South Asian American Women in Biden-Harris Administration

Biden Harris inauguration
President Joesph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris

As Vice President-elect Kamala Devi Harris took oath today as the first woman, the first African American and the first Indian American in a highly-divisive and polarized nation, there is a significant spotlight on Indians in America.

Indian Americans only make up 1.2 percent of the U.S. population, but their political clout was evident in the 2020 general election, both as candidates running for office as well as donors and as a powerful voting bloc. The rise of Indian American candidates to national prominence is a natural progression for a community that has more than doubled since 2000, making it one of the fastest growing minority groups in America, with immigration and a rising second generation fueling much of that growth.

As per a Sept. 15, 2020 survey, conducted jointly by Indiaspora and Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Data, Indian American political engagement extended to several areas, with a fifth of Indian American registered voters saying they contacted their representative or government official in the U.S. this year, while 74 percent had discussed politics with family and friends, and a quarter of those surveyed had donated to a candidate, political party or campaign this year. Another survey, released in December 2020 reveals that 35 percent of Indian Americans overwhelmingly favored Harris, while 43 percent somewhat favored her. In the survey, titled the ‘Indian American Election Survey,’ the authors touched on a broad area of topics covering both U.S. and well as Indian politics and issues concerning the community. It is authored by political scientists Sara Sadhwani, assistant professor of politics at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and Maneesh Arora, assistant professor of political science at Wellesley College in Dover, Delaware.

It goes without saying that Harris’ historic ticket and win will inspire several women of color to run for office. This November, at least 48 women of South Asian origin ran for public office at the federal, state and local levels, and some made history by becoming the first woman of color to be elected. That streak has continued in the Biden-Harris administration as well, with several Indian American women nominated and appointed for top positions. “These diverse, experienced, and talented individuals demonstrate that the president and vice president-elect are building an administration that looks like America and is ready to deliver results for the American people on day one,” says a press release from the Biden-Harris transition team.

The most high-profile name after Harris is Neera Tanden, Biden’s pick as director of the Office of Management and Budget. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she would make history becoming both the first woman of color in that role. The Office of Management and Budget oversees the performance of federal agencies, and administers the federal budget. The Washington Post notes that if confirmed, “Tanden would be one of the central economic voices in the Biden administration.” Tanden, a long-time friend and former adviser to Hillary Clinton, is one of the most influential Indian American politicos in Washington, D.C. She has served in both the Obama and Bill Clinton administrations, as well as on Democratic presidential campaigns. She was one of the principles who drafted the Affordable Care Bill under the Obama administration. But Tanden’s nomination has been met with both bouquets and brickbats. Her supporters praised her passion for a wide range of policy issues, while Republicans decried her role in drafting the Affordable Care Act and her outspoken criticism of the GOP  as well as her outspoken opposition to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018. In a press release announcing Tanden’s appointment, the Biden-Harris transition team said Tanden’s career had “focused on pursuing policies designed to support working families, foster broad-based economic growth, and curb rampant inequality.”

Also nominated is civil rights attorney Vanita Gupta as Associate Attorney General. If confirmed, she would make history, becoming the first woman of color to serve in that role. Currently the president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, she previously served as an acting assistant attorney general and head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Another Indian American who finds a place in the Biden White House is Sabrina Singh, a longtime aide Harris has been named White House Deputy Press Secretary. Singh, a veteran communication professional, worked for three presidential campaigns in the 2020 presidential cycle. She served as a press secretary for Harris, after she was selected by Joe Biden as his running mate, as well as the presidential campaigns of billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Leading the women named to several positions to the White House staff is Rohini Kosoglu, Harris’ longtime aide, named as her Domestic Policy Advisor. The Sri Lankan American is part of an all-women team named to serve the new vice president in the White House. Other appointments include Aisha Shah, Partnerships Manager, White House Office of Digital Strategy; Neha Gupta, Associate Counsel; Reema Shah, Deputy Associate Counsel; Sonia Aggarwal, Senior Advisor for Climate Policy and Innovation; and Sameera Fazili as Deputy Director of the National Economic Council.

Obama administration veteran Mala Adiga has been named the policy director to the would-be First Lady Jill Biden. Previously, she served as a senior advisor to Dr. Jill Biden, and as one on the Biden-Harris Campaign. Similarly, Garima Verma is named as the digital director in the Office of the First Lady. Verma will work closely with the incoming First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and play a critical role in supporting the operations of her office. Named on President-elect Joe Biden’s new COVID-19 task force is infectious disease physician Dr. Celine Gounder, a clinical assistant professor at New York University.

