COLUMBIA, S.C. - Nikki Haley’s victory in South Carolina’s bruising GOP primary for governor moves the state lawmaker closer to becoming her state’s first woman chief executive and America’s first Sikh-born governor, while assuring her a place on the national political scene.
Like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who immediately touched off presidential talk when he won his state’s governorship, Haley’s primary victory sets off talk of a possible vice presidential campaign in 2012. As an Indian-American woman from an early primary state, she would bring a combination of diversity and conservatism that many in the GOP have been seeking.
Little known even in her own state just months ago, Haley got a crucial boost with early support from former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the tea party movement.
Along the way, she weathered rumors of infidelity and questions about her religious and ethnic background.
During the past month, state Sen. Jake Knotts, a self-described “redneck,” called Haley a “raghead” and questioned whether she was a Christian. Earlier, a lobbyist and a blogger both claimed to have had affairs with her. Haley, a married mother of two, categorically denied the unsubstantiated claims and made it clear she was baptized in the Methodist church.
A backlash against the state’s notorious rough-and-tumble political gamesmanship propelled Haley to within 4,800 votes of winning the June 8 primary outright.
Haley grew up in a state where black and white define history and divide politics — even beauty contests.
At 5, Haley’s parents entered her and her sister, Simran, in the Little Miss Bamberg Pageant and they were the only children of Indian immigrants in town.
“They had a Little Miss White Bamberg and they had a Little Miss African-American Bamberg, and, you know they disqualified us because they didn’t know what category to put us in,” Haley said.
Her father, who wears the traditional Sikh turban, was a biology professor at a historically black college and her mother taught middle school social studies. By the time Haley was in high school, she was keeping the books at the family’s upscale clothing business.
“What was frustrating to me is I felt like government should strengthen businesses,” Haley said. “You know, we were paying too much in taxes. The worker’s comp rates were unbelievable.”
She spoke with some female lawmakers and decided to run for the state House. In a GOP runoff race against a 30-year incumbent, Haley confronted fliers that played up her family name, Randhawa. She won that 2004 election and easily won re-election in 2006 and 2008.
Haley aligned herself with Gov. Mark Sanford, whose bickering with the Legislature left him with few fans in the Statehouse. She riled the GOP House leadership in 2008 by bucking their resistance to restrictions on payday lending companies and by pushing for more recorded votes. She toured the state with Sanford to highlight that issue. It made her a thorn in leadership’s side and secured her reputation as a boat-rocker.