WASHINGTON — Amar Kaleka wears his political outsider status “as a badge of honor” as he explores a run to unseat U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.
The 35-year-old filmmaker, entrepreneur and fundraiser, lost his father — Satwant Singh Kaleka — in last year’s shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek. He’s since gained national prominence as a public speaker and lobbyist against gun violence, and announced his interest in running as a Democrat against Ryan Monday.
Kaleka spoke to The Journal Times Friday from Washington, D.C., where he was meeting with potential fundraising partners and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as he considers challenging the House Budget Committee Chair and 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate, whose district includes all of Racine County.
According to Kaleka, the powerful DCCC recommended polling to get a sense of his chances in the district.
He disagreed. “You know how I poll? I go there and I talk to people,” Kaleka said.
And so far, he said, the response from the region has been positive.
“I’ve counted 121 hugs since (announcing) Monday,” Kaleka said. “It’s people coming heart-to-heart and saying, ‘We really want you to do this.’”
Kaleka said he also “fought with DCCC” when it came to staffing his potential campaign.
Lamenting the “brain-drain” of qualified young people leaving southeastern Wisconsin, he said, “Everybody wants to bring the national pundits in... but if I’m going to campaign, I’m going to go local.”
Kaleka said he envisions staffing his office with “young and savvy Democrats and Republicans … people who are moderate in their views and want to move the economy forward and our nation forward.”
Kaleka readily acknowledges the 2014 race would be a challenge, casting his as a “David-and-Goliath”-like fight against a well-known incumbent with well-stocked campaign coffers.
Ryan has represented the 1st Congressional District for 14 years running and consistently leads the congressional fundraising pack.
Kaleka said he offers a contrast to Ryan, who he characterizes as a “career politician.”
Kaleka’s family immigrated to Greenfield, Wis., from India when he was young, Kaleka said, and started out on food stamps and in government housing. He grew up in the area, making frequent visits to family in Racine. Kaleka described working at and then managing his father’s gas station, then “racking up” student loans in order to attend Marquette University.
Voters, he said, will recognize and appreciate the fact he isn’t an established politician, that he’ll take a bold and innovative approach to solving economic problems.
“I’m not that guy,” he said, referring to Ryan. “I’m the guy that grew up on food stamps and worked his way up.”
Kaleka’s family had its first brush with gun violence in Racine, years before his father’s death in the 2012 temple shooting, he said.
In 2009, he said, his aunt was shot in the leg during an armed robbery at Taylor Mart, 1813 Taylor Ave., where she was a clerk. She was pregnant at the time, he said.
When Kaleka announced his interest in running Monday, he was heralded by a burst of national media attention quickly followed by detractors on the right who sought to paint him as “anti-gun.”
A lobbyist for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Kaleka called that a mischaracterization.
“Listen to the name,” he said. “We’re against ‘illegal guns’; there’s no gun control in that.”
Kaleka said he supports legislation like background checks that helps prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands.
Depending how much support he receives, Kaleka said he may announce his candidacy as early as November.
Should he run, he’ll likely face a primary fight against Kenosha Democrat Rob Zerban, who announced his own exploratory committee in March.
Zerban, who lost to Ryan last year, has scheduled an unspecified “announcement rally” for Oct. 26.