Ashwin Madia begins his pitch with an anecdote that he’s told dozens of times since launching his unlikely Congressional campaign nine months ago. “My parents came to this country with $19,” he tells the crowd of roughly three dozen people gathered at the Lynnhurst Recreation Center in South Minneapolis. “The first thing they bought in this country was an $11 bottle of champagne.”
Madia is addressing the members of Take Action Minnesota, a progressive political advocacy group that has been an influential force in recent elections. He wears a dark striped suit and carries himself with an erect posture that suggests his Marine Corps background. The 30-year-old political neophyte’s accent sounds vaguely southern, but he speaks at a clip more frequently associated with New York cab drivers.
In a 30-minute Q-&-A session, Madia portrays himself as a staunch defender of civil liberties, stating that he would not have voted for recently enacted changes to the Foreign Intelligence Services Act. He derides the recent distribution of federal tax rebate checks as an ineffectual gimmick. “I don’t believe writing checks and mailing them out is the way to fix our economy,” Madia says. The Democrat also emphasizes his military background and support for a gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq over the next 18 to 24 months. “I’m not one of those people who believes we can yank them all out tomorrow or next week,” he says.
Not all of his stands are gravy for the crowd of progressives. When queried about whether felons who have served their sentences but remain on probation or parole should have their voting rights restored – a change that Take Action Minnesota supports — he’s non-committal. “That’s actually an issue I’m still studying,” he says. “I can see both sides of it.”
While many in the audience aren’t entirely persuaded by Madia’s progressive bona fides, more than 90 percent of those present ultimately vote to endorse him. The support from Take Action Minnesota is just another step in Madia’s stratospheric rise from political obscurity.
The son of Indian immigrants is seeking to become the youngest member of Congress in the country and the first Democrat to represent Minnesota’s Third District in 50 years. He waged a successful uphill battle for the DFL endorsement against a sitting state senator who locked up key institutional support and a formidable war chest early in the contest. Now he will face off against state Rep. Erik Paulsen, a former House majority leader, who secured the Republican Party’s backing without a fight.
Madia’s rapid ascent and atypical background has often prompted comparisons to Barack Obama. And the attacks levied against him by Republicans so far have carried a familiar tinge. “They have a not-ready-for-prime-time player in Ashwin Madia,” Republican chairman Ron Carey said at a press conference last month. “As the campaign goes on you’re going to find that Mr. Madia, while he has some great soaring rhetoric, he has no solutions.”
Jigar Madia, as he’s been known most of his life, was born in Boston. He also lived in California, Illinois and New York while growing up. The Madia family arrived in Minnesota while Jigar was a teenager and he graduated from Osseo Senior High School. His father is a microbiologist who currently teaches at North Hennepin Community College; his mother is a physical therapist.
Madia attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in biology and business. He became president of the Minnesota Student Association and was active in the campus College Republicans chapter. During his undergraduate years, Madia wrote pieces for the Minnesota Daily attacking the National Education Association, praising then-presidential candidate Bob Dole and opposing a unionization drive by faculty members.
Madia went on to law school at New York University. Classmates recall him as intelligent, articulate and outgoing. Eric Albert, now an attorney for the federal government, teamed with Madia to win a prestigious moot court competition. “He’s a very well grounded person,” says Albert. “It’s easy in these kinds of legal competitions to kind of get lost in the technicalities and minutiae of the law. Jigar has a knack for breaking things down to the essentials and really seeing the heart of the matter and not getting too bound up in technical issues. It’s a good thing as an advocate to be able to see the forest at the same time as the trees.”
After earning his law degree, while many of his classmates from the top-rated school were going on to prestigious clerkships, Madia enlisted in the Marines. While he signed on for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the freshly minted lawyer still had to go through six months of boot camp in Quantico, Virginia. “I think he just saw doing the JAG corps as a form of public service work,” says William McGeveran, an NYU classmate of Madia’s who now teaches at the University of Minnesota Law School. “I think it takes a different kind of a person to go do your service where not only are there a lot of people who aren’t lawyers, but there are a lot of people who didn’t even go to college.”
