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, working-class town had ever seen — entered Nikki 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 Nikki and her sister, Simran — but not before Nikki, about 5, sang “This Land Is Your Land.”
Ms. Haley, 38, upended things again last week after a sharp-elbowed primary that included allegations of marital infidelity and pitted her against the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and a congressman. Ms. Haley, a state legislator, received 49 percent of the vote, but faces a June 22 runoff with Representative Gresham Barrett, whom she beat by more than 25 points Tuesday. And this from a campaign that was so underfinanced that it had to sell yard signs at $5 apiece, Ms. Haley said.
Now, she finds herself one of the brightest rising stars in the Republican Party, a Tea Party favorite, a Sarah Palin endorsee 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 in an interview 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.”
Ms. 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.”
But her political rise has raised questions about her difference, and she has become more careful about how she presents the religious aspect, in particular, of her life.
In 2004, for instance, 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. (Continues here at NYT)