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He's money man for the president

 
Published Aug. 14, 1992|Updated Oct. 11, 2005

Zachariah P. Zachariah left his native India for the United States 20 years ago. Nowadays he has been known to ride along with President Bush aboard Air Force One. He won a coveted invitation to the White House state dinner honoring Boris Yeltsin. He has hosted Barbara Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle at his Fort Lauderdale home.

Zachariah's immigrant success story hinges on something very American: He raises money for politicians. Lots of money.

"There is a knack to begging.But first you have to believe in the cause," says Zachariah, 43, a cardiologist with intense, dark eyes and a can-do reputation. "I've met with the president on many occasions. I really like the guy."

Lucky for Bush. The $750,000 Zachariah collected for Bush's re-election campaign is said by several Republican fund-raisers to be the largest amount an individual raised for the president in 1992. That means hundreds of checks have passed through Zachariah's hands, because federal law says donations must not exceed $1,000.

To accomplish this feat, "Zach," as he is known, has tapped into what is the latest phenomenon in political fund-raising: the generosity of Indian-American donors.

Zachariah says that before he got involved in campaign fund raising in the late 1980s, Indian-Americans stayed on the sidelines in U.S. politics, even though they are one of the more prosperous immigrant groups. This year they are the largest ethnic group contributing to the Republican presidential ticket, according to Quayle's political director, Jim Pitts. Nearly half the $750,000 Zachariah has raised came from Indian-Americans.

So it is that the campaign treasury of George Bush and Dan Quayle, the Connecticut Yankee and Indiana Hoosier, includes hundreds of contributions from the Guptas, the Patels and the Kumars, among many other Indian natives who have become American citizens. Federal law says only American citizens can contribute.

Many of the donors are among the 24,000 Indian-American physicians in the U.S. The prosperous new Americans see making political donations as the next step in their assimilation. "That's the final manifestation of your Americanism," jokes Phil Alexander, a 34-year-old Phoenix, Ariz., businessman who emigrated from India 13 years ago.

What the Indian-Americans have gotten in return is a quickly created status in Washington as a successful, influential immigrant group. "We want the Indian-American community to be in the mainstream of American society," says Lalit Mansingh, India's acting ambassador to the U.S.

"It's like any other group. We are new immigrants in this country. From time to time we feel we get less attention than we should," adds Raj Gupta, a 45-year-old gastroenterologist from South Florida. "If we are going to live in this country, we have to get involved in the political system."

"So now it is happening, they are recognizing us," Gupta says. "They found out that the Indians have been helping them. They have found some time for us."

Back in his home state of Kerala, India, Zachariah says, politics was a "dirty business" that he avoided. His father was a minister and his mother an educator, and they gave their son a Christian name. After schooling in India, Zachariah came to the United States for his medical residency, got his citizenship as soon as he could and went on to develop a specialty in cardiology.

He is now director of Cardiovascular Laboratories at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, and, after raising substantial sums of money for former Gov. Bob Martinez, he was appointed chairman of the Florida Board of Medicine, which regulates doctors.

Zachariah is a workaholic, spending 12 to 14 hours a day on his job. His first foray into fund raising was to collect money for the American Heart Association. He collected money for Martinez in 1986 and again put up some big numbers _ at least $300,000 _ for the governor in 1990.

By then, national Republican fund-raisers decided Zachariah was someone Bush needed to know. Alec Courtelis, the granddaddy of Florida's Republican money raisers, introduced Zachariah to the president, who named the doctor the campaign's finance director for Florida.

It was a good philosophical fit, Courtelis says. Zachariah and his fellow doctors are free marketers and generally oppose socialized medicine _ just like Bush.

Zachariah quickly impressed Bush-Quayle strategists. Last winter, at what was supposed to be an early organizational meeting, the Fort Lauderdale doctor took Bush finance man Bobby Holt aside and pulled out an envelope.

Inside was roughly $150,000 in checks. "Holt was overwhelmed," Tampa GOP fund-raiser Al Austin recalls.

"Zachariah is absolutely the best I've ever seen," says Austin. "I can't keep up with him."

Between appointments for his busy medical practice, Zachariah flies around the country, tapping into a network of physicians, Indian-Americans and business people. He's reachable by phone late into the night, talking with donors and politicos.

"When I think they will give me money, I talk to them 'til they want to get rid of me," Zachariah explains, though he takes pain to point out he does not raise money solely from Indians.

"I am an American, period. I take money from anyone who gives," Zachariah says.

It is the Indian-American presence that has astonished the old guard in GOP fund-raising circles, however, as they showed up by the dozens at the campaign events Zachariah helped organize this year.

Florida has raised $2.4-million for Bush this year, Courtelis said. There were two fund-raisers in Tampa and Miami featuring the president and two other events at Zachariah's home with Quayle and Mrs. Bush. Zachariah also accompanied Quayle to Detroit to speak with an organization of India-born physicians.

Last week, as he was driven around Washington in a silver Mercedes Benz with vanity license plate GOP-0100, Zachariah talked about the troubled campaign that has taken so much of his energy this year. He looked forward to Secretary of State James Baker leaving his job to straighten out the disorganized Bush effort.

"There are too many chiefs and not enough Indians," Zachariah lamented to a reporter. Three other Indian-Americans in the car choke back laughs.

Money talks in politics, and evidence that official Washington is listening to the Indian-Americans was on display August 6 and 7.

Even in a week when Congress was debating spending bills and the civil war in what once was Yugoslavia, a half-dozen GOP senators found time to attend an Indian-American Issues Conference. Several showed up for a cocktail party to mingle with about 40 Indian-Americans and talk with the man who has shown he can raise thousands of dollars for Republicans.

Dressed in a well-tailored suit, Zachariah worked the crowd like a seasoned politician, chatting with the guests and jotting down the names of potential donors on a card he held in his palm.

"Now that he became a money man for Bush, we all got excited," says Varughese Chandy, 46, a New York businessman.

"He brought the Indian-American community probably 10 years ahead," says Navin Pancholy, a Tampa physician.

As the Indian-Americans praised Zachariah, the politicians cultivated him. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, eyeing a run for the White House in 1996, joined U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., for dinner with Zachariah and his friends after the cocktail party.

Zachariah is clearly someone politicians want to keep on their side, but he has had to be careful about whom he chooses. He has declined to get involved in a big way this year with Republican Bill Grant's uphill campaign against incumbent Democratic Florida Sen. Bob Graham. He gave Graham $500 last year.

Beyond all the public attention, though, Zachariah has become a focal point for behind-the-scenes relations with Washington.

Last week, a top Indian official visiting the United States asked him to set up a private tour of the White House. Zachariah got it done _ he won't say how _ but his guest backed down and left the doctor embarrassed.

More substantially, Zachariah says he set up a meeting between a top Indian official and Quayle so the diplomat could bend the vice president's ear about soured trade relations between the two countries. The U.S. cut off some trade benefits for India earlier in the year because India has not protected U.S. pharmaceutical patents.

But the predominant issue to Zachariah affects the future of his offspring in this country: He wants Bush's assurance that Indian-American children will get access to U.S. universities. The father of two children, ages 9 and 11, Zachariah says it is a common fear among Indian-Americans that their children will be excluded from top-notch universities in favor of other minorities.

"He (Bush) is opposed to the quota system, which I agree with because where I come from there are so many damn quotas it makes you sick," Zachariah says.

The natives of India have become Americans very quickly, and they want their children to do even better than they have. Through Zachariah, they have a voice.

"These are immigrants who have gone beyond saying "the old country,' " says Alexander, the Arizona businessman. "It's no longer a hidden community."