US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was at her best: cool, commanding and amused. Ami Bera, when his turn came, was all nerves. And worse, he looked it.
“But I recovered quickly,” Bera professes hours later. It was the first time he had said anything in the US Congress — other than the oath of office, which was not particularly challenging.
But it was not as much the larger-than-life secretary of state sitting across the room, who may one day run for president again, as the occasion itself.
Bera is only the third Indian American elected to the US House of Representatives. And no one from the community has made it to the Senate yet. That’s a total of three for the entire Congress.
With his sleeves rolled up, jacket thrown over a stand in the corner, Bera still looked keyed up, many days after as he sat down for an interview, in his suite on the Capitol Hill.
“My story begins with my parents,” he says. “Always.”
His parents came to California in 1958 from Rajkot, Gujarat. First his father, then his mother and oldest brother, who would grow up to be the only Republican in the family.
Ami Bera, the third and youngest in the family, was born in 1965. He was then Amerish B Bera. Few know him now by his given name. He is Ami Bera to most, or just Dr Bera.
Bera grew up “an American kid in an Indian family” on Indian food — he cooks most of it now — and good Indian values: education, family, hard work and community. “These are also standard American values,” Bera says.
And there were plenty of relatives and cousins around. Always. Once his parents had settled down and immigration laws became easier, they brought in brothers and sisters.
“They would always spend their first three months or so at our house before moving on,” Bera says. There was never a time he was more than a relative away from his roots.
Those same roots, he maintains, helped him upstage the powerful sitting Republican congressman Dan Lungren. “I think I got elected because I am Indian American.”
Bera is very sure about that, and cliches notwithstanding, he is extremely proud of his Indian roots, unlike a certain gentleman down south in the state of Louisiana — its governor, Bobby Jindal.
“The thing that bothers me about Bobby Jindal is this — he has run away from being an Indian American,” Bera said. The community can’t agree more.
Though only 1% of the population, the Indian American community pulls disproportionately more clout because it’s doing financially very well, better than most minorities.
It now wants a place at the high table, having funded others to it for a long time. Jindal was an early hope, and the community invested in him freely. Only to be disappointed.
Bera fills that gap. “We have a legitimate, elected leader (not a self-proclaimed “community leader”),” said Shekar Narasimhan, a member of Obama’s campaign on finances.
Jindal, who is mulling a presidential run, is an anathema. “He betrayed us — used our support when running for Congress,” said a political commentator, who refused to be identified, “and then turned his back on us.”
“I will never be Bobby Jindal,” Bera said in an earlier interview.
Bera has none of the attributes of a Confused Desi, a sneery stereotype for his generation of Indian Americans born in the US to first generation immigrants from India.
“Others might be,” he said, “but I am not confused. I am who I am and embracing who I am is a source of strength for me, not weakness.”
Bera grew up, as said before, “an American kid in an Indian family”. He played basketball in school — and was pretty good at it. And did well in studies, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.
He took up biological science in college at the University of California and went to join the medical school at Irvine. A career in medicine lay ahead of him.
While at Irvine, he met Janine, who he married the day after his last class at the medical school. She was two years his junior at the University of California.
After years of private practice and in public health, Bera told Janine one day in 2008, he was considering running for Congress. She brushed him aside, saying he won’t.
But over the next few weeks she saw him talking about it a bit. I am not given to rushing to decisions,” he said. And he talked about it again and again, showing he was serious indeed.
“I had felt disappointed that people we were electing were failing to engage in the conversation that was necessary,” he said, and that was health care.
"Bera felt health care was a problem that had to be addressed, from the patient’s perspective. “You see politicians playing politics without necessarily talking about the patient.”
The doctor was now ready for a job switch.
One night in the winter holidays in 2008, when the entire family — many uncles, aunts and cousins — were gathered for dinner at his house, he broke it to them.
“I don’t know if I am going to do this,” he told them, “I am considering running for Congress.” No one said he shouldn’t. They kind of humoured him, he recalled.
But he did run in 2010, challenging sitting Republican House Representative Lungren, and ran well. The large extended family chipped in from where they were — through phone.
His was the second closest challenger race in the whole country.
But just the day after losing the election, Janine, he recalled, told him he should run again. And he heard that again and again from friends, acquaintances and supporters.
The good doctor was now in business. He was running again, in January 2011, for November 2012. He won this time in a contest so close it was decided by postal ballots.
In the days since his swearing-in, Bera said he has seen a lot of Indian Americans on the Hill, and many in the administration — a huge change from 1985.
He was interning with a congressman then, and he remembers being struck by the absolute absence of Indian Americans on the Hill. “It’s fantastic to see so many.”
Congressman Bera now hopes to inspire others to follow him; he speaks of opening the gate. And many more will surely follow. An Indian American with political plans is not so rare anymore.