Nikki Haley, the favorite to become the first governor of South Carolina who is neither white nor male, has always challenged established norms with her own brand of moxie.
BAMBERG, S.C. — Nikki Haley, the favorite to become the first governor of South Carolina who is neither white nor male, has always challenged established norms with her own brand of moxie.
As a girl, her parents — the first Indian immigrants this small, middle-class town had ever seen — entered Haley and her sister in the Little Miss Bamberg pageant.
The judges of the contest, one that crowned one black queen and one white queen, were so flummoxed that they simply disqualified Haley and her sister, Simran — but not before Haley, about 5, performed a spirited solo of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Haley, 38, a state legislator, upended things again last week after a sharp-elbowed primary that included allegations against her of marital infidelity and pitted her against the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and a congressman.
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She received 49 percent of the vote but faces a June 22 runoff with Rep. Gresham Barrett, whom she beat by more than 25 points last Tuesday. And this from a campaign that was so underfinanced it had to sell yard signs at $5 apiece, Haley said.
Now she finds herself one of the brightest rising stars in the Republican Party, a tea-party favorite and the subject of national attention.
“I love that people think it’s a good story, but I don’t understand how it’s different,” she said Friday, in a voice with a faint watermark of Southern drawl. “I feel like I’m just an accountant and businessperson who wants to be a part of state government.”
Haley — born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa and always called Nikki, which means “little one,” by her family — said that growing up in Bamberg was at times tough. Her father wears a turban and, though male Sikhs are not supposed to cut their hair, her brothers’ was trimmed after teasing at school grew vicious.
“It’s survival mode,” she said. “You learn to try and show people how you’re more alike than you are different.”
In 2004, she was widely hailed, particularly in news outlets like The Hindustan Times and sikhchic.com, as the first Sikh elected to the South Carolina Legislature and the first Republican Indian-American elected to any state legislature.
“I was born and raised with the Sikh faith, my husband and I were married in the Methodist Church, our children” — Nalin, 8, and Rena, 12 — “have been baptized in the Methodist Church, and currently we attend both,” she said.
She and her husband, Michael Haley, wed in two ceremonies, one Sikh and the other at St. Andrew By-The-Sea, a Methodist church in Hilton Head, where Michael Haley’s parents live.
Back then, Haley seemed comfortable publicly embracing both religions. Nowadays, she talks of having “converted to Christianity” in 1996, when she was baptized at St. Andrew. In 2004, a political opponent, a 30-year incumbent who was at the time the longest serving state legislator, pointed out Haley was registered to vote as Nimrata Randhawa and not Nikki Haley. (Campaign literature and e-mail messages calling her a Buddhist and a Muslim also circulated, she recalled.)
But nicknames are not unusual. One of Haley’s inspirations and a fellow Indian-American politician, Gov. Piyush Jindal of Louisiana, is better known as Bobby.
From early on, Haley was involved in her family’s clothing business — Exotica International, which sells gowns, suits and jewelry — handling the accounting at age 13.
Her father, Ajit Randhawa, was a biology professor at Voorhees College, a historically black four-year school in nearby Denmark, S.C.; her mother, Raj, started Exotica as an imported gift shop.
Before she ran for office, Haley got an accounting degree at Clemson University, where she met Michael Haley. She worked for FCR, a waste-management and recycling company, then returned to Exotica as chief financial officer and helped the company grow into a multimillion-dollar business.
Hearing that state Representative Larry Koon was retiring in 2004, she jumped into the race. But Koon stayed in.
At the time, Lexington County, just outside Columbia, was in the throes of transition from a rural community to a suburban, affluent one with many newcomers. The changing voter base may be one reason the racial and religious attacks against Haley backfired.
Haley became part of a small cadre of small-government advocates ideologically aligned with Gov. Mark Sanford and at odds with the rest of the state’s Republican establishment, whom they accuse of abandoning conservative principles.
Haley rose quickly in the ranks early on in her legislative career, but when she went public with a fight to force legislators to conduct roll-call votes, rather than anonymous voice votes, she was removed from a powerful committee where she was vying to be chairwoman.
Just before the gubernatorial primary, two men came forward claiming they had affairs with her, and a fellow lawmaker called her a “raghead.” But the episodes only played into Haley’s underdog narrative.
“The more those guys fight her, the more emboldened she gets,” said Ashley Landess, president of a policy group that helped push the roll-call issue.