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How Maya Pillai became a rising GOP star — and one of Davidson’s most controversial students

Théoden Janes
The Charlotte Observer

Maya Pillai is doing her best to show support for the president, though in this instance and on this topic, it’s proving to be a bit of a challenge. “Are there comments that President Trump makes that can be interpreted as racist?” asks the 21-year-old president of the Davidson College Republicans club. “Yes.” She points first, without needing to hesitate to think about it, to his repeated references to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus”; then to his tolerance — at a July 2019 rally in Greenville, N.C. — of the “send her back” chant directed at Somali-born Muslim U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. “‘Send her back,’ yeah, that is racist,” says Pillai, whose own parents immigrated to the U.S. from India. Then she immediately launches her defense. “But I would not classify President Trump as a racist. At the end of the day, he understands that the United States is a melting pot. That the United States is founded upon immigrants. Even President Trump’s wife is from Eastern Europe. Based on that alone, I would not say that President Trump is a bigot, or someone who is anti-immigrant.”

While at Davidson, Pillai has demonstrated a gift for espousing conservative values and viewpoints, building a resume that suggests she could be a future star for the Republican Party. Last year, she single-handedly revived a Davidson College Republicans club that had all but disbanded. She volunteered for N.C. Congressman Dan Bishop’s campaign in summer 2019, then for Charlotte City Council member Tariq Bokhari’s last fall. And if not for the pandemic, she would have attended the Republican National Convention as one of the party’s youngest alternate delegates.

Says Maya Pillai: “I refuse to be pigeon-holed into a box, and (to let people) say, ‘OK, you’re female, you’re Asian-American, you’re a child of immigrant parents, boom — you automatically should be a Democrat.’ That’s just not the kind of person I am. I refuse to let my identity limit me.” But she says her gift has also come with a curse. Pillai maintains that since arriving on campus three years ago, she’s been ostracized and vilified by fellow students and belittled by professors due to her conservative views and her support of Trump, and claims Davidson’s administration has been dismissive when she’s complained.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise how Pillai is entering her senior year: wielding more political influence than she’s ever had before, and at the same time — due to one of the very public, very controversial ways in which she spent her summer vacation — as one of Davidson’s most controversial students.

Involved at a young age She was born in Green Bay, Wis., then raised in a Chicago suburb from the age of about 5 in a split household, by a liberal, CNN-devoted mother and a Republican father loyal to Fox News Channel. Pillai says she realized at a young age “that politics is integral to this nation and more young individuals need to pay attention to it,” and was trying to make a difference at the polls long before she was old enough to cast a vote. At just 13, she volunteered to do phone banking for U.S. Rep. Bob Dold’s campaign in Illinois (not to be confused with Bob Dole). John Thomas, who met Pillai when he was an ACT tutor and she was 14, says her initiative was apparent before they even met in person. “Most parents reach out to me initially, but ... she set everything up, she managed her own schedule,” recalls Thomas, now a Chicago businessman (who continues to mentor her today and — for what it’s worth — is a registered Democrat). “I remember she mentioned she had to make her own pediatrician appointment — which I thought was interesting, because if you have a pediatrician that means you’re a kid.”

In 2016, at age 17, Pillai signed up to do phone banking for another Republican, this time U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois. She also served as an election judge in Cook County in 2016 and 2017. She was five months shy of 18 on Election Day in 2016. If she’d been old enough, she says, she would have voted for Donald Trump. “Quite honestly, I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” she says. “I support LGBT marriage, legalization of marijuana. But I advocate for lower taxes, smaller government. There are no viable Libertarian candidates, really, as this country is a two-party system. ... That has led me to adopt more and more ideals of the Republican Party.”

As soon as she arrived on Davidson’s campus in the fall of 2017 (on a full merit scholarship to study history and Spanish), she sought out opportunities to engage politically. The first she found: a meeting of the Davidson chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a conservative student advocacy organization. She felt welcomed and accepted by organizers and other right-leaning students, but as it ended, Pillai says a group of students sitting in the back of the classroom turned out to be there just to “infiltrate” the meeting, and that they proceeded to confront and loudly chastise her. “‘All you guys are privileged and don’t care about what blacks and Latinos need in this country, nor at this campus,’” she says they said to her, adding that the individuals were people of color. “It really made me realize, ‘Wow, this is how divisive the rhetoric that’s being spewed from the national level has gotten, and it’s been filtered down all the way to a college campus of less than 2,000 students.’ ... There are very valid reasons as to why they feel that way. However, it’s not right for those individuals to make a broad statement that we do not care about minority races. “Especially in my case, because I am a minority.”

She says the confrontations and the chastising continued, with some criticizing her because of her minority status. It didn’t take long, she says, for her to feel like she didn’t belong at Davidson. (A spokesperson for Davidson emailed a statement to the Observer, saying: “(The) purposeful diversity of backgrounds (on campus) brings different life experiences and perspectives and, with that, different views and a lot of debate. That is as it should be. Learning is about confronting ideas different from your own, the courage to defend your position and recognizing when new information leads you to look at an issue differently.”) One month in, Pillai says, she was considering transferring.

