Coming together, finding a point of agreement with others is not a weakness, but a sign of strength: Swati Dandekar

Exclusive interview with US Congressional candidate from Iowa.

By Deepak Chitnis

STERLING, VA: Former Iowa State legislator Swati Dandekar is one of the dozen Indian Americans running for a seat in the US Congress in 2014. The Democratic candidate is up against four others in her own party in Iowa’s 1st District primary race. The 1st District is a hugely Democratic one, and pundits claim that whoever wins the Democratic primary is essentially a shoo-in for the Congressional seat.

Swati DandekarThis past weekend, Dandekar was in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, attending a couple of fundraisers: one at the home of the Northern Virginia IT entrepreneur Vinson Palathingal, and the other at an upscale restaurant here, in Sterling. She also found time for a brief informal meeting with Indian Ambassador to the US S. Jayashankar, at his residence, in between the two events on Saturday.

In an exclusive interview with The American Bazaar, Dandekar talks about Obamacare, being potentially the first Indian American woman ever in the US Congress, and what having the support of desis across the nation means to her.

Excerpts from the interview:

You have support from the Indian American communities in 29 states across the nation so far. What does it mean to have such a widespread base of support from the Indian American community, even though you’re only running to represent one relatively small, Midwestern state?

I’m very humbled by their support and their enthusiasm, which you saw here today. To me, that means that they’re just as proud of their culture and heritage as I am. The reason they are supporting me and backing me is because they have seen, time and time again, that I did not leave those things behind. They support me because they see it as if they’re helping a sister, or a mom, or an aunt, or a cousin, or a sister-in-law.

When people invited me for get-togethers during my time in the Iowa House [of Representatives] and Senate, I would actually go. I didn’t blow them off. So I’ve developed a really good friendship with the Indian American community in both Iowa and around the country, which is how I’m able to be here [in northern Virginia] today. People are excited that an Indian is running, and they know that if I’m elected, I will look after their interests and represent them as best I can; I know I will make them proud.

If you’re elected, you’ll be the first and only Indian American woman ever elected to the US Congress, unless one or two other current Congressional races pan out. What does it mean to not only break down that barrier, but to do it from a Midwestern state, in the heartland of America, that isn’t even known for having a strong Indian American base?

Iowans have always been very progressive, and I have broken barriers ever since I first ran for elected office in Iowa. When I first ran, people didn’t even know who I was, and those who did really didn’t think I would win because it was basically a minority representing the majority. But I won big, with about 60% of the votes. So to represent a state like that, if I win, will be a very proud moment for me.

You’re currently running in a very crowded Democratic primary, with four other contenders vying for your party’s nomination in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District. How confident are you in terms of where you stand compared to your fellow Democrats? Have there been poll numbers released, or debates held, that give you an indication of where you currently stand?

I’m very confident. There have not been any polls that have been released in an official capacity, but there have been two [public] forum [debates]. KWWL, which is the local NBC affiliate, had a debate on their morning show, and all the candidates had a very nice discussion about various issues. People asked us questions, and then we answered them, so it was basically a town hall.

Since you’re all Democrats, running in a mostly Democratic District, it’s fair to assume that all five of you probably have a lot in common in terms of your ideologies and policy interests. So what is it about you specifically that sets you apart from the other Democratic candidates in your party?

I get asked this question a lot, and mainly it comes down to experience. I’m the one candidate that has experience at the local level – I was on the school board for the Linn-Marr School District – and I have experience at the state level, too. I was in the Iowa House [of Representatives] and the Iowa Senate, and I also have experience at the national level. I was the chair of the National Foundation of Women Legislators, where I worked with all women legislators from across the 50 states [and] discussed what policies we wanted to focus on. Also, I was on the Utilities Board; when you’re on the Utilities Board, you meet with every [utilities] commissioner from each state in the US. So I have experience at all three levels, which none of the other candidates can say about themselves.

If you win the election, you’ll be the first woman Iowa has ever elected to either chamber of the US Congress – how does being a woman give you a different perspective on key issues than your male counterparts, both in your own state and throughout the country as a whole?

Well, I’m a mom, and I was a stay-at-home mom for several years. And having raised two boys, who have both become very successful in their own right, I know the importance of education. I wanted my children to get the best education they could get, and I want the same for my grandchildren, too. Now, as a politician, the dreams I had for my children are the dreams I have for all children in the United States. So that’s the perspective I have.

And personally, I’ve always thought that coming together and finding a point of agreement with others is not a weakness, but a sign of strength. It takes confidence with yourself to work with the other side and do what is best for your state, and best for your nation. And that’s something I will work to bring to Congress.

There are two big topics that have dominated the political landscape for the last year or so – one of them is healthcare, and the changes that have been brought on by the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). You’ve said that, if elected, you will work to keep Obamacare from being repealed and also to fix whatever aspects of it need to be tweaked. Could you talk about what specifically you feel needs to be addressed?

Obamacare is basically affordable healthcare – that’s what I call it, and that’s what I tell people it is, because that’s the truth. Providing affordable healthcare for those who previously couldn’t afford it has always been important for me, but I knew that with any program as huge as this one, there are always going to be some gaps when the bill gets implemented. As you find these gaps, you take care of them, and so far that’s what’s been happening.

I’m hoping that by the time I get [to Congress] next year, there will be fewer problems with Obamacare. But whatever issues may still be lingering, we cannot ignore those, and we will have to fix those. So that is what I will do.

But what issues specifically do you think need to be addressed? Obviously the biggest issue was the website, but that has now been mostly taken care of, and the individual mandate has been delayed for another two years. But are there other problems that you would like to focus on specifically, if you get elected?

I’m going to wait and see. I’m not currently in the US Congress, so there’s very little I can do. But if there is something I think is not being done, I will do it.

The other major issue is immigration reform, which has become a hot-button issue for the Indian American demographic and the US as a whole.  You’ve said that you support the version of immigration reform that was passed by the Senate last year, but have some issues that you think should be fixed. Could you elaborate on what those are?

I honestly have not read the whole bill yet because I’ve been busy campaigning, but I’m doing my homework on it and can get back to you with a better answer.

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