When the legislature of the U.S. east coast state of Maryland convenes for its new term January 8 the leading voice of the Democratic Party in the House of Delegates will be Kumar Barve, the longest-serving elected official of Indian origin in the United States. Mr. Barve, who has been named House Majority leader, says he hopes to help increase South Asian American participation in the U.S. political process.
For the past 12 years, the 44-year-old Kumar Barve has been a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Mr. Barve, from Gaithersburg, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, was the first Indian American to be elected to a state legislature in the United States. Now he becomes the first in a major legislative leadership position, having been appointed to the number two Democratic Party post in the Maryland House.
The Democrats firmly control both House and Senate in Maryland, although the state's newly-elected governor, Robert Ehrlich, Jr., is a Republican, the first in 30 years.
When the two sides are at odds, Kumar Barve says, it will be up to him to explain his party's position.
"The major responsibility of the majority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates is to basically be the voice of the Democratic Party in the Maryland House," he said. "Because we have a Republican governor we are going to have more of a confrontation between the Democrats and the Republican Party and it is my job to speak for the Democratic majority."
Mr. Barve gave a preview of the partisan battles that may be ahead, when talking about the new challenges facing the newly-divided government in the state.
"Whenever we passed progressive legislation that was pro-consumer or pro-environment we never had to worry about gubernatorial veto," he said. "It was assumed that a Democratic governor would sign a bill like that. Now we cannot assume that."
Kumar Barve was elected to the House of Delegates in 1990. He was re-elected in November, as was another Indian American, Satveer Chowdhry, who serves in the State Senate in the midwestern state of Minnesota. Another U.S. politician of Indian origin, Swati Dandekar, a 50-year-old émigré from Nagpur, in central India, also was elected in November. She won a seat in the Iowa State Assembly with a decisive 57.5 percent of the vote and becomes the first Indian American woman to be elected to statewide office in the United States.
Only one Indian American has ever sat in the national legislature. In 1952, Dalip Singh Saund was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served two terms. This year, four Indian Americans ran for seats in Congress, but none were elected.
Maryland delegate Kumar Barve says its believed only 15 percent of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Americans are registered to vote - a situation he says he is trying to change.
"Over the course of my 12-year career, I have been working closely with Indian American, Pakistani American and Bangladeshi American organizations and helped to get several people appointed to important positions in the Maryland state government," he said. "My goal in the next four years is to improve voter registration and voter turnout."
Gaining a higher profile, as majority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates, is likely to help him achieve that goal.