Nikki Haley: From daughter of Indian immigrants to US ambassador to UN

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley during the 2016 National Lawyers Convention sponsored by the Federalist Society in Washington, DC.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley during the 2016 National Lawyers Convention sponsored by the Federalist Society in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

ATLANTA (NYTimes) - Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina is the daughter of immigrants, favours free markets and global trade, and earned international attention for speaking out against the Confederate battle flag in the aftermath of the 2015 massacre at a black church in Charleston.

During Mr Donald Trump's presidential campaign, she criticised his demeanor and warned what it might mean for American diplomacy - even suggesting that his tendency to lash out at critics could cause a world war.

But on Wednesday (Nov 23), Mr Trump named Ms Haley, 44, as his choice for ambassador to the United Nations, a move that will most likely serve to both assuage and confound the President-elect's critics, raising questions about the tone and direction of his foreign policy. She would also add ethnic and gender diversity to the appointments - so far predominantly white men - he has made to other top posts in the administration.

In a statement, Ms Haley said she had accepted Mr Trump's offer because she felt good about South Carolina's economic standing under her leadership. She added that this month's elections had brought "exciting changes to America".

"When the President believes you have a major contribution to make to the welfare of our nation, and to our nation's standing in the world, that is a calling that is important to heed," the statement said.

 
 

The reaction from Republicans in South Carolina's congressional delegation demonstrated the broad appeal Ms Haley has earned among conservatives statewide and in Washington. Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Mr Trump's harshest critics in the past, praised the nomination, writing on Twitter that Ms Haley would be a "strong voice for UN reform and stand for American interests throughout the world".

Republican Joe Wilson of South Carolina, a member of the Tea Party caucus, said in a statement that Ms Haley's "fortitude for freedom and democracy will prevail over constant attacks on America and our ally, Israel".

But others tempered their admiration for Ms Haley with concern about whether her public service credentials, which are limited to South Carolina government, will translate to the world stage.

"My very practical reaction is that she'd be the least experienced UN ambassador in the history of the country," said Mr Bakari Sellers, a CNN commentator and a Democrat who befriended Ms Haley when they served together in the state House of Representatives.

"You go from Samantha Power" - the current UN ambassador - "who was very well versed in foreign policy and our geopolitical relationships, to Nikki Haley, who hasn't been in that depth ever."

"But on a larger level, I am more than pleased with the nomination," Mr Sellers said. "I disagree with Nikki Haley on policy, but Nikki Haley would be a bright light in this administration. She's the daughter of immigrants, and her story is one I feel comfortable sharing with my daughter on how you can be a success in this country."

Ms Haley's admirers note that she repeatedly travelled abroad as governor to promote the state as a desirable place for investment. Her highest-profile trip, perhaps, was a 2014 visit to India, the birthplace of her parents.

Her husband, Michael, has also served in Afghanistan as an officer in the South Carolina National Guard.

"I was raised by the Indian community, and those families are still very close to us," Ms Haley said in a 2012 interview with The New York Times.

More generally, she has overcome concerns that she would be a one-dimensional insurgent outsider, similar to worries that dog Mr Trump. Her 2010 campaign was given a major lift by an endorsement from former governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, the polarising darling of the Tea Party movement.

But Ms Haley has forged a middle path that embraces the conciliatory racial attitudes favoured by the left and the business-friendly ethos of the right.

This balancing act faced perhaps its greatest test in June 2015, after nine African-Americans were shot and killed at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

The white supremacist charged in the massacre, Dylann S. Roof, had posed with the Confederate battle flag in pictures. And for years, blacks and liberals in South Carolina had pleaded with the conservatives who dominate the state government to take the flag down from a prominent spot it occupied in front of the state Capitol building.

Ms Haley, the first ethnic minority and first woman to be elected as the state's governor, had previously sided with fellow Republicans, who argued that the flag was not a racist symbol.

But the Emanuel massacre hit home personally. She had been a friend of state senator Clementa C. Pinckney, a Democrat and pastor of the church, who was one of the dead. Ms Haley had a change of heart.

"It came down to one simple thing," she told The Times in June 2015. "I couldn't look my son or daughter in the face and justify that flag flying anymore."

At her urging, and after much passionate debate, the state's legislature agreed to remove the flag.

Ms Haley was born in the small city of Bamberg, South Carolina, to immigrants from Punjab state in India. She has said the locals in South Carolina were often unsure of her place in what is often a Southern binary of black versus white. When Ms Haley was about five, she and her sister entered a Little Miss Bamberg pageant where, traditionally, a black queen and a white queen were crowned.

The judges decided the sisters fit neither category, so they were disqualified.

From a young age, Ms Haley worked for her family's clothing business, and eventually received an accounting degree from Clemson University. She was elected to the state House in 2004.

In 2009, she declared she was running for governor, and prevailed despite lingering biases. A Republican state senator at the time called her a "raghead" on a radio show. A Democratic state representative said that voters did not consider her a minority, but more of a "nice conservative with a tan".

Ms Haley, a nimble campaigner who is equally at home among CEOs and denim-clad bikers, easily won re-election in 2014, after arguing that her maintenance of South Carolina's anti-union, low-regulation atmosphere had been the key to an economic comeback. Under her leadership, the state continued a trend of looking beyond its boundaries - and very often abroad - to attract new industries to replace a fading textile industry.

Business leaders have said that Ms Haley often personally woos prospective new companies. Mr Ted Pitts, the chief executive of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, said he expected her business experience to translate into successful diplomacy.

"She's possibly the best governor South Carolina has ever seen, and I expect she'll go down as one of the best UN ambassadors the country's ever seen," Mr Pitts said. "She has a unique ability to connect to people, to negotiate, and to make the other side feel they've been treated fairly."

It is a record that might seem to be at odds with Mr Trump's skepticism of global trade agreements and his promise to subject imports from Mexico and China to steep tariffs.

But there are other areas of agreement. In 2014, Ms Haley criticised federal plans that would force power plants to cut carbon emissions. In October 2015, at a news conference in which she addressed historic flooding in the state, she bristled and declined to answer after a reporter inquired about her position on the human contribution to climate change.

And also like Mr Trump, Ms Haley has weathered accusations of sexual impropriety without suffering at the polls. In her first run for governor, during the primary contest, two Republican operatives made separate and unproven accusations that they had had sexual encounters with her. She strongly denied the assertions.

A few years later, she was among those rumoured as a potential running mate for Mr Mitt Romney, then a Republican presidential candidate.

She said at the time that she could not do it because there was too much to be done at home in South Carolina. But she acknowledged that opportunities sometimes arose.

"I've never been a planner," she said. "I didn't know I was going to run for the state House. I didn't know I was going to run for governor. I don't know what's next, and I love not thinking about it because the doors open at a certain time."