Below is a brief profile of all nominees and appointees:

 

Neera Tanden
Neera Tanden was appointed to the Biden-Harris administration

Neera Tanden, Director of the Office of Management and Budget: As president and CEO of the Center for American Progress and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Tanden focuses on how both organizations can fulfill their missions to expand opportunity for all Americans. Tanden has also served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, as well as on presidential campaigns. Before leading American Progress, Tanden was the organization’s chief operating officer. She previously served as senior adviser for health reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In that role, she developed policies around reform and worked with Congress and stakeholders on particular provisions of President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement—the Affordable Care Act.Prior to that, Tanden was the director of domestic policy for the Obama-Biden presidential campaign, where she managed all domestic policy proposals. Tanden also served as policy director for Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign, where she directed all policy work and oversaw the debate preparation process for then-Sen. Clinton (D-NY). Before the 2008 presidential campaign, Tanden served as legislative director in Sen. Clinton’s office and deputy campaign manager and issues director for Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign. She began her career as an associate director for domestic policy in former President Bill Clinton’s White House and senior policy adviser to the first lady. She received her bachelor of science from the University of California, Los Angeles and her law degree from Yale Law School. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their two children.

Vanita GuptaVanita Gupta: Associate attorney general: Before joining The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in June 2017, Gupta served as Acting Assistant Attorney General and head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Appointed in October 2014 by President Barack Obama as the chief civil rights prosecutor for the United States, “Gupta oversaw a wide range of criminal and civil enforcement efforts to ensure equal justice and protect equal opportunity for all during one of the most consequential periods for the division,” according to her profile on The Leadership Conference website. Gupta then joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she led the Smart Justice Campaign aimed at ending mass incarceration.From October 2014 to January 2017, Gupta served as the chief civil rights prosecutor for the United States, as the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Justice Department.After earning her BA and graduating magna cum laude from Yale University and earning a JD from the New York University (NYU) School of Law, she started her career at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense & Educational Fund.

Sabrina Singh, Deputy Press Secretary: Singh, a veteran communication professional, worked for three presidential campaigns in the 2020 presidential cycle. She served as a press secretary for Kamala Harris, after she was selected by Joe Biden as his running mate, as well as the presidential campaigns of billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. In 2016, she was a regional communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. A former spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Singh has said in previous interviews that her political activism is inspired by her grandfather Sardar J. J. Singh, a pre-partition freedom fighter in India. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1946 and continued his political and community activism that led to the enactment of the Luce-Cellar Act that allowed 100 Indians to immigrate to the U.S. annually. Singh’s father, Manjit Singh, was born in the U.S. in New York, in 1956, but when he was just 5, her grandparents moved the family to independent India and to New Delhi. Singh said it was not until the 1980s that her dad — who was chairman and CEO of Sony India — and her mom, Srila Singh, decided to immigrate to the U.S. Before joining the DNC, Singh served as Hillary for America’s Battleground Regional Communications Director for Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and Colorado. She is an alumna of the University of Southern California, majoring in International Relation. She is married to Mike Smith, a Democratic operative.

Rohini KosogluRohini Kosoglu, Domestic Policy Advisor to the Vice President: Kosogluis a seasoned leader with over 15 years of experience advising elected officials and candidates and serving in senior roles on national campaigns and Capitol Hill with expertise in managing large and complex organizations. Since 2017, Kosoglu has served as a senior advisor to U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris in her U.S. Senate office and presidential campaign, Kamala Harris for the People. As Chief of Staff to Harris’ presidential campaign, Kosoglu managed and oversaw debate preparation, policy, communications, and operations for a team with over three-hundred staff with a $40 million budget. Prior to Harris’ presidential race, Kosoglu served as Chief of Staff to Harris in the Senate, directing Harris’ legislative strategy and leadership on key committees, including the Senate Judiciary, Homeland Security and Government Affairs, and Budget Committees. Kosoglu was the first South Asian woman to serve as Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator and was notably the only Asian American to serve in that role during her tenure. Under her leadership, Kosoglu held a commitment to creating a diverse and representative staff by developing a talent pipeline that led to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies naming Harris’ office as the most diverse on Capitol Hill. Kosoglu’s career on Capitol Hill has also included leadership positions with leading Democratic Senators, including U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). During her tenure, Kosoglu led negotiations on numerous bipartisan legislation, with a focus on the economy and health care. Most notably, Kosoglu served as a key advisor during the drafting and passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. In 2020, Kosoglu served as a Resident Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School leading a weekly discussion on navigating careers in political campaigns and Capitol Hill. Kosoglu received a B.A. in English with Honors from the University of Michigan and a Masters in Legislative Affairs from George Washington University. She currently resides in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and three sons.

Mala Adiga: Policy director Jill Biden: Adiga, who served as the Director for Higher Education and Military Families at the Biden Foundation, is a Obama administration veteran. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Academic Programs at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She also served as both Senior Advisor to the Ambassador-at-Large and as Director for Human Rights on the National Security Staff. Prior to that, she was Counsel to the Associate Attorney General in the Department of Justice. Before entering government service, Adiga worked on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. Adiga was a litigation associate at Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Chicago and clerked for US District Court Judge Philip Simon in the Northern District of Indiana before joining the campaign. Adiga, whose parents are from Udupi in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, grew up in Illinois. She is a graduate of Grinnell College, the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and the University of Chicago Law School.

