Amar Kaleka’s life changed forever last August when a white supremacist gunman, Wade Michael Page, shot and killed his father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, in his place of worship.
Satwant, then President of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, died fighting the gunman , armed only with a butter knife. Page shot and killed six worshipers before taking his own life.
Kaleka, whose documentary "Jacob's Turn " earned an Emmy in 2010, told The Associated Press recently that he is seriously considering plans to challenge Paul Ryan for his seat in Congress. A Wisconsin native, Amar is forming a Congressional exploratory committee and says he will likely announce his candidacy as a Democrat in November.
In a recent conversation with The Progressive, Kaleka spoke at length about how his father inspired his campaign and how he hopes his candidacy will challenge, and potentially change, politics in America.
The Progressive: How’s your week been since you announced you were running for Congress?
It’s been interesting. A lot of interviews. I’m waiting to see if I get a crowd-swell of support. That’s the only way I could actually win in a David and Goliath match up. You’re dealing with Paul Ryan here. He’s backed by the Koch brothers and a lot of other corporate interests. He’s already raised $1.7 million in six months, the most money of the 435 members of the House of Representatives.
I’m hoping to see this campaign discussed a lot. If the media is picking it up and running with it, I know the conversation is out there. There are 500 to 600 comments on The Huffington Post article that just went up. So far things are looking very optimistic.
The Progressive: You’re 35. What first gave you the idea to run at such a young age?
It’s an inopportune moment because it’s Paul Ryan. I would have loved to run against somebody else.
I’m concerned right now about bringing true democracy back to a nation that requires it. We’re moving away from true democracy. We’re moving away from government run of the people by the people for the people, towards a government run by a very select few people. That’s the problem.
The government shutdown is a great example. Thirty people don’t agree with the law of the land that’s already been passed, after the Supreme Court has already looked through it to make sure it’s legitimate and constitutional. If ultimately those thirty people can just shut down the government, that’s step one to civil war in most countries. There’s no way democracy should be like that.
There are so many examples of the situation going down that avenue. The other example is gun legislation on background checks. Eighty-some percent of the nation believes that there should be a 100 percent background check on everybody that buys a gun, so no criminals or people have that have psychological problems have them. When Congress and the Senate won’t pass that, that’s a problem.
The Progressive: Your father died in a terrible tragedy last year. Did his death influence or strengthen your political convictions in any way?
Absolutely. His death opened my eyes to a number of problems in our nation: the punitive justice system, the spending of money on military after military, the lack of education. I started a documentary called "Peacemakers " where I tried to figure out why America’s so violent. It’s a system. We’re creating a violent system just so we can have punitive justice or just so we can have prisons filled. We arrest the most people on the planet. It’s ridiculous.
The Progressive: Do you plan to have your film and your campaign feed off of one another?
No, because we’re at the tail end at the documentary. The money that we raised through Kickstarter was mostly post-production funds. It will be done in terms of editing before the campaign is done. If there is a synergy, awesome, because more people will watch the documentary and get a truer feel of what’s going on in their country. But it wasn’t planned. It feels like this is not the best time for me to run because I will be stepping away from my company to serve. That’s not opportunistic at this point. It’s more like a conundrum.
The Progressive: You’ve mentioned a couple times that this is not the opportune moment for you to run. Why not wait?
Because of the government shutdown. If we get to this point where in 2014 we do not take back the House, one of the best presidents this nation has ever had is going to be handcuffed. He’s not going to do anything. And ultimately when the next election comes around and we get a progressive running, people are going to look around and say, “Oh, what did Barack Obama do? He couldn’t do anything because he was handicapped with a House that purposefully went out of its way to obstruct him.”
That’s what’s pulling me in this direction. In 2014 we need to make a choice. Are we going to give our President two years of a good House that can move our leadership? Or are we going to live with the same people that have been obstructing him?
The Progressive: Do you see this campaign as a permanent career change?
I would go back to filmmaking at some point. I’m very much in favor of having term limits for the Senate and the Congress, which is something that you won’t hear many people say.
The reason is because if you continue with the same people you end up in the type of quagmire that we’re in right now. You don’t get fresh ideas. Our democracy needs to move at a fast pace. They need leadership. They need people that are coming in with new ideas.
The Progressive: Hunting culture and gun culture are very important to a lot of people in Wisconsin. How would you plan to address that during your campaign and during your term if you are elected?
I’m a gun owner. Nobody wants to take away your guns. We want to take guns out of the hands of people that don’t deserve them. If you do deserve them, which most likely you do, then you shouldn’t be worried about it because there’s nobody who’s going to take the guns out of your hands.
That’s why guns are the sixth issue that I have on my agenda. It’s more about economic stimulus, about creating more jobs and new ideas for immigration and other profound changes that need to happen.
The Progressive: What would you like to do for immigration?
We need to find a path of citizenship for anyone who’s been here for longer than eight years. Not just because they deserve it, but also because they've already paid into the system.
Don’t let people scare you about immigrants. They pay sales tax on everything they buy. They pay rentals. They do so much in terms of taxes and economics. If you give them a path to citizenship, ultimately in the next four years we’ll have something like $850 billion flood into our nation.
If you’ve ever driven anywhere in this country you know that there’s a vast need for people to come to this country to help build it. If we’re not building, just like any corporation, we’re dying.
That’s the reason we had recession to begin with. Growth dropped. And one of the reasons was the GOP got really tough on immigration. If you kick people out of this country, and if people don’t want to come to this country, you’re going to have a hard time growing this country.
The Progressive: Racial prejudice and religious prejudice have played a big role in your life already. How will you deal with that during your campaign?
It’s sad to say but somebody asked me about this the other day and I said I wouldn’t be surprised if I have to deal with somebody burning a cross on my lawn. You know it and I know it, because we’re both from that area. I wouldn’t be surprised if people were to do some really gnarly stuff to me.
But ultimately I hope that the nation gets behind me, and that people see that’s exactly who we’re fighting. Those are the people who will support the other side.
The Progressive: What’s your next step?
A listening tour. Coming to Wisconsin and doing a listening tour and really getting into the nooks and crannies. My platform is based on the idea of being face to face with the people and that’s a vast difference from Ryan.
This video was broadcast by MSNBC on Oct. 17, 2013.