Madia was first assigned to Okinawa, Japan, where he served as a prosecutor and defense attorney in military proceedings. He successfully defended a Marine who was caught with gay pornography and threatened with an “other than honorable” discharge under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Madia argued that the soldier was being held to a different standard than a Marine who was caught with straight pornography and only given a slight reprimand. His client prevailed and was allowed to return to his unit.
In 2005 Madia was transferred to Iraq, serving primarily in Baghdad. During his six-month tour of duty, he was charged with helping to establish the war-ravaged country’s judicial system.
Madia returned to Minnesota later that year and took a job with the redoubtable law firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, specializing in intellectual property issues. Then in October 2007 he stepped down to run for Congress. Despite his history of Republican activism, Madia decided to run as a Democrat.
The key to his success in winning the DFL endorsement was a vigorous grassroots campaign that countered the institutional might of Sen. Terri Bonoff. “He is a dream candidate,” says Roy Magnuson, a veteran St. Paul DFL activist who’s volunteering with the Madia campaign. “He’s a Marine. He’s disciplined, forthright and honest.”
Jim Niland, political director for AFSCME Council 5, which supported Bonoff in the endorsement contest, agrees with this assessment. “I think he out-hustled Terri Bonoff in terms of delegate contact clearly,” he says. But Niland also points out that Madia benefited from a huge influx of new faces getting involved in the process. It’s estimated that two thirds of convention delegates were participating for the first time, inspired at least in part by Obama’s presidential campaign.
But Madia also secured key support from influential constituencies within the Democratic party that helped establish his credibility. Labor unions such as the United Auto Workers and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) backed his campaign and provided politically savvy operatives to assist with the endorsement battle.
State Sen. Mee Moua became an enthusiastic advocate after agreeing to meet the fledgling candidate for coffee at the Swede Hollow Café on St. Paul’s East Side. “He was energetic; he was enthusiastic; he was smart,” she recalls. “He talked like he was a national candidate already. If the DFL party were to go out and try to recruit somebody like this, I don’t even know where they would start.”
Perhaps even more vital was the support of Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison, who announced his support for Madia just two days before the endorsing convention. “I felt that the young man was enterprising, energetic, hardworking,” he says. “I liked the idea that he could make a credible argument about Iraq, because of course he had been there as a soldier.”
Ellison also believes that Madia’s background with the GOP is actually a benefit. “I think it’s an asset that he would have some Republican or conservative leanings at some point in his life,” he says. “He’s not a knee-jerk Democrat. He’s not a Democrat because dad and mom were Democrats. He actually had to think about the issues and arrive at some conclusions.”
But since winning the DFL endorsement, the Madia campaign — perhaps inevitably — has changed dramatically. The Third District race is one of the most closely watched House contests in the country. With nine-term Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad retiring, and the suburban district swinging almost evenly between Red and Blue, the race is attracting attention and dollars from across the country. This means that Madia has been forced to focus his attention on the money hunt. Rather than making his pitch to DFL activists over coffee, he’s been spending his time dialing for dollars and traveling the country to solicit contributions.
The concentration on fundraising has reaped significant dividends. Madia raised $692,000 in the second quarter of 2008, roughly $90,000 more than Paulsen. Both candidates now rank in the top 10
The intense spotlight on the race also means that the Madia campaign has become a much more tightly controlled operation. Whereas during the endorsement battle he’d seemingly sit down with any blogger with a dial-up connection and a few dozen readers, the Madia campaign declined to make the candidate available for an interview with Minnesota Independent for this article. Campaign manager Stuart Rosenberg would only offer the opportunity ask Madia questions at a “blogger’s brunch” held at the Perkins Restaurant & Bakery in Maple Grove last month.
Supporters insist that the emphasis on money and message control has not altered the grassroots nature of the campaign. “They are still being very mindful of what got them there,” says Luchelle Stevens, political director for SEIU’s Minnesota state council. “They know that we that got them there will take them where they need to go on November 4.”
LaDonna Meinecke, a licensed social worker, SEIU member and early Madia supporter, says she understands that the campaign had to undergo a transformation if it’s going to be successful. “Do I yearn for those days when it was just a small group of us?” she asks rhetorically. “That’s not going to win you the race. There is change. It’s not without some discomfort, but it hasn’t changed my conviction about Madia and the need to win the Third District.” nationwide for dollars raised by contenders for open House seats. The Third District race is expected to be the most expensive in Minnesota’s history.