With all of the attention focused on the battle for the White House, it's easy to forget that all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are also up for grabs this fall. Most of these races will be easily won by incumbents, the people who already have the jobs, but one race that's wide open is right outside of Minneapolis. One candidate for the job is Ashwin Madia, a 30-year-old Iraq-war veteran, lawyer and political novice who is running as a Democrat. Right now there is only one Iraq-war vet in Congress, and while Madia isn't the only one vying to join the ranks, he's definitely got an interesting story.
Madia is up against Republican State Senator Erik Paulsen, who has political experience and a pretty good reputation amongst Washington insiders and locals alike. Minnesota's 3rd District has been represented by a member of the GOP for the past 50 years, but it went 50-50 for Bush and Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, so Madia thinks he has a good shot at heading to Washington this November.
"It's a fiscally conservative but socially moderate district," he said. "These are people who want taxes low and a good bang for their buck out of the government, but also want the government to stay out of their personal and social lives." Madia's personal political history reflects that of his district. Prior to the March caucuses for the Democratic Party (or the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party as it is called in Minnesota), some people called into question his Republican past. He supported John McCain's candidacy in 2000 but is now "looking forward to working with Barack Obama in Washington and getting this country back on track."
And while his politics may be quintessentially Minnesotan, his life story is uniquely American. Madia's parents immigrated to the United States from India with only $19, in search of a better life.
"You know, the first thing they bought was an $11 bottle of champagne, so they started out with $8," he said. The Madias eventually settled outside of Minneapolis, where Ashwin attended Osseo Senior High School and the University of Minnesota. Then it was off to New York University School of Law before a career decision equally unusual for NYU Law grads and the children of Indian immigrants: the U.S. Marine Corps. He admits it wasn't the easiest decision for his parents to swallow.
"They didn't have much experience with the military," he said. "They had a lot of concerns, but ultimately we worked through them and now they are really happy that I did it." As far as being an Indian-American lawyer in the Marines? That wasn't nearly as much of a problem. "There is only one color in the Marine Corps and it is green. There is dark green, light green and green."
Being a judge advocate in the Marines sent Madia around the world. He was stationed in Japan and then Iraq, where he worked with an international group of lawyers, judges and United Nations officials to help rebuild the Iraqi legal system.
"It was after I went to Iraq [that] I started thinking about what this war has done to the military and some military families, and what it has done to this country," he said. "That's when I started thinking about public service a little bit more."
But he didn't think public service would get him so far so quickly. With no money and no name recognition, Madia was a long shot to win the district's primary contest.
"We just went door to door, house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood around this district," he said. "By the time our March caucuses came along, we had 400 volunteers! We ended up surprising a lot of people in Minnesota and winning the race."
The grass-roots effort and energy that have grown around Madia were probably best described by his advisor, Dan Pollack.
"It was like signing a garage band," he said, "and ending up with a top 10 hit."
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