As the GOP tries to rebuild what one candidate called a "brand problem" with minorities, three of the four Republican candidates for Illinois governor spoke at a forum planned by the Indian American Republican Organization Sunday night.
Dan Rutherford, Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard spoke before hundreds of members of the newly formed group at Ashyana Banquets in Downers Grove. Bruce Rauner was invited to the forum, but chose not to attend.
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The forum was mainly cordial, with no mention of the recent scuffles and accusations between Rutherford and Rauner.
On topics of the economy and pension reform, the candidates stuck to their much discussed positions, but on the topic of diversity, each tried to stand out as the one who would best represent the needs of the Indian American community.
Each candidate stressed his connections to the community from their love of Indian food and products to previous events attended in the community.
"My vision is to make this state a destination economy and no one has a better entrepreneurial spirit than the people of India," Dillard said.
Both Brady and Rutherford mentioned the fact that their lieutenant governor candidates are members of minorities.
"I appreciate the fact that the mosaic of Illinois is made up of different religions, different skin colors and different ethnicities," Rutherford said.
In response to one question that noted that there are nearly 220,000 Indian Americans in Illinois, many of whom hold graduate and professional degrees, but few members of the community on state boards or in Springfield, each candidate pledged to have a more diverse administration.
"My administration will have a number of diverse people, including Indian Americans," Dillard said.
The candidates went on the defense about immigration.
"We see the best and brightest students come to the United States for a college education and then go back home," said community member Amol Shelat. "There is a perception among Indian Americans that Republicans are anti-immigration, so why should we vote for your party?"
Rutherford contended that the problem is more of perception than reality.
"The Republican Party has a brand problem right now from the national scene. It is perceived to be intolerant," Rutherford said.
"We need to have a reasonable Republican, one that understands that there are people from different backgrounds who make up our state."
Dillard said he voted for the Illinois version of the DREAM Act and would be welcoming to immigrants.
Brady said it actually the Democratic Party that is labeling Republicans as anti-immigration.
"We want to keep the doors open. For national security reasons we need to protect our country's borders, but this state's strength lies in immigration," Brady said.
Cook County Republican Chairman Aaron Del Mar said incorporating minorities into the GOP has been one of his top priorities.
"We want to be the party of acceptance," Del Mar said. "We want to bring more people into learning out philosophy on being fiscally and socially conservative."
In some minorities, such as Hispanic Catholics, Del Mar said the party's social message should be appealing, while for other groups such as Indian Americans that are prevalent in business, engineering and medicine in the suburbs, he said the Republican's fiscal message can bring in new voters.
"Now is our time to take a more active role in the community and make a positive change in government," said Nimish Jani, chairman of the organization, which formed about a year ago, and Schaumburg Township board member.
Del Mar admitted that there is still progress to be made with making all minorities feel comfortable in the Republican Party.
"It's not something that's going to happen overnight, but we are definitely moving the ticker two or three spots," Del Mar said.