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The Indian connection 

Does Georgia's Brunswick stew of politics need a dash of curry powder?

For every Daniel, there is a lion's den. Our Daniel in today's lesson on Georgia politics is an unlikely candidate -- in more ways than one.

Meet Shyam Reddy, aspirant for Georgia secretary of state. He's one among a herd right now, and a few of the wannabes are credible.

The Republican primary for Georgia's third-highest office will pit two candidates who've held high-profile seats against each other: Bill Stephens, the ethically challenged former Senate majority leader, faces Karen Handel, ex-aide to Gov. Sonny Perdue and a woman who has proven that the words "competent" and "Fulton County Commission" can co-exist in the same sentence.

Among the Democrats, AGL Resources lobbyist Darryl Hicks knows his way around the Capitol, although shilling for the gas company may not be a plus to gouged-by-energy-company consumers. Angela Moore, a former DeKalb County Commission candidate, has raised a bundle of cash. Walter Ray is a former state senator. And, Scott Holcomb, a lawyer and former Army captain, earned his spurs in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Then there's Shyam (pronounced, more or less, "sham") Reddy. Our Daniel picked his lion's den: a Jan. 21 meeting of the Christian Coalition, which goes through an election year ritual of interviewing the faithful of the holy Republican Party.

Oh, sure, all candidates are invited, but as the High Priestess of the Christian Coalition Sadie Fields would remark after this year's festivities, Democrats don't often come to candidate interrogations. That's because Democrats pay heed to Article VI, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, which still reads: "[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

"I have read it, and I'll take my message to any group, even the Christian Coalition," says Reddy, who at the very least earns an encomium for spunk.

You can imagine the reaction as Reddy took the stage. Hmm. Shyam? Doesn't exactly sound like a Bubba. Or a Sonny. Nope, not a Billy Bob. Heavens to Ralph Reed, did I just hear someone say he's a Hindu?

To paraphrase Aunt Pittypat: Heathens in Georgia? How did they ever get in?

"They will use my faith against me," Reddy shrugs. "As a nation, we embrace all faiths. Those who would attack me because of my faith, well, I doubt they'd vote for a Democrat under any circumstances."

Reddy defies easy definition. He's 100 percent American. He was born in Carrollton and raised in Dublin. He went to college at Emory, then earned his law degree at the University of Georgia.

If those mainstream Georgia bona fides aren't enough, Reddy works for a large corporate law firm, Kilpatrick Stockton, where he engages in that true blue American contact sport of mergers and acquisitions. And he's one of the firm's experts on election laws. Between corporations and elections, that's pretty much what a Georgia secretary of state does.

Reddy is, however, a little more, a dash of curry powder in the Brunswick stew. His physician mom and engineer dad emigrated from south India in the 1970s.

That confounds many in Georgia, whose residents have a hard time counting to "two" when it comes to ethnicity -- white and black. Throw in a bunch of "others" and ol' Jeff Davis would hardly recognize the state.

The Augusta Chronicle, for example, seemed befuddled when it reported in January that Reddy had raised campaign funds from "fellow attorneys and the Indian community, even though he was born in Carrollton." Sort of like showing amazement that famed New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, born in the Bronx, raised money from Italian Americans.

Is Reddy the new face of Georgia? "Yes," he says, and then like any good lawyer parsing a question, adds, "I'm one of the many faces of Georgia, and that's new to many people."

Immigration is bound to figure into Reddy's campaign. After all, it looks to be the paramount issue in the 2006 election. This week, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 529, which will accomplish little, but tells immigrants the state is going to kick them in the teeth even though we really appreciate their cheap, often slave-condition labor, thank you. Perdue isn't about to anger his base by doing the right thing, which would be to dispatch the legislation to the trash bin.

Reddy recalls that during the Christian Coalition inquisition, there weren't specific queries about immigration. But, he says, "every one of my Republican opponents turned questions about other subjects back to [immigration]." Republicans, he says, are frantically seeking something to replace gay marriage (equally a non-issue) as a way to con voters into believing they're more righteous than Democrats.

"Sure, we have to secure our borders," Reddy says. "And not just with Mexico, but also with Canada, where real terrorists have slipped into the United States. But we also must recognize the very real contribution of immigrants to America and Georgia." He didn't say it, but he could have: immigrants such as his own parents.

What you may have noticed in the above statement is balance. That's Reddy's style. When asked by the Christian Coalition how he felt about Georgia's GOP-authored voter ID law -- which Justice Department records show had a racist underpinning -- Reddy at first angered the crowd by telling them he opposed the legislation.

"We should have empowered the secretary of state to aggressively issue cards to citizens, rather than disenfranchise 200,000 people," Reddy says. "When I said that, I saw heads nodding."

When asked if any candidate wasn't "pro-life," Reddy recalls that he responded, "'I prefer life over death. I prefer abortion over many of the alternatives women face.' Sure, I was called names when I said that -- 'murderer' and 'baby killer.' But afterward, people came up, shook my hand and said they respected me."

Reddy launched his political career in 2001 when he and Jason Carter (Jimmy's grandson) founded the Red Clay Democrats, a group of young, active party members that's grown to more than 1,000.

Reddy's fundraising has turned heads. At this early stage in a primary between unproven Democrats, money is one the few indicators of a candidate's strength. Republican Stephens has raised more than Reddy -- $399,000 to $355,000. But Reddy has two-and-a-half times Stephens' number of donors. He's easily out-raised his Democratic opponents, and he has the most money on hand of all the candidates.

While he's personable and articulate, it's unclear what his campaign style will be. One hint could be seen last week, when the Carter Center hosted a nationally televised forum on election reform. Sitting in the front rows were two secretary of state hopefuls. Hicks, as befits a Capitol pro, was busy networking. Reddy, ever the lawyer, furiously scribbled notes on a legal pad.

A little later, I was having lunch with Reddy at Manuel's Tavern. Angela Dotson from Cobb County came up.

"A year ago, I was a Republican," she said. "I can no longer stomach what's going on. That's why you've got my vote."

Reddy said, "I hear that every day. The political system is broken, hijacked by extremists. People want a new breed of Southern Democrat, fiscally conservative and socially responsible."

Senior Editor John Sugg -- who asks, can you make chicken tikka masala with barbecue sauce? -- can be reached at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com. His blog is at www.johnsugg.com.

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