running campaigns for public office; it iswritten in a direct and relatively unembellished style, tackling issues such asracial discrimination, her love life, why she supported the discredited former SouthCarolina Gov. Mark Sanford till the end and also the rigors of hergubernatorial campaign.
As one South Carolinianto another, Haley aptly answered late night comedian Stephen Colbert’s questionon how she maneuvered treacherous South Carolina politics, including detractorsin her own party. “I wear heels and it’s not just a fashion statement,” Haleysaid in the April 3 appearance that was part of her weeklong book tour aroundthe country.
She may have saidit in jest, but those steely heels mirror her resolve to move ahead despite anunforgiving electorate and a Tea Party split over their once-beloved candidate.It is also a steel that has defined her life choices, especially since shedecided to enter politics.
Her book is publishedby Sentinel, the conservative publisher within the Penguin Group. It may be astudied account, but it provides a candid look at formative moments in the lifeof a rookie, who did not even know whether she was a Democrat or a Republican,but who entered politics, made a quick study, defeated a longtime incumbent toenter the state legislature, became a leader of the state house, made enemieswith her desire to clean house and bring transparent government, and beatconsiderable odds to enter the governor’s mansion.
Even asIndian-Americans may relate to the experiences of growing up in small-townAmerica as Haley recounts them -- facing discrimination, having strict parents,close-knit families, a determination to do better than anyone else compensatefor the differentness -- they will find in the book a combination ofdetermination and naiveté that has catapulted some in the second generation tograb the American Dream beyond the imaginations of their parents. Her campaignexperiences – how she pulled it off with her husband, Michael, a handful ofcampaign staff and a couple of volunteers, fought accusations of maritalinfidelity and came up with innovative ideas like selling yard signs ratherthan giving them free -- could help other aspiring candidates.
“Politicos willalways tell you that you will fail if you don’t have a certain amount of money,signs, endorsements, or staff. But I found out that all of that can be made upfor with smart decisions and, most important, a committed, hardworking, big-heartedstaff,” Haley says in her book.
Indian-Americans,even those who may not be Sikh, have long been skeptical about Haley’s conversionto Christianity in 1997, seeing it as political expediency. They alsooverwhelmingly believed she had not owned her Indianness. There is a revealingpassage in the book where Haley does not take responsibility for the fact butpoints out how she was sad to see her father would always hover at the edge ofcrowds at campaign rallies so as to not draw attention (to her ethnicity, onepresumes); how she was so happy when her parents were finally proudly present andvisible at their daughter’s inauguration.
Haley has her ownexplanation for converting. Sikhism did not move her. Because she did not knowPunjabi, her visits to the gurdwara with her parents since childhood, hadlittle impact. “Faith became something I developed without actually understandingscripture,” Haley says in her book, adding, “I converted to Christianitybecause the teachings of Christ spoke to me in a way that I could understandand that would help me live my life – the life I wanted in mine and Michael’smarriage and in the raising of our children.” She calls religion “intenselypersonal” but hastens to add in her book that she has nothing against those whotout their religion in every speech and that “The effort by some in our countryto remove religion from public discourse is entirely wrong.”
Unlike someIndian-Americans, the significant evangelical wing of South Carolina’sRepublican Party is not cynical about Haley’s conversion, and it was herbiggest supporter in her run for governor. “Evangelical Christians firmlybelieve in the conversion experience, even if you are already in a born-againChristian family. So her story fits. I don’t hear anyone question whether sheis genuinely Methodist,” Scott H. Huffmon, who teaches religion, politics andvoting behavior at Winthrop Universityin Rock Hill, SC., told News India Times.
The first womanto be governor of this southern state, the first Indian-American woman to winthis office, and currently the youngest governor in the country at 40, Haley isstill wet behind the ears, according to some analysts News India Times spoketo. Also, she is viewed differently from Washington, D.C., some would say evenwith rose-colored glasses, compared to how her own onetime supporters assessher abilities or lack thereof.
Huffmon, who directsthe Social and Behavioral Lab at Winthrop and the Winthrop Poll Initiative,says Healey’s election is unique and shows how South Carolina politics haschanged from the Good Ol’ Boy network of whites only. But the young governorhas to accumulate kudos. While the national conservatives view Haley as a “risingstar” the view within South Carolina is not unequivocal. The Tea Party is splitand some feel Haley used them to get to the governor’s mansion in Columbia.“But being a candidate is very different from being governor, and to govern meansto compromise which Tea Partiers are not happy about,” Huffmon notes.
Besides, thegovernor has stumbled a few times and her administration is seen as lackingtransparency after the incident where she fired a very popular board member ofthe University of South Carolina and replaced her with a campaign donor and forher refusal to waive her right to confidentiality for the ongoing House ethics investigation.
“On the one handshe can really speak to her base. I saw that when I moderated a Republicandebate,” Huffmon recalls. “But she can sometimes be tone deaf.” For instance,she came out in support of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the SouthCarolina presidential primaries but he was roundly defeated by Newt Gingrich; then,she issued an edict that all state employees must answer the phone with “It’s agreat day in South Carolina, how can I help you?’ at a time when the economy isin the doldrums and the state has the fourth-highest rate of unemployment.
Haley is alsotrying to push through legislative action to create a Department ofAdministration which would give more powers to the governor, who is weakcompared to the legislature, a legacy of an 1895 state constitution. In fact,James David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University, goesto the extent of calling it a “symbolic” office.
But if theeconomy continues to improve, analysts say, she has a chance at re-election. Ifshe can bring the Boeing Company back to South Carolina despite the labordispute, fix the port in Charleston among other things, she has a chance. WhileHaley has consistently blamed Washington and the Obama administration for theills in her state, voters look at the governor to take responsibility.
Haley has notmade any major mistakes. But she hasn’t had major accomplishments either,Woodard, an expert in southern politics and co-director of the Palmetto Poll,told News India Times. Woodard is a conservative and has been a politicalconsultant to candidates like Republican Party leader Sen. Lindsey Graham andRep. Jim DeMint among others.
Unlike anotherIndian-American governor, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Haley has yet to show hermettle in an office she has occupied for just a little more than a year.Louisiana’s economic growth, Woodard says, has been unprecedented, and Jindalmoved dynamically to bring the state out of the hurricane disasters.
Sarah Palin,former governor of Alaska also had something to show for her term in office –very low unemployment, recruiting industry etc., Woodard says. “Nikki Haley hasno exceptional achievements. It’s too early to put her up as a nationalfigure,” he says.
Haley says shewrote her memoir now because she was blown away by the number of women who toldher they would never consider running after seeing what she went through duringher campaign. She wanted to correct that impression.
What herpolitical trajectory will be is up for speculation if she plans to continue asgovernor. It’s unlikely she will be able to push through the new Department ofAdministration during her first term. And if she keeps upsetting enough smallgroups within her supporters, they may grow into a coalition of thedissatisfied. Analysts say she will face a tough primary again.