Aisha Shah, Partnerships Manager, White House Office of Digital Strategy: The Kashmir-born,Louisiana-raised Shah is an Advancement Specialist for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Prior to this role, she worked as an assistant manager on the Corporate Fund of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She also served as a strategic communications specialist at Buoy, an integrated marketing firm that specializes in social impact communications, as well as Spitfire Strategies, where she enabled nonprofits to use pop culture as a tool for social change. She is a graduate of Davidson College.

Sumona Guha, Senior Director for South Asia: Guha was co-chair of the South Asia foreign policy working group on the Biden-Harris campaign. She currently serves on the transition’s State Department Agency Review Team. Guha is Senior Vice President at Albright Stonebridge Group. Previously, she served in the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer and later, on the Secretary of State’s policy planning staff where she focused on South Asia. During the Obama-Biden administration, she was special advisor for national security affairs to Vice President Biden. Guha is a graduate of Johns Hopkins and Georgetown University. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband and three children.

Shanthi Kalathil

Shanthi Kalathil, Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights at the National Security Council: Kalathil is currently senior director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, where her work focuses on emerging challenges to democracy. Previously in her career, she served as a senior democracy fellow at the U.S. Agnecy for International Development, an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Hong Kong-based reporter for the Asian Wall Street Journal, and an advisor to international affairs organizations. Kalathil is the co-author of “Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003). Originally from California, Kalathil is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Neha Gupta, Associate Counsel, Office of the White House Counsel: Gupta is an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel for the Biden-Harris transition. Prior to that, she served as a Deputy City Attorney in the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, where she was general counsel to several city agencies, litigated constitutional and statutory challenges to city laws and administrative decisions, and participated in the office’s affirmative public protection advocacy.

Previously, Gupta clerked for Judge Michael Daly Hawkins of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Judge Richard Seeborg of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. A New York native, Gupta is a graduate of Harvard College and Stanford Law School

Reema Shah, Deputy Associate Counsel, Office of the White House Counsel: Shah served on the debate preparation team for President-elect Biden on the Biden-Harris campaign. Prior to that, she was an associate at Latham & Watkins and a Bristow Fellow in the Office of the Solicitor General at the Department of Justice. She served as a law clerk to Justice Elena Kagan in the U.S. Supreme Court and Judge Sri Srinivasan on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Originally from New Jersey, Shah is a graduate of Harvard College, Cambridge University, and Yale Law School. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband.

Sonia Aggarwal, Senior Advisor for Climate Policy and Innovation: Aggarwal was a co-founder and the vice president of Energy Innovation. While at Energy Innovation, she acted as founding executive director of the Climate Imperative project; led America’s Power Plan, bringing together 200 electricity policy experts; and directed the team that developed the Energy Policy Simulator to analyze the environmental, economic, and public health impacts of climate and energy policies. Prior, Aggarwal managed global research at ClimateWorks Foundation, where she worked on the McKinsey carbon abatement cost curves and led research for the American Energy Innovation Council. Born and raised in Ohio, she graduated from Haverford College in astronomy and physics, and earned a masters at Stanford University in civil engineering.

Sameera Fazili, Deputy Director of the National Economic CouncilFazili is the Economic Agency lead on the Biden-Harris Transition. Prior to her role she was at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta where she served as the Director of Engagement for Community and Economic Development. In the Obama-Biden administration, Fazili served as a senior policy advisor on the White House’s National Economic Council and as a senior advisor at the U.S. Treasury Department in both Domestic Finance and International Affairs. Prior to that, she was a clinical lecturer of law at Yale Law School. Originally from Buffalo, she now lives in Georgia with her husband and three children. Fazili is a graduate of Yale Law School and Harvard College.

Garima Verma, Digital director in the Office of the First Lady: Verma will work closely with the incoming First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and play a critical role in supporting the operations of her office. Verma served as an audience development and content strategist on the Biden-Harris campaign. Before joining the campaign, Verma was a volunteer with the content team, designing graphics for distribution to Biden-Harris volunteers across the country. She previously worked in the entertainment space marketing films at Paramount Pictures and television shows at The Walt Disney Company’s ABC Network and media agency Horizon Media. She has also served as an independent consultant in marketing, design and digital for a number of small business and non-profit clients. She was born in India and grew up in Ohio and the Central Valley of California. Verma is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dr. Celine Gounder, Member, Biden’s Covid-19 Task Force: Born to Indian father and French mother in 1977, Dr. Gounder is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. Gounder’s father Raj Natarajan Gounder was a native of the village near Perumapalayam near Modakurichi in Tamil Nadu and had migrated to the U.S. in the 1960s. Celine is the eldest of his three daughters. She was educated at Princeton University, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and University of Washington School of Medicine. In 2017, Gounder was named one of People Magazine’s 25 Women Changing the World. She heads a non-profit multimedia organization and also hosts a podcast on health and social justice. The doctor has first-hand experience of handling another pandemic too – in 2015, she volunteered as an Ebola aid worker in Guinea. Apart from Ebola, and now Covid-19, Gounder has studied tuberculosis and HIV in South Africa, Lesotho, Malawi, Ethiopia, and Brazil.