This Article is From Jun 14, 2010

All her life, Nikki Haley was the different one

All her life, Nikki Haley was the different one
Bamberg: 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, 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 did not mention that she and her husband, Michael Haley, wed in two ceremonies, one Sikh and the other at St. Andrew's by-the-Sea, a Methodist church in Hilton Head, where Mr. Haley's parents live.

Back then, though, Ms. Haley seemed comfortable publicly embracing both religions. Nowadays, she talks of having "converted to Christianity" before her wedding in 1996, when she was baptized at St. Andrew's. She has also changed the wording on her Web site under the heading, "Question: Is Nikki a Christian?" from an answer that references "Almighty God" to one that references "Christ."

"I still find these things to be very private," she said about the change. "However, when people question you, you do have to answer to them."

Tim Pearson, her campaign manager, said that the campaign grew more specific in response to questions. "We got a lot of e-mails and whatnot from people saying, 'She's talking about God, but what God?' " he said.

Even her name became an issue in 2004, when a political opponent, a 30-year incumbent who was at the time the longest serving state legislator, pointed out that she 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 such nicknames are not unusual: one of Ms. Haley's inspirations and a fellow Indian-American politician, Gov. Piyush Jindal of Louisiana, is better known as Bobby.

From early on, Ms. Haley was involved in her family's clothing business -- Exotica International, which sells gowns, suits and jewelry -- taking over the bookkeeping at age 13.

Her father, Ajit Randhawa, was a biology professor at Voorhees College in nearby Denmark, S.C.; her mother, Raj, started Exotica as a gift shop.

Before she ran for office, Ms. Haley got an accounting degree at Clemson University, where she met Mr. Haley. She worked for FCR, a waste management and recycling company, and then returned to Exotica as chief financial officer and helped the company grow into a multimillion-dollar business.

Then, hearing that State Representative Larry Koon would be retiring in 2004, she jumped into the race. But Mr. 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 that the racial and religious attacks against Ms. Haley backfired.

Still, the attacks were so virulent that the state Republican Party condemned Mr. Koon, said Katon Dawson, who was the party chairman at the time.

Ms. Haley called Mr. Dawson to consult. "She asked, 'Is it worth it? You're the chairman of the party. You tell me -- is it worth all this?' " he said. He arranged for Jenny Sanford, then the state's first lady, to give her a pep talk. They talked, and Ms. Sanford recalled in an interview that she was impressed. She is now a Haley supporter.

Ms. Haley, dressed for a day of campaigning in a brown silk suit from Exotica, comes across as disciplined and competitive, whether talking about her prowess at video games -- "I'm the Wii queen" -- or her plans for tax reform, financial disclosure and term limits. She talks as if she already has won.

"I can't wait until January, where people see that we actually get things done the very first year," she said.

Ms. Haley became part of a small cadre of small-government advocates who are 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. Like Mr. Sanford, she has repeatedly taken her case to the public, sometimes embarrassing legislative leaders and helping her develop a loyal following. And, as with Mr. Sanford, that has led to accusations of grandstanding.

"I'm a fan of the old Nikki Haley," said Harry F. Cato, a Republican representative from Travelers Rest and the House's speaker pro tempore. "The new Nikki Haley became more of a P.R. machine."

But her supporters view her as a fighter. Ms. Haley proved willing to alienate legislative leaders 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 of which she was vying to be chairwoman. Both houses of the Legislature eventually passed rules requiring more recorded votes.

Just before the primary for governor, two men came forward saying that they had affairs with her, and a fellow lawmaker called her a "raghead." But the episodes only played into Ms. Haley's underdog narrative.

"The more those guys fight her, the more emboldened she gets," said Ashley Landess, a friend and the president of a policy group that helped push the roll-call issue. "They are making a big mistake in thinking they can threaten her into submission. That won't work."