Update: Dhillon won her bid to become a Republican National Committeewoman from California during an election at the state GOP convention over the weekend. She tweeted in thanks to her supporters:
This story was originally published April 7, 2016.
Harmeet Dhillon wants to be the face of a new kind of Republican Party.
The 47-year-old lawyer lives and works in San Francisco, one of the country's most liberal areas. She sat on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union, and once made a financial contribution to Kamala Harris' campaign for local office — Harris who is a U.S. Senate hopeful and rising star in Democratic politics. And, as the first woman elected vice chair of the California Republican Party, the daughter of Indian immigrants who is also a practicing Sikh, helped buck perceptions that the GOP is a party of old white men.
"When people who are disinterested in politics or sort of vaguely interested look up and they see on TV or they hear on the radio that the spokesperson for the party is somebody different, that changes hearts and minds," she said. "And I’m proud to have done that."
Now, after two terms in her state party role, Dhillon is running for the position of Republican National Committeewoman. If she wins, she will represent the Republicans from the reliably blue state to the party’s national convention, where she hopes to be the “squeaky wheel” to give California's 4.7 million GOP voters more influence in the national party’s politics.
“I’m going to push for some changes to our system that will make us more relevant, and that involves a tricky number of things that may have to go on here, may have to go on there,” she told Refinery29 by phone. It's a rough ride for Republicans in California. Republicans are outnumbered 43% to 28% in the state, and in liberal urban enclaves, it can be even more divided. Currently, not a single one of California's elected officials is Republican, and Democrats hold a majority in both houses of the state legislature.
When it comes to party politics, Dhillon wants to give California a little more oomph. Despite the fact that California is going to send 172 delegates to the Republican National Convention, Dhillon says the state is disadvantaged by its late primaries (which don't take place until June 7) and late convention vote. She intends to push for change to make her home state more relevant. “You’d better believe I’m going to be a very vocal advocate for California.”
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Dhillon grew up in North Carolina, where her family was always part of the conservative community. Her parents, practicing Sikhs who raised their children to be devout, started a local temple. She recalls her family holding fundraisers for Republican politicians like Sen. Jesse Helms, and speaking about the issues of the day around the dinner table. But it was at Dartmouth that she started her political career, becoming the editor-in-chief of the campus' conservative paper, The Dartmouth Review.
Dhillon doesn't believe in the stereotype that the GOP is too old, too male, too white. She can rattle off a list of women she's seen as leaders in the party.
"I think that discrepancy is outdated," she said. "While I’m proud of blazing that trail because of who I am, I don’t think anybody should vote for me because of who I am. People should vote for the best candidate. And I happen to be the best candidate with my diverse background."
It was a long trail to blaze. She ran for office multiple times before winning her vice chair seat. After serving on the San Francisco County Central Committee, she ran for state Assembly, becoming the first Indian-American in the state to do so.
She didn’t win that race, but it was still a kind of victory. In San Francisco, where only about 10% of the population is registered Republican, she got 18% of the vote.
After another loss in a campaign for a seat in the state Senate in 2012, she ran for the suddenly open position of party vice chair. This time, she won. But it was a rough campaign. She was slammed for her more moderate leanings, including her history of working with the ACLU and her donation to Democrat Kamala Harris.
She also received some appalling hate mail targeting her Sikh faith. The attacks were "linking me to 9/11 and saying I supported terrorists, I supported beheadings, I supported Sharia law," Dhillon recalled.
"I encountered some hate in that campaign, and it was disturbing," she said. Though California has the largest population of Indian-Americans in the country according to U.S. Census information, Dhillon was the first Indian-American to hold the seat. "I wasn’t expecting that, frankly, in 2013."
Leaders from all over the state, including some who didn't agree with her politics, spoke up to condemn the hateful attacks.
"At the end of the day, I think it actually made our party stronger to go through that catharsis and call out some of the ugliness that was lingering around," she said. She emphasized that she has always felt accepted by her political colleagues. "I have always been welcomed with open arms by the so-called establishment that doesn’t look like me. I have never once in the entire efforts of more than 35 years in politics, been turned away because, ‘We don’t like your kind.’ Never once."
Nevertheless, Dhillon doesn't look like your typical Republican-affiliated voter. According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, the groups that tilt most heavily Republican are primarily Christian and overwhelmingly white. The three groups that lean most strongly toward the right are, in order, Mormons, white evangelical Protestants, and white southerners.
Dhillon cares deeply about the ability of the average person to feel involved in the political world. She finds herself disturbed by the disaffectedness of the average American. "I'm disappointed to see that as a citizen," she told us. She worries over the disillusionment she sees, and what it means for the future.
But solutions? "One thing is to show people that there are opportunities for new people," she said.
It's why she's running for RNC Committeewoman, to replace incumbent Linda Ackerman. Ackerman, who was elected to the post in 2008, has long been active in party politics in the state, but recently began suggesting that she doesn't intend to run for re-election, according to India-West. Ackerman did not return a request for comment on this story.
"If we let an incumbent stay in just until they want to leave, that’s possibly 20 to 30 years of incumbency," Dhillon said. "That means less opportunities for new people. So we don’t have term limits, I’m taking her on, I think that’s putting my money where my mouth is. If I want to see some change, I need to be that change."
Her best route to change? Simple. Voting and activism. When she spoke to Refinery29, she had weekend plans to hit the street and campaign for fellow Republican Clint Olivier in an upcoming special election for an open Assembly.
"That’s how you make a change. When people start complaining about the process, I ask them, ‘Did you vote? Did you vote in the last election? Did you vote in the election before that?’" she said. "Sometimes they don’t. And to me, that’s the end of the conversation."