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FILE - In this May 14, 2010 file photo, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin waves to supporters after she endorses S.C. gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley,left, during a campaign rally at The Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. With support from tea party voters and Sarah Palin, state Rep. Nikki Haley entered a Republican runoff Tuesday that could move her closer to becoming South Carolina's first woman governor. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain, File)

It's hard for East Bay Sikhs to know what to make of Nikki Haley, the daughter of Sikh parents, darling of the tea party movement and favorite to become South Carolina's first woman and minority governor in November.

Haley's recent victory in that state's Republican primary is evidence that even some of the nation's most conservative voters are willing to embrace minority candidates.

But the campaign, during which one GOP lawmaker used a racial epithet when referring to Haley, and Haley emphasized her conversion to Christianity, left several East Bay Sikhs wondering when their faith will be fully accepted into U.S. public life.

"I think it's great to see someone from a Sikh family (come this far), but I'm waiting for the day when a Sikh will run for higher office and not shy away from the Sikh religion," said Manpreet Kalra, a 20-year-old Newark resident.

Haley, 38, was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, in Bamberg, S.C., to Sikh parents who had emigrated from Amritsar, India.

It wasn't easy being the only Sikhs in town, Haley told The New York Times. Although her father, a biology professor, continues to wear a turban, her brothers broke with Sikh tradition and cut their hair in grade school in an attempt to end classroom teasing.

"It's survival mode," Haley told the Times. "You learn to try and show people how you're more alike than you are different."


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Sikhs interviewed for this story identified with Haley's struggle, but were ambivalent toward her and her candidacy. Most didn't swell with pride over her accomplishments or fault her for her decision to convert to Methodism before she married her husband, Michael Haley.

"I'm kind of neutral," said Sarabjit Cheema, a Union City resident running for a school board seat this year. Cheema hoped that Haley's Sikh heritage and understanding of two faiths could make her a potent advocate for all religious minorities in conservative South Carolina.

"The truth is, the childhood memories, she will not be able to forget those," Cheema said.

Another perceived benefit to Haley's candidacy is improved understanding of Sikhism.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Sikhs have tried to educate Americans about their faith so that they wouldn't be accused of sympathizing with terror groups.

"Every time people talk about (Haley) and the Sikh religion's name comes up, I feel like we're gaining ground in the United States," said Gary Singh, a Union City planning commissioner who is running for City Council this year. It's very difficult if you're wearing turban and you have a beard. The more people who know you, the more respect you get."

But left-leaning Sikhs such as Kalra cringe knowing that "the face of the Sikh religion right now" is one of Sarah Palin's "grizzly mamas," who opposed health care reform and backs Arizona's new immigration law.

"People need to realize that one person cannot represent an entire population," Kalra said.

Haley, a three-term legislator, shot up in the polls this spring, with support from tea party supporters and the backing of Jenny Sanford, the popular ex-wife of scandal-scarred Gov. Mark Sanford.

Haley received 49 percent of the vote in the party's primary election and handily won a runoff last week.

If she beats her Democratic opponent in November, who she led in polls by about 20 percent in mid-June, Haley would become the nation's second governor of Indian origin, following Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, also a Republican, who Anglicized his name and converted from Hinduism to Catholicism.

For Harpaul Rana, a Union City teacher, Haley's faith and name are not as important as her roots.

"I'm supporting her because she belongs to Punjab," he said, referring to the Indian state in which many Sikhs reside and where the Sikh faith was founded. "I'm proud that she comes from the land to where we all belong."

Balwinder Kaur, a Republican part owner of the Amritsar Times newspaper who attends the Fremont Sikh temple, said Haley no can longer be considered a Sikh.

"She's a Christian," Kaur said, "but I'm going to support her "... because she's a woman."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-353-7002. For more Fremont news, read his blog: www.ibabuzz.com/tricitybeat.