It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but San Francisco lawyer Harmeet Dhillon is not taking the day off. As a staunch conservative in one of the nation’s most liberal cities, she’s also not watching the inauguration festivities that launch Barack Obama’s second term. “He seems to want to turn this country into some kind of European-style socialist state,” she says. Dhillon is preparing for a First Amendment case the next day. As soon as she’s done with that, she’ll fly to New York for a settlement conference for another client. She’s celebrating a major feature in the previous day’s San Francisco Chronicle that turned a spotlight on Dhillon’s new business, Sea Ranch Woolworks, which is creating knit products with organic and locally sourced wool. Her seventh-floor office at Dhillon & Smith LLP, the law firm she co-founded in 2006, is chock-full of grocery bags and plastic bins overflowing with skeins of yarn.
Dhillon is also the chair of the city’s Republican Party, a job so inhospitable that even Mike “Dirty Jobs” Rowe wouldn’t touch it. She calls her campaign manager Dan Higa to see if he can dig up materials from her unsuccessful runs for state assembly (2008) and state senate (2012) for a reporter. While she’s on the phone, she also checks on the status of her campaign to become the vice chair of the California Republican Party, the largest statewide GOP group in the nation.
Her run for party office captures in miniature the battle that Republicans across the country are engaged in, an incipient donnybrook over whether to move closer to the center or to anchor the party more firmly on the right. It’s a struggle, Republican strategist Mike Murphy has said, that pits the “mathematicians” against the “priests”—or those who believe that the GOP can find the votes it needs only by doing a better job reaching out to minorities, young voters and white-collar women vs. those who believe that the party must stand steadfast on social issues and that Mitt Romney lost because he was too close to the political center.
Dhillon is a one-woman counterpoint to many of the stereotypes that plague the GOP. She is an immigrant, a Sikh, an Indian American, a professional female with an Ivy League education. She is also articulate (if tart-tongued), media savvy, nimble and an unpredictable blend of ideologue and pragmatist.
In the run-up to the state convention early in March, Dhillon was also accused of being a “Bay Area liberal” and a RINO (Republican in name only), charges from which someone who was once the editor of The Dartmouth Review would seem immune. “The criticisms of Harmeet are just nutty,” says Ron Nehring, the chair of the California Republican Party from 2007 to 2011. “Harmeet’s record is one of extraordinary accomplishment not only in the Republican Party, but the conservative movement nationally.”
Yes, she’s a former president of the nation’s largest chapter of the conservative and libertarian Federalist Society, one-time law clerk for Paul Niemeyer on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and active campaigner for Republican presidential candidates from Jack Kemp to Romney. On many issues, she is in complete step with the Republican orthodoxy: the need for fiscal constraint and a leaner federal government, enforcing existing gun control laws rather than crafting new ones, eliminating the U.S. Department of Education.
But on other issues Dhillon doesn’t sing from the same hymnal as some in the party. Though a social conservative in her personal life, Dhillon says Roe v. Wade, after more than 40 years as law, is not likely to change, and she doesn’t believe that government should be in the business of determining who can marry whom. On immigration, she says, “I’m not a Republican who believes you should round people up and deport them. We should have a guest-worker program that offers a pathway to citizenship.” Hell, her yarn business is even Fibershed certified.
The Dhillon apostasy, however, that absolutely unhinges the party priests is the three years she spent as a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. If you want to get the far right seething, just mention the ACLU, which they see as Atheists Communists Liberals United. In February, two weeks before the state convention, Dhillon muses, “Some people are saying, ‘I’d rather have the wife-beating rehab candidate than the ACLU person.’ ” She is not a lover of litmus tests. Instead, she cites something her hero Ronald Reagan said: “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally—not a 20-percent traitor.” Reagan, she notes, was both a Democrat and the head of a union before he became a Republican governor and president.
Dhillon was born in Chandigarh in northern India in 1969. Her family, she says, fled the “Russian-style socialism” of India, going to London and New York as her physician father pursued training as an orthopedic surgeon. The family then moved to rural Smithfield, North Carolina, which had an available orthopedic practice. Her parents, like most of their neighbors in Smithfield, were conservative and registered as Republicans as soon as they became citizens. They held fundraisers for Sen. Jesse Helms in their home.
But Smithfield was also unsettling for a little brown-skinned girl whose father and brother wore turbans. There’s still a sign at the edge of town that says “Welcome to North Carolina. You are in the heart of Klan Country.” When Harmeet finished high school at 16 she came to Dartmouth. “I wanted to go to the best school possible as far from rural North Carolina as possible,” she says.
