SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA — Harmeet Dhillon was born in Chandigarh, India, the daughter of a Sikh physician and the granddaughter of a four-star general in the Indian Air Force. Now she's making her mark as the head of San Francisco, California's Republican Party.
While personally a social conservative, Dhillon has taken some controversial stands - she believes that government should not interfere in personal decisions - including gay marraige and abortion.
Northern India to America's deep South
Though Harmeet was born in India, she did not stay there long – her family moved first to London and then to the United States so her father could finish his training as an orthopedic surgeon. Dhillon started her schooling in New York City, during her father’s residency.
Shortly thereafter, they moved to the small, southern town of Smithfield, North Carolina, where there were very few Asians, and even fewer Sikhs. Some of her father’s colleagues were starting a medical practice and the opportunity was too good for her father to pass up.
Harmeet says the cultural change took some getting used to.
“So a lot of immigrants looking to have a life that was sort of a self-starter, your own business, and a balanced life as opposed to living in a city, chose some of those rural areas to bring services to places where, like where I grew up, they didn’t have an orthopedic surgeon in the entire county,” Dhillon said.
“There were whites and there were blacks and they lived in different parts of town and there really weren’t many people of different backgrounds,” Dhillon said.
“But, I was six almost seven years old at the time and so, you know, when you’re a kid you kind of roll with the punches and you don’t really analyze things too carefully. But we definitely suffered some discrimination during the years we lived in that small town,” she added.
Dhillon says she found refuge in her studies. She attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, graduating at age 16. Her mother also made sure Harmeet and her brother went back to India each summer to learn about the Sikh religion, and to maintain ties with her grandparents.
Harmeet enrolled in Dartmouth College, where she edited the conservative Dartmouth Review. During her time as editor, she also got a taste of winning a legal victory. Her actions caught the attention of the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes.
“I was featured in a story concerning a previous brouhaha that had occurred where the previous editor had been suspended indefinitely from school for essentially publishing a story that was critical of a music professor,” Dhillon said. “Litigation ensued – which was the subject of the 60 Minutes piece – and we ultimately prevailed.”
Marriage, Abuse, and Rebirth
Shortly after she earned her degree in classics, Harmeet entered an arranged marriage. That relationship ended when her first husband abused her.
“I graduated from Dartmouth and got married a week after graduation to a doctor from India who had been introduced to me by my family and our marriage was arranged so I didn’t meet him before we got married,” Dhillon said.
“And he seemed like a good solid candidate and unfortunately it did not go that well. I was a victim of domestic violence and managed to leave the marriage after a year and went to law school two weeks after I left my husband,” Harmeet added.
Dhillon received her law degree from the University of Virginia and later married an orthodox Sikh physician. But the couple’s high-pressure careers on different coasts ended the marriage in 2003.
“We were married for almost 10 years, but both of us had very high-flying careers and lived in different countries from each other at times, or different coasts and unfortunately it didn’t work out over time,” Dhillon said.
After returning briefly to North Carolina to help her mother battle breast cancer, Harmeet moved to San Francisco and started her own law firm there in 2006. She also discovered politics. Dhillon became the head of the San Francisco Republican Party in January of 2011.
While personally a social conservative, Dhillon says she does not believe in mixing politics and religion.
“I happen to be personally very conservative socially,” she said. “I would never have an abortion and my religion does not recognize gay marriage. What I believe though is that the government should not interfere in most private choices by individuals,” Dhillon added.
“I also don’t think the government should be taking a position on promoting particular religious values. I think that the idea that a social contract between a pair of consenting adults should be governed by religious themes and religious concerns, I think that’s anathema to a secular society such as we have,” Dhillon said.
Inside her office on San Francisco’s Post Street, Harmeet Dhillon has a tapestry that features several women on horseback. There is one man at the head of the caravan, but Dhillon says that doesn’t necessarily mean the women are following him.
“Well I think what you’re seeing is a snapshot of a caravan so it could very well some women leading a bunch of men that are just not in the picture,” she said.
“And I think you have to look at life that way. At any given point in time a snapshot will give you a certain perspective but you never get the full picture without looking further,” Dhillon added.
Harmeet Dhillon says she would encourage other women to follow their dreams, even if it means making difficult – and painful – choices.
“It takes courage to make those choices that go against the grain, but I have made both types of choices in my life and the most rewarding ones have always been the ones where I followed my own heart,” Dhillon said.
Harmeet Dhillon’s next challenge comes in November - she is running against long-time Democratic politician Mark Leno for a seat in the California State Senate.