Woman of the Week: Harmeet Dhillon

Natalie Pate

Women make up 51% of the population, 17% of Congress, and 0% of past presidents.

Name: Harmeet K. Dhillon

Born: 1969 (age 43) in Chandigarh, Punjab, India

Current Office: Chairwoman, San Francisco Republican Party

Political Party: Republican Party

Residence: San Francisco, California

Education: Bachelor of Arts (Classical studies), Dartmouth College; Master of Laws, University of Virginia

Why she is the Woman of the Week: Dhillon is a Republican running in San Francisco. If that doesn’t mean much to you, consider this: 9 percent of registered voters in San Francisco are Republican, and that number is only getting smaller. Voter registration figures show the California Republican Party is fast losing ground in the nation’s most populous state, where GOP voter registration lags behind Democrats by more than 13 percent. As Dhillon herself describes it, “to be a Republican [in San Francisco] and wear that label proudly is to attract people to key your car.” So why is she risking her car’s paint job and bothering to run at all? She wants to help change the face of her party. “I do my best to present a different face of the party than what they’re used to seeing. My job is to bust a lot of stereotypes about the Republican Party—that we’re all old, white men who want to control women’s bodies.” Not only is she a gutsy politician, she is also an accomplished business litigator at Dhillon & Smith LLP (of which she is a founding partner), dealing with issues of commercial and intellectual property, elections, and civil rights. She has won numerous awards for her pro bono legal services in cases involving domestic violence and religious liberty, and she was named a “Northern California Super Lawyer” by the publishers of American Lawyer magazine and one of the Recorder’s 40 “Women Leaders in Law.”

Background: Born in India, Dhillon is a first-generation immigrant to the United States. After a brief residence in the Bronx while her father finished his education, the family moved to rural North Carolina, where he worked as an orthopedic surgeon. Devout Sikhs, Dhillon and her brother spent summers with their strict grandparents in India for immersion in the religion. At home, Dhillon was made to lead an equally strict lifestyle. She was quiet and studious with few friends—but it paid off. She skipped eighth grade, entered high school at 12, and at 16 was admitted to Dartmouth. There, she joined The Dartmouth Review, the conservative student newspaper, of which she eventually became editor-in-chief. After a controversy at the paper that became a national story about “free speech, race, and campus politics,” Dhillon knew she was not on the right track as a premed and that her talents lay more with writing. After graduation she entered an arranged marriage with an abusive husband who eventually almost “beat [her] to death.” She flouted her religion’s customs and divorced him at 21. She began law school at the University of Virginia and eventually became an editor at the Virginia Law Review. Then came graduation, a new husband, a new job, a new divorce—and new duties when her mother was diagnosed with cancer and Dhillon moved back to North Carolina to care for her. She moved back to California after her mother’s recovery and discovered politics. She also became involved in several civil rights groups, such as the South Asian Bar Association of Northern California’s Civil Rights Committee and the ACLU of Northern California. In 2008 she won 17 percent of the vote in the Assembly race against Democrat Tom Ammiano in a San Francisco district where 8 percent of registered voters are Republicans. It was the best showing by a Republican there since 1994. Now, as the chairwoman of the city’s Republicans, she is running for State Senate against Democratic Sen. Mark Leno, the first openly gay man to serve in the California State Senate. In a city this liberal, Dhillon knows her race is a long shot—but she’s ready for the challenge. “I saw Mr. Leno was going to sail into office with no opposition, and that’s unacceptable. He shouldn’t take anything for granted.”

Key Issues: As stated by her website, her principles are “simple, clear and consistent: fiscal restraint, limited and responsible government, and the full protection of the civil rights of Californian citizens.” She focuses on reforming California’s budget process, cutting taxes, curbing government regulation, a free-market approach to health care, and ensuring individual liberty and privacy. As a Sikh, she does not recognize gay marriage. In fact, she does not believe the government should be involved in the marriage business at all—but does believe that same-sex couples should receive all the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples. “Harping on social issues,” she says, is not the right way forward for her party.

Her Latest Headline: “Local Voice of the GOP on the Tough Slog” – The Wall Street Journal

“Bottom line: It’s a political party. It’s not a philosophy, it’s not a way of life, it’s not a religion. It’s about winning.” – Harmeet Dhillon

[Image Credit: http://www.dhillonsmith.com/wp-content/themes/WhiteHousePro/images/feature_harmeet.jpg]