Dhillon’s fate seems to have been sealed the moment she arrived on campus. As she tells it, when she was moving her boxes into Woodward, a women’s dormitory, “People would just let the doors slam shut in your face. I grew up in the South, where everybody holds the door open for everybody, particularly a woman, and I just thought this was incredibly bad manners.” Eventually she wrote a long letter to the editor of The Dartmouth Review, touching on feminism, women’s studies, quotas and Yankee manners: “The lack of common courtesy on this campus is striking for an institution with such a reputation for traditional values.”
An editor at the Review asked her to consider becoming a writer for the paper. There she found a “fellowship” of like-minded students who loved to read Winston Churchill and compete with one another to see who could, as she puts it, “write more brilliant op-eds with more archaic literary references.”
Dhillon rose through the ranks and in her senior year became editor-in-chief, which also made her the de facto spokesperson for the paper as it concluded one of the most incendiary episodes in its polarizing history. In February 1988 the Review had published a scathing critique of a class, “American Music in Oral Tradition,” taught by music professor William Cole, one of a handful of African-American faculty members at the time. A few days after the article ran four members of the Review staff confronted Cole at the end of a lecture and pressed him for a response to the article. Shouting ensued and, some say, shoves were exchanged.
Three of the students—editor-in-chief Christopher Baldwin ’89, executive editor John Sutter ’88 and photography editor John Quilhot ’90—were suspended for disorderly conduct, harassment and invasion of privacy. As the dispute wended its way through a number of courtrooms, Dhillon spoke to 60 Minutes as well as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications. Baldwin and Sutter were represented, pro bono, by the ACLU, and eventually a New Hampshire judge ordered the school to reinstate them. “So I’m fond of the ACLU,” Dhillon says. “They do great things defending the First Amendment. I’m not going to apologize for that.”
Dhillon also has a soft spot for the paper. “The Dartmouth Review gave me a tremendous opportunity to grow in self-confidence as a writer and as an advocate for particular ideas and ideologies,” she says. She allows that the Cole case “taught me the power of the law to be used for conservative causes.”
Coming to Dartmouth, her intention was to become a doctor. Leaving, her aim was to become a lawyer.
After she graduated with a degree in classics, Dhillon began work as an assistant editor at the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review magazine. She also entered an arranged marriage. Her husband, she told the San Francisco Chronicle, almost “beat me to death.” Sikhs don’t condone divorce, but Dhillon left her husband and, soon thereafter, enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law.
She finished law school, clerked for a year and began the gauntlet for partnership—first in New York, then in the Bay Area. In New York she met, dated and married a Sikh physician. But after years of grinding away, working nights and weekends and rarely eating at home, she hit a jarring speed bump. “Yes,” she recalls, “2003 to 2004 was my, as the queen of England says, annus horribilis.” Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her second marriage fell apart. She moved from the upscale Silicon Valley town of Portola Valley to San Francisco, going from a five-bedroom home to an apartment. She took a position with a new firm and had to quit that job three months into it to go back to North Carolina to tend to her ailing mother. She watched Masterpiece Theatre and knitted, trying to figure out what to do with her life.
One thing in her life didn’t change: Dhillon, who had joined the board of the northern California chapter of the ACLU in 2002, continued to work, in and out of the courtroom, on behalf of the Sikh community. In the aftermath of 9/11 many people mistook turban-wearing Sikhs for Middle Eastern jihadists. “What I was trying to do was explain to the FBI and law enforcement and the general public why my people are not terrorists,” Dhillon says. “Go ahead and attack the terrorists, don’t attack us.”
She worked on a number of issues, including the forced removal of turbans at security checkpoints. “It’s like asking a woman to take off her bra,” she says. “It’s not necessary.
You can wand it. You can pat it down. We have metal detectors, so why humiliate someone by making them take off their religious garment? Do they make nuns take off their headdresses?” Dhillon was awarded the Minority Bar Council of Northern California’s Outstanding Community Service Award for her post-9/11 work.
As her mother recovered from her bout with breast cancer, Dhillon saw a chance to scratch her political itch. “I had some time on my hands during the second half of 2004,” she says, “and having been a good Republican all these years, I got a piece of direct mail from the Bush-Cheney campaign.” The GOP was looking for people to hold debate-watching parties, and Dhillon hosted four of them that year. She soon knew all the active Republicans in San Francisco. In 2005 she was asked to fill a vacancy on the county central committee.
In January 2011 she was elected chair of the San Francisco County Republican Central Committee. Selling Republicanism to San Franciscans is bit like trying to sell a horse and buggy to someone who drives a Ferrari. Fifty-six percent of San Francisco voters are registered Democrats, 9 percent are registered Republican (31 percent decline to declare a party affiliation). The city last voted for a GOP presidential candidate in 1956, when even San Francisco, apparently, liked Ike.
