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MILWAUKEE — The son of a slain Sikh temple president plans to challenge U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan in next year’s congressional election, in a Wisconsin district where support for the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee has been strong but slipping.
Amar Kaleka, 35, told The Associated Press he’ll file paperwork Wednesday to form an exploratory congressional committee. He plans to formally announce his candidacy as a Democrat next month.
Kaleka said he wants to bring accountability and transparency back to Washington. He blamed the government shutdown on Ryan, who’s the House Budget Committee chairman, and his GOP colleagues. He said citizens are tired of career politicians who care more about staying in power than serving the people.
“There’s a fever in the nation, and specifically in this district, for our leaders to stop playing politics and do their jobs,” Kaleka said. “All I want to do is bring democracy — a government of, for and by the people — back to America.”
Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was a small-business owner who founded the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in suburban Milwaukee. On Aug. 5, 2012, a white supremacist walked into the temple and opened fire, killing Kaleka and five others before taking his own life. The FBI was unable to determine a motive.
That was a turning point for Amar Kaleka, who grew up in Milwaukee and has been making documentaries in southern California for the past four years. He won an Emmy for his 2010 direction of Jacob’s Turn, about a 4-year-old boy with Down syndrome who joins his first T-ball team.
He said he used to dream of running for public office when he was in his 50s or 60s but decided to seek office sooner following his father’s homicide.
Sympathy and cash donations poured in from around the globe following the Sikh temple shootings, and several federal officials expressed their condolences. First lady Michelle Obama visited the temple to comfort the families and Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the funeral.
But President Barack Obama, who has visited sites of other mass shootings, never came. His absence bothered Kaleka, an Obama supporter who hoped the president’s presence would help advance the cause of stronger gun regulation.
Kaleka suspected that Obama stayed away to sidestep a controversial issue during an election year. To Kaleka, that meant the president was putting politics before people — a trend he saw repeated by other lawmakers every time he visited Washington, D.C.
He cites polls showing that 90 percent of Americans favored stronger background checks for gun buyers, yet even then Congress failed to act. That disgusted him.
“They’re more concerned with the groups, the corporations that are giving them money than with what the people want,” he said.
Kaleka knows he’d be taking on a formidable candidate. Ryan has so much political clout that he raised $1.7 million in the first six months of the year, nearly three times more than any other member of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation.
Kaleka hopes to counter in part by tapping into the wealthy Indian and Arabic communities that he said encouraged him to run in the first place. If he can demonstrate his fundraising chops he expects the national Democratic Party, which he said supports his candidacy, to step in with another $1 million to $2 million.
Ryan, an eight-term congressman, has been popular in his district that covers the southeastern corner of the state. But his support declined last year.
He won every congressional race since 2000 with at least 63 percent of the vote, including 68 percent in 2010. But last year, after he gained prominence for drawing up an austere budget blueprint that would reshape Medicare, his support dropped to a career-low 55 percent. However, that year he had to balance his congressional campaign with his vice presidential run.
A message left with Ryan’s congressional office Monday was not immediately returned.
Ryan’s opponent last year was Rob Zerban, a former Kenosha Board supervisor. Zerban has formed another exploratory committee this year but hasn’t said whether he’ll take another run at Ryan.
The death of Kaleka’s father — and the way he died — continue to weigh on Kaleka. He said he’s running in his father’s memory, but he wants people to vote for him not out of sympathy but because of his position on the issues.
“I’ll agree my father’s death has put me in a position where people listen to me more. But it’s not that I’m taking advantage of that situation,” he said. “I’m trying to further his dream of building the community and leading in a way that’s very democratic. That’s what drives me.”