An unprecedented 4 South Asian Americans appointed chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill

From top left, Rohini Kosoglu, new chief of staff to Sen. Kamala Devi Harris; Ven Neralla, new chief of staff to Congressman-elect Andy Levin of Michigan, Gautam Raghavan, chief of staff to Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Saikat Chakrabarti, chief of staff to Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — At first there were none, and now there are four. The116th U.S. Congress, scheduled to convene on Jan. 3, will have four South Asian and Indian-American chiefs of staff in U.S. lawmakers’ offices in Washington, D.C.

These unprecedented number of appointments, though made only by the progressives among the Democrats, have been hailed as a boon to diversity in the legislative branch.

Perhaps the most significant of them all was the recent appointment of Rohini Kosoglu as the new chief of staff to Kamala Devi Harris, the first Indian- American U.S. Senator, who represents California and is mulling a run for the presidency in 2020.

Kosoglu, who is Sri Lankan American, currently deputy chief of staff, will replace Harris’ longtime aide Nathan Barankin who is leaving to run Harris’s Fearless for the People PAC (Political Action Committee), a move that signals preparations for her launch of a presidential bid.

Announcing Kosoglu’s elevation as chief of staff, Harris said, “Rohini has been an invaluable leader on our team as we’ve fought for our shared values and the best of who we are as a country during these first two years.”

Kosoglu, who has been a Congressional staffer for over a decade in the U.S. Senate and prior to joining Harris when she was elected to the Senate in 2016, served as policy director and senior adviser to Sen. Michael Bennet (D.-Colo.) and legislative aide to Sen. Debbie Stabenow(D.-Mich), said, she is “proud to continue to work alongside Sen. Harris as we fight to protect health care and civil rights, and economic opportunity for working families.”

An alumna of the University of Michigan and the George Washington University, Kosoglu now becomes the only Asian American currently to serve as a U.S. Senator’s chief of staff.

Meanwhile, Ven Neralla, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s deputy chief of staff is joining Congressman-elect Andy Levin as the Michigan Democrat’s chief of staff and on Dec. 3, Jayapal announced that she had named former senior Obama administration official Gautam Raghavan, currently executive director of the Indian American Impact Project & Fund, as her new chief of staff.

Raghavan, who also currently serves as an advisor to the Biden Foundation, served as vice president of policy for the Gill Foundation, the nation’s oldest funder of LGBTQ Civil Rights Advocacy.

From 2011 to 2014, Raghavan served as President Barack Obama’s liaison to the LGBTQ community as well as the Asian American & Pacific Islander community, and from 2009 to 2011, as Acting White House Liaison for the U.S. Department of Defense and as Outreach Lead for the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Working Group.

The Honolulu, Hawaii-born and raised Neralla, before coming back to Capitol Hill to work for Jayapal in 2017, served for eight years as a political appointee in the Obama administration, most recently as senior advisor for House Appropriations and Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  

He previously served as Director of Congressional Affairs for the Research, Education, and Economics bureau and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Neralla also spent eight years on the Hill as legislative director to Rep. Barbara Lee (D.-Calif.) and earlier on the staff of the staff of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D.-Ore.).

The fourth South Asian American chief of staff is Saikat Chakrabarti, a Silicon Valley techie and Harvard University alumnus, who was campaign manager to now Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and comes to D.C. with her to run her office.

Chakrabarti co-founded Mockingbird, an online tool for wireframing websites and web applications and then built up the product team at the payment processor Stripe, before leaving Silicon Valley to jump into the political fray in 2015 as director of organizing for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in 2015-2016.

He then co-founded and served as executive director of Justice Democrats, a political action committee and among the candidates they supported was Ocasio-Cortez, ending up as her campaign manager and being a catalyst in her upset victory over Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s Queens district.

Moh Sharma, president of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association, who also recently took over the reins of the South Asian Bar Association, D.C. Chapter, told India Abroad, “It is very exciting to see more AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) and in particular South Asian American chiefs of staff working in the 116th Congress.”

Sharma, one of the senior-most Congressional staffers, who is currently a senior policy adviser and the director of outreach and member services for the House Committee on Small Business, noted, “Diversity adds value and it is great to see the South Asian staff in more leadership positions in the 116th Congress.”

In an interview with India Abroad, Don Bell, one of the authors of the recent report, ‘Racial Diversity Among Top U.S. House Staff,’ by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a D.C.-based think tank, said, “We’ve seen some notable gains when it comes to senior level positions both in the House and Senate and we certainly commend those members for making diversity and inclusions as a piece of their staffing.”