Rather than being burdened by the job, Dhillon revels in it. There is something of the provocateur in her. “I was a bit of a troublemaker even in high school,” Dhillon says. “I was always challenging authority.” In high school she skipped a standardized test and convinced some classmates to do likewise. “They tried to discipline us for that and I made a legal argument that there was no legal notice requiring us to go,” she says. “I was not, in fact, disciplined”—ever the smart kid brandishing her gray matter.
Dhillon says her role as the GOP chair is to educate San Franciscans about the party (not every member has horns and a tail), increase registration, affect the outcome of ballot measures (of which the city has plenty) and help elect the lesser of two evils in some contests. It’s not necessarily to put Republicans in office. “You would have to be out of your mind to think you could win in San Francisco,” she says of her own two races for public office.
Dhillon may be comfortable in her GOP role because she is used to being an outsider. Sikhs are a minority group in her native India. In Smithfield only two-hundredths of 1 percent of the population is Asian. And it is as a minority that Dhillon carries out what may be her most important role in the GOP: To remind voters around the state that not all Republicans look alike. “My job is to bust a lot of stereotypes about the Republican Party—that we’re all old, white men who want to control women’s bodies,” Dhillon told The Wall Street Journal last summer.
Dhillon takes pains to make sure she doesn’t seem to be advocating for affirmative action, before allowing that ethnicity in politics is a “job qualification.” She explains: “Abercrombie & Fitch doesn’t have octogenarians wearing their clothes. They have hot young people because that’s their market. And if our market as a Republican Party is the growing number of Latinos, Asians, people of different backgrounds, new immigrants—which it has to be demographically to win—we have to promote and showcase leaders in our party who come from those backgrounds.”
So what happened when the California GOP met in Sacramento? Did the priests prevail? Or the mathematicians?
Perhaps Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s January admonition—“We’ve got to stop being the stupid party”—was still reverberating when the California Republican Party convened in early March. After two GOP activists attacked Dhillon with racial slurs, party notables responded quickly and decisively.
“She was accused of not being a real Republican, of being a Muslim terrorist sympathizer,” says Carla Marinucci, the senior political writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was pretty striking how the party leaders and elected officials came down like a ton of bricks on folk who were posting those kind of messages. They made it very clear that’s not going to be the Republican Party in the future. I don’t think we would have seen that five years ago.” The convention overwhelmingly elected Dhillon, 881 to 227, to a two-year term as vice chair. Presumably, Dhillon will be in line in four years to become the state chair.
“There’s a perception out there that our party is not friendly to women and not friendly to minorities,” Dhillon says. “I think this helps to shatter that.”
“My life has taken a lot of turns,” Dhillon says, many of them surprising, perhaps none as much as her current warm embrace of San Francisco.
Dhillon once told her second husband, who was completing his residency at UCSF at the time, that “under no circumstances am I moving to California, particularly that lunatic asylum of San Francisco.” She eventually did move west, to take a job in Silicon Valley and to try, unsuccessfully, to resuscitate that failing marriage. She has since made peace with her adopted home, where she now lives with her third husband, Sarvjit Randhawa, a retired nuclear engineer whom she married two years ago.
“This is a very beautiful city,” she says. “I like living here. I like the bay. My husband and I like to sail and we like northern California.” And then she offers an opinion sure to inflame the litmus-test members of her party. San Francisco, Dhillon says, is not liberal enough.
“I wish people here were a little more open-minded than they are,” she says. “We get spit at and have things thrown at us when we do voter registration. It’s extremely intolerant. A truly liberal environment should allow all viewpoints to thrive.”
On the weekends Dhillon and Randhawa retreat to their second home at Sea Ranch, a planned coastal community 100 miles north of San Francisco. Sea Ranch has a flock of 300 sheep that are used to trim the grass and so reduce the chance of summer wildfires. About two and a half years ago Randhawa asked Dhillon to knit him a sweater using wool from the Sea Ranch sheep. Now she buys the flock’s entire fleece and has it processed and then colored with organic, local dyes. Dhillon has four knitters in nearby Mendocino County who produce scarfs, shawls and cowls from designs she has created. She calls herself a “yarntrepreneur.”
There was a time when she would have considered this “hippie nonsense.” But every successful lawyer knows how to see both sides of an issue, and Dhillon is no exception.
“It’s very conservative,” she says, “to use local material and local labor.”
Bruce Anderson is a contributing editor to the Saturday Evening Post and former editor of Stanford Magazine. He lives in San Francisco.