Indian Americans finally have a presence in the US Congress – Ami Bera, MD, is the new Congressman-Elect from California’s 7th Congressional District. I had interviewed him some months back when he was running a hard-fought race against the incumbent Congressman Dan Lungren, who conceded today.
“Career politicians have lined their pockets with special interest money and turned their backs on the values that made our country great—and now we’re left to pay the price for their government malpractice,” says Dr. Ami Bera. “This is why I am taking a new oath, like the one I took to become a Doctor, to put people first.”
In fact, on his Bera For Congress site, the good doctor takes some unusual pledges: Not to take a Congressional pension until Medicare and Social Security are secure for all Americans; To sponsor No Budget, No Pay—a law that says if Congress doesn’t do their job and pass a responsible budget, they don’t get paid. And he puts his foot down on traveling first class on the taxpayers’ dollars.
For Ami Bera, serving people has been an important part of who he is, and he is ever conscious of the need to give back to a country which embraced his immigrant family. While he grew up in California, his father crossed the oceans from a farming family in Rajkot near Ahmedabad, Gujarat for a higher education in America. “My father was the first in his family to go to high school,” he says. “He got a master’s in engineering and my mother became a teacher.”
Like many immigrant families, theirs’ was a close-knit family with a lot of emphasis on education, hard work. His father ran a small commercial real estate business, and inculcated the values for a strong work ethic in his children. “There was a strong family support and strong community support,” he recalls. “And also a keen appreciation of the opportunities America offered.”
India in America
The children were expected to pitch in and lend a hand. “Once we finished our school work often we’d spend our time going out and working hard,” he recalls. ” One summer, we paved the parking lot. It gave us the appreciation of how hard that labor is and how hard people work and it was an extreme motivator to continue to better ourselves. Like any small business family, we worked at this together.”
After going to excellent public schools and medical school, Bera went on to became Chief Medical Officer of Sacramento County. He also was Dean of Admissions and a clinical professor in UC Davis, teaching future physicians to deliver healthcare to the community.
He first ran for Congress in 2010, losing to his Republican opponent, incumbent Congressman Dan Lungren by a small margin. As The Wall Street Journal noted, “ This year, Mr. Bera is considered a serious opponent. While Mr. Lungren’s current district includes a huge swath of countryside and leans Republican, the redrawn congressional map puts him in a slightly Democratic-leaning district and gives Mr. Bera a shot at winning.”
Ask Bera why he is running for Congress and he cites the excellent education he received. “I’ve been fortunate in what this country has offered both me and my family. I’ve been blessed by good fortune and I think it is our obligation that the next generation has the same opportunities,” he says. “I’m making sure people have access to quality health care, making sure my daughter has the ability to find meaningful employment and support herself, making sure that the US continues to be an economy that continues to expand and build for the next generation.”
Indian American Community – A seat at the table
He feels involvement in political life is the natural progression for the Indian American community which now wants to give back to the US and have a seat at the table. Asked about his Indian heritage, Bera says it’s been an asset: ” I never run away from who I am, I actually run toward the values my family instilled in me.”
Bera’s campaign has been cited as the largest field organization for a Congressional race and is extremely well-run with lots of volunteers. “It’s how a campaign should be run – people talking to people, neighbors to neighbors.”
How is he perceived by the voters? “I think people see me as their neighbor. People are starved for authentic leadership, people are hungry for electing leaders who are going to put their interest first and work on their behalf. And that’s what I’ve always done as a doctor.”
Ami Bera’s wife Janine is also a physician and the two have been married for 21 years. They live in Elk Grove with their 14-year-old daughter who has also got involved in the political campaign, with her friends joining in to volunteer on the campaign trail.
Bera wants to nurture the relationship between India and America, especially the economic aspect. He says, “I would be looking to strengthen it in a way that is beneficial to both. India still has a lot of infrastructure needs and there is a real benefit for American companies to work with India to modernize its economy.”
For Bera, it is a special joy to work with the many young Indian Americans and Asians who volunteer in his campaign. “It is exciting to see the look in their eyes and if I can inspire them to run for office, for Congress, maybe even for President – then I think one can’t ask for any bigger legacy.”
Lavina Melwani is an award-winning journalist who has written for several international publications including: India Today, Newsday, The Week, WSJ, Travel Plus and The Hindu. She lives in New York. Her online magazine, Lassi with Lavina, is about Indian art and culture. Click here to visit her website, Lassi with Lavina.