The first female governor of South Carolina has taken a path less travelled, Benedict Lopez writes.
Much publicity has been generated over Senator Kamala Harris since she was chosen by President-elect Joe Biden as his running mate. She will not only be the first woman vice-president in US history, but also the first woman of colour to assume the post.
The brouhaha is quite understandable as this an historic moment in the country’s history. But is the euphoria justified?
Definitely not – as Harris is only in her first term as a senator from California, being elected only in 2016, and with no proven track record as a politician at national level. Surprisingly, one respectable online publication has described her as a role model for women. I beg to differ.
There are other women, both white and of colour, who deserve to be given due recognition, and one of them is former South Carolina Governor (2011-2017) and US ambassador to the UN (2017-2018), Nikki Haley. She has done an excellent job in both posts but regrettably not been bestowed the recognition she deserves.
Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa to Sikh immigrants in Bamberg, South Carolina in 1972, Haley studied accountancy at Clemson University in South Carolina. First elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives at the age of 32 in 2004, she served three terms in the House.
It was during her third term in 2010 that Haley was elected Governor of South Carolina, the first female Governor of the state and youngest governor in the country. She was the second governor of Indian descent after Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and first Asian American female governor. Proud of her roots, she has on a number of occasions remarked that she is the “proud daughter of Indian immigrants”. She was re-elected as Governor in 2014.
In 2015, Haley catapulted to the limelight and gained national recognition after gruesome murders in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, opened fire during a Bible study meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, killing nine African Americans. It was in the aftermath of these ghastly killings, that Nikki showed exemplary leadership qualities.
Roof later claimed he had hoped to start a race war. In the weeks following the murders, pressure grew on Haley to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol. The flag was widely regarded by many African Americans as being very offensive as it was the embodiment of racism.
The audacious governor took the road less travelled and made a courageous decision to remove the Confederate flag from the State building. The flag was widely regarded as a symbol and poignant reminder of the heroes in this conservative southern state, which lost more than 12,000 soldiers during the US civil war from 1861 to 1865.
For Haley, the removal of the Confederate flag was more a personal decision than a political one. “I could not look at my kids in the face and justify flying that flag.”
Nikki’s stature among Republicans increased over the years. In 2016, she was requested by the party to give its response to then-US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
In the same year, prior to the presidential election, Haley endorsed Senator Ted Cruz for the presidency.
She was critical of eventual Republican winner Trump, notably condemning his call for a ban on Muslims.
Nevertheless, then-President-elect Trump selected her in 2017 to serve as US ambassador to the UN, the first Indian American in a presidential cabinet. Despite limited foreign policy exposure, she won Senate confirmation in January 2017, by a whopping 96-4 margin. She resigned as South Carolina Governor to take up the post.
As UN ambassador, she gained a reputation for speaking without fear or favour, on issues relating to Iran and North Korea, as the US believed both countries had been engaging in the development of nuclear weapons.
In 2018, Haley supported Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal that it had signed with Iran in 2015 together with China, France, Russia, Germany and the UK. The ambassador was explicit when she stated the US would “never accept a nuclear North Korea” and that North Korea’s regime would be “utterly destroyed” in the event of a war.
A woman with convictions, Haley told President Trump she planned to speak her mind, and she sporadically disagreed with the president and others in his administration. She was highly critical of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, calling it “warfare.”
In October 2018, Haley announced she was resigning as UN ambassador, and she left office in December that year.
Haley has spoken objectively whenever the occasion warranted it. In a speech as a guest of honour at the Al Smith dinner in October 2018, the then-outgoing ambassador acknowledged the Church’s efforts to address sexual abuse scandals while commending its “incredible work” helping “millions of desperate people” around the world. The annual dinner raises money for the Alfred E Smith Foundation, which serves the “neediest children of the Archdiocese of New York, regardless of race, creed, or colour”.
Haley said that in the course of her duties she had been to some “truly dark places” where the suffering endured by many people would be difficult for most Americans to imagine. “I’ve been to the border between Colombia and Venezuela, where people walk three hours each way in the blazing sun to get the only meal that they will have that day. Who’s giving that meal? The Catholic Church,” she said.
“I’ve been to refugee camps in Central Africa where young boys are kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers and young girls are raped as a matter of routine. Who was in the forefront of changing this culture of corruption and violence? The Catholic Church.”
Haley’s speech was a far cry from the major mainstream print and electronic media, which take every opportunity to spew venom on the Catholic Church by constantly highlighting only the negative side of the Church. The good work done by the Catholic Church all over the world on a daily basis wittingly gets eclipsed by the media.
In 2019, Haley joined the board of directors of Boeing, but she resigned the following year, objecting to the company’s decision to seek a federal government bailout during the coronavirus pandemic. She gave up a good income at Boeing because she stood by her principles – a rarity among many politicians.
Haley wrote the autobiographies Can’t Is Not an Option: My American Story (2012) and With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace (2019); in the latter she chronicled her tenure as UN ambassador.
Haley has the credentials to be considered as the Republican party’s nominee if she decides to throw her hat into the ring for the 2024 US presidential election.