Harmeet Dhillon has the loneliest job in politics: chairwoman of the Republican Party in San Francisco, a very liberal city that former California GOP leader Ron Nehring described as "just to the left" of the capital of communist North Korea.
Dhillon, a tall, dark-haired attorney, has long been comfortable being the loud voice at the front of unpopular battles. Smart, blunt and outspoken, she is determined to make the GOP brand, which has been moribund in San Francisco for decades, relevant in the city and statewide.
She’s a different kind of Republican. Harping on social issues, she said, isn’t the way forward. "Bottom line: It’s a political party. It’s not a philosophy, it’s not a way of life, it’s not a religion. It’s about winning," Dhillon, 42, said in the direct, prosecutorial tone that dominates her conversations. "I’d like to see our party win."
The daughter of conservative Sikhs, she was born in India and raised in a rural North Carolina town, where a sign at the city limits encouraged passers-by to "Join the Support" of the Ku Klux Klan. Her parents threw fundraisers for conservative GOP Sen. Jesse Helms.
She later served on the board of the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and as an attorney defended employees at left-leaning Berkeley radio station KPFA – organizations that few Republicans would go near. In February, she married a retired nuclear engineer and former board member of the station who receives a union pension. While the GOP’s fiscal conservatism often resonates with voters, Dhillon said, "our message is clouded by a bunch of other issues that are either controversial or not supported by the majority of voters. I think we shoot ourselves in the foot a lot."
She has no interest in challenging the Roe vs. Wade abortion ruling, believes government shouldn’t be in the marriage business and that same-sex couples should receive the same tax benefits as straight ones. She wants undocumented immigrants to get a pathway to citizenship. The war in Libya, she says, is unconstitutional. Sikh civil rights While her fellow Republicans pushed the Patriot Act during the xenophobia that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Dhillon wrote a series of legal memos on behalf of the Sikh Coalition civil rights organization on how to defend turban-wearing Sikhs from racial profiling.
She’s been a lifelong challenger of the status quo, beginning with her days as editor of the conservative Dartmouth Review when its crusade against liberalism at the college landed her on a "60 Minutes" segment. Now she is suing the California Department of Corrections on behalf of a Sikh man from Folsom who wants to be a state prison guard but is required to first shave his beard, which is forbidden in his religion.
Dhillon is also pushing back on the state Republican leadership. She declined an appointment to serve a second time on a party committee to reach out to people of color and other communities, frustrated that the party didn’t come up the first time around with funding it had promised for the program.
While Dhillon acknowledged that a Republican might not be elected to local office in San Francisco anytime soon, she thinks that ranked choice voting could help her party influence who becomes the city’s next mayor and whether some form of pension reform passes. She met recently with half the San Francisco Board of Supervisors while "the other half," she said with a smile, "has refused to meet with me."
"She’s always been comfortable as the person who stands apart from the crowd," said Amardeep Singh, co-founder of the New York based Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights organization. Singh has known Dhillon for two decades.
"In a sense, she is an ideologue, but she is an ideologue without a home," said Singh, who is a Democrat. Ticking off the turns in Dhillon’s life where she has stood out because of her politics or color or gender, Singh said, "She’s always had to be tough, whether it was as one of the few women in a corporate law firm or at an Ivy League school or in the position she’s in now." Her mother, Parminder Kaur Dhillon, said, "I would tell her, ‘Harmeet, sometimes you have to stay quiet.’ But she does not want to hear it.’ "
Father a surgeon Dhillon was born in Chandigarh, capital of the Punjab and Haryana states in northern India, the daughter of a physician and the granddaughter of a four-star general and physician in the Indian air force.
Her father, Tejpal Singh Dhillon, was educated in England and the United States. After he finished his medical education in the Bronx – where his daughter attended a predominantly Jewish elementary school – some of his former classmates invited him to Smithfield, N.C., population 10,000 at the time, which needed an orthopedic surgeon.
The Klan never bothered them. Neither did the locals, for the most part, in the 15 years they lived there, as the doctor built a popular practice and his family lived in a home with a pool and tennis court behind it.
Every summer until they were teens, Parminder Dhillon took Harmeet and her brother, Mandeep Singh Dhillon, to India for two months of immersion into the Sikh religion, culture and music under the strict watch of their grandparents. Parminder Dhillon said her daughter "did not grow up like a normal American teenager."