Bell acknowledged that the promotion of Kosoglu “is particularly great,” and described it “as a meaningful moment for the Senate, although they’ve certainly a long way to go in making sure that senior staff in the Senate are truly reflective of all Americans.”

He reiterated that “Rohini’s appointment for a state as diverse as California by Sen. Harris is certainly an important moment,” and also lauded Jayapal, Ocasio-Cortez and Levin for “taking the wonderful step,” of appointing Raghavan, Chakrabarti and Neralla as their chiefs of staff.

Bell said, “So far, we’ve seen more senior hires among Democratic members, but I’ve also seen some diverse hires among Republican members too. I think people are starting to recognize that it’s not enough to have diverse coalitions to win elections — you need people at the table making policy decisions for their communities.”

The Joint Center’s report had found that although people of color account for 38 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute only 13.76 percent of all top staffers in the House of Representatives, and that of the 329 personal offices of white representatives, only 16 (less than 5 percent) are led by chiefs of staff of color. Six of those work for Democrats; 10 for Republicans.

The report defines top, key or senior staff to include: chiefs of staff, legislative directors, and communications directors in the Washington, D.C. personal offices of House members; chiefs of staff, policy directors, and communications directors in the top four leadership offices of each political party; and staff directors assigned to full committees.

It said in the personal offices of white Democratic lawmakers, fewer than 8 percent of top staff are people of color, even though these offices represent districts that are, on average, more than 37 percent populated by people of color. Just more than 2 percent of white Democratic lawmakers’ top staffers are black, the report said.

In the personal offices of white Republican lawmakers in the House, only 3 percent of top staff are people of color, even though these members represent districts that are, on average, 26 percent people of color. Less than 1 percent of these members’ top staffers are black, the report said.

It said, nearly three-quarters of House members —313 — have no top staff of color and that more than one quarter of the House, 114 members, do not have any top staff of color even though they represent districts that have more than 33 percent people of color living there.

The report said: “Hiring top staffers of color is not an act of charity. It is the right thing to do, and it results in better public policy.”

Kapil Sharma, an erstwhile Congressional staffer in the 1990’s, who was a senior aide to Rep. Frank Pallone (D.-N.J.), the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, and then later went on to work for then Sen. Robert Torricelli (D.-N.J.), said, “It’s great how we went full circle. In the 90's we had several Indian Americans who were in senior leadership positions.”

“We then went through a drought and now we have four,” said Sharma, now vice president, government and public affairs for Wipro, North America, said, “The goal should now be to avoid a future drought of members of our community serving in key staff positions in Congress.”

Anurima Bhargava, another longtime community activist and former senior Obama administration official who served in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, recently appointed by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said, “It is incredible to have these new chiefs of staff — who will shape the agenda and the environment within key Congressional offices — contribute their considerable wisdom and perspective to address the most pressing and difficult challenges to our well-being and democracy.”

She said, “We need Congressional and campaign staff - just as we need members of Congress - who bring broad and rich experience and judgment to the political process, and who understand how to build and represent strong and diverse communities.”

Harin Contractor, who resurrected the Washington Leadership Program founded by India Abroad founder and publisher Gopal Raju, said, “The fact we are seeing four Desi chiefs of staff and a number of other top staffers of Indian origin hired in the coming Congress is an incredible sign of progress.”

Contractor, a WLP alumnus himself, who along with another alumna Nisha Jain, rebooted the program in 2009 after it gone dormant for a few years following Raju’s demise, said, “The goal of the Washington Leadership Program is to develop more leaders in the policy/politics space and for these individuals to breakthrough to the highest positions on the Hill is promising.”

“Over the last two decades we have seen one or two chiefs from time to time, whether it was Mini Timmaraju, Neil Dhillon, or Rohit Kumar, but for this to happen at once is unprecedented.”

Contractor said, “The four members that hired South Asian staffers also represent areas with a high desi population,” and added, “We need to ensure this continues and our community needs to be vocal to push Members to hire and promote senior staffers from our community.”

“Take Georgia as an example, the 6th and 7th Congressional districts outside Atlanta have some of the largest South Asian populations in the country, but Congressman Bob Woodall, Congressman Price, and Congresswoman Handel never hired a top staffer of South Asian descent.”

Contractor said, “I personally hope Congresswoman Lucy McBath and Congressman Woodall do so in the coming year. Far too many Members are okay with hiring South Asian staffers for entry-level or mid-level positions, but not for the positions of influence like chief of staff, legislative director, or communications director, our numbers are few and far between.”

“The WLP will continue to identify, train, and build a pipeline of policy and political leaders, but the community needs to push Members to hire talented individuals from our community so we can ensure we have a voice at the table,” he said.

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