No parties. No boyfriends. Not even any sleepovers at a friend’s house. "Why do you have to sleep at someone else’s house? You have your fun, then come home," Parminder Dhillon said. Sundays were spent at temple in Raleigh.
The intensely strict lifestyle shaped Dhillon. A quiet, studious child, she had few friends, spent all her money on books and began reading the New Yorker when she was 12, her mother said. For five years, Dhillon’s mother drove her and her brother 45 miles each day to a private school in Raleigh.
"I was not a happy little camper at all growing up in rural North Carolina. People would make fun of my name, of my (long) braids, of the fact that I was smarter than they were," she said. Entered Dartmouth at 16 Dhillon skipped eighth grade and began high school when she was 12. When she was 16, she was admitted to Dartmouth, "which was the best school that I could get into that was the farthest from home." She joined the Review, the conservative student newspaper.
She bristled at the political correctness of liberal classmates – "who literally grew up on Park Avenue," she said – who camped in mock shantytowns on campus to protest South African apartheid and who sympathized with the leftist Nicaraguan Sandinistas.
When she was editor of the newspaper, Dhillon became embroiled in controversy after the Review published an article in 1988 critical of an African American music professor who later accused student reporters of harassing him in his classroom. Three of the students were suspended, and a New Hampshire judge ordered the college to reinstate two of them in a case that became a national story about free speech, race and campus politics.
"That was definitely a seminal moment in my life," said Dhillon, who had changed her major from premed to classical studies. "It was clear that my talents were more with writing and being with other people than being a doctor."
An arranged marriage She never dated at Dartmouth. Shortly after graduation, she entered an arranged marriage to an Indian-born Sikh doctor and moved to Washington, D.C. She deferred her admission to the University of Virginia law school because her husband didn’t want her to attend. Soon, he began physically abusing her. Dhillon said he almost "beat me to death," after which she called her parents and said, "I know divorce isn’t acceptable in our culture, but I don’t give a damn. I’m leaving." She was 21 and alone. She recovered from post-traumatic stress syndrome as she began law school.
Arranged marriages "was what we were used to," her mother said. "My marriage was arranged. That’s the way it was done. Her father still does not forgive himself, to some extent, for what happened."
Dhillon’s second husband was also a turban-wearing orthodox Sikh physician. They dated for a year. After they got married, they agreed to move to California. Dhillon hooked up with a firm in Palo Alto, but her husband never made the move from Washington. In 2003, their marriage collapsed after nine years – and so did her life.
Her mother got breast cancer the same year and Dhillon was exhausted from years of working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. She went to North Carolina to care for her mother, who recovered. Shortly after she returned to the Bay Area, she discovered politics.
House party for Bush In the fall of 2004, with President George W. Bush running for a second term, Dhillon offered to host a house party to watch him in a presidential debate – and was met with suspicion from local Republicans.
"San Francisco Republicans are so paranoid," Dhillon said, they think that anyone who wants to get involved in party politics in the liberal bastion "must be someone who wants to embarrass the president."
When members of the party’s central committee in San Francisco learned of her past with the ACLU, "there were a lot of people who were really ticked off," said Howard Epstein, a former local party chair. "They tried to keep her off" the committee, he added.
But Dhillon won them over. In 2008, bolstered by $250,000 she and her mother raised from the Indian American community, she won 17 percent of the vote in the Assembly race against Democrat Tom Ammiano in a San Francisco district where 8 percent of registered voters are Republicans. It was the best showing by a Republican there since 1994. It bolstered her credibility.
"She doesn’t suffer fools, and that’s another thing I like about her," said Joan Leone, president of the Nob Hill Republican Women’s Club. "She knows who the fools are. And when they don’t perform, she’ll get someone who will. She has really got us energized."
A softer side Close friends see a softer side of Dhillon. Her usually stern face melts into a broad smile when she fires a pointedly sarcastic joke. She’s a tireless knitter – it burns off stress, she says – who made scarves for members of the local central committee.
On Feb. 5, she married Sarvjit Randhawa on Angel Island after they sailed their boat there. The wedding party included Green Party members and Democrats.
After being elected the GOP’s San Francisco party chairwoman in January, Dhillon says one of her goals is to increase the number of registered Republicans in the city. One of her targets is her husband, who is registered as a decline-to-state voter.
"He really should be a Republican, I keep telling him," she said and smiled. "We’re working on that."