What she was walking into

In the years leading up to Pillai’s arrival, the conservative movement at this liberal-arts school went boom — and then it went bust. When Elizabeth Wright took over as president of the College Republicans after arriving at Davidson as a freshman in 2013, the club had only about 20 members. Over the next three years, as interest in political engagement grew nationwide, membership grew to about 115, according to The Washington Post. But as the 2016 presidential election neared, Wright steered the group toward making the controversial decision to not endorse Donald Trump — joining a small group of conservative clubs on college campuses that had taken a stand against the billionaire businessman. Their decision had consequences: The students in the club who did support Trump subsequently defected to Davidson’s YAF chapter. By the end of the school year, enthusiasm among the remaining College Republicans members had waned significantly, according to multiple student leaders. “There was sort of like a limbo there,” says one of them, senior Joe DeMartin, president of the school’s student-run Center for Political Engagement. Over the next two years, he says, “They were just not very focused as a club, and they didn’t hold many events or much outreach. ... I mean, the point of a College Republicans club is to get students energized in local races. They weren’t doing that.” Then, late last summer, Maya Pillai decided she wanted to resurrect it.

Struggling to find her place

Though she found herself wrestling with whether or not Davidson was the right place for her just one month into her freshman year, Pillai stayed partly because she “didn’t want to have to go through the whole college application process again” — but mainly because her scholarship covered the majority of the school’s $68,000-per-year cost. She decided she couldn’t turn down the money. But she says she continued to pay a steep price for aligning with YAF, which infamously had stirred up its own controversy the semester before Pillai’s arrival by circulating a video in which unwitting students and faculty were asked to sign a petition to support “GPA redistribution.” (Some actually signed. It was a hoax.)

Pillai says verbal attacks like the one she was the target of after that first YAF meeting continued, “strictly based on my political views.” She says while they’ve mainly come from other students, “even some faculty, to an extent,” were unwelcoming. “They did not name-call me directly. Just conservatives in general. The same epithets were said: ‘Conservatives are racists, sexists, bigots. The Republican Party is full of old, white men.’”

She thought studying abroad for a full year (a summer in Spain and a fall in Peru through Davidson, then a spring in Greece through Pennsylvania-based Arcadia University to finish up her sophomore year) would be an escape; but she alleges that she was largely ostracized from the Davidson students in those programs due to her viewpoints.

Still, she maintained a passion for GOP involvement, and after returning from overseas in the spring of 2019, Pillai joined the Mecklenburg County Young Republicans club and started volunteering on Dan Bishop’s campaign. An introvert who had finally found a place where she felt she belonged, she quickly developed an impressive network of local and state Republican leaders, from Mecklenburg County Republican Party chairman Chris Turner to former Gov. Pat McCrory. Every candidate she met told her the same thing: They hoped to see more college students turn out to support the Republican ticket — especially from Davidson, it being a prestigious school in a competitive legislative district. President of Charlotte Meck Republican Women and me with Gov. McCrory .jpg Maya Pillai with former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and Ashley Bookout, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Republican Women. Courtesy of Maya Pillai So she returned to campus in August re-energized, moving on from YAF (which was focused on international events and U.S. policy) to revive the College Republicans, confident that a strong club potentially could help GOP candidates win close races both locally and statewide. Oh, and another thing: Trump supporters were welcome in the club again.

Her thoughts on Trump Truth be told, Pillai has struggled with mixed feelings about the president. Here is a sampling. “He’s not a career politician. We see (people on both sides) get re-elected again and again. This results in the power going to their heads and of course, the lobbying interests being furthered, et cetera. Additionally, he’s very blunt and honest. He is certainly not a people-pleaser. If he doesn’t like someone or is not satisfied with the way something is done, he will ruffle a few feathers on purpose. This is rare in politics. Usually, we see politicians people-pleasing and pandering left and right in order to further an agenda (or) lobbying interest.” But: “There are certain things that he’s said over his first term, such as derogatory comments towards (African nations being ‘----hole’ countries), and certain rhetoric that he has spewed towards the immigrant community, such as Mexicans, for example, or individuals from Central and South America. (That is) the kind of rhetoric that I do not agree with. It is definitely a mischaracterization of those specific demographics.” “President Trump loves the U.S. He actually has respect for this country and truly has the country’s best interests at heart. He goes out of his way to honor our veterans’ sacrifices, for example. He wants to see the American people and the U.S. economy prosper.” But: “I do not support Trump’s border wall. I think that is an ineffective policy. Additionally, his stance on reducing the number of migrants and asylum seekers the U.S. allows is wrong. ... Their stories are tragic and I feel that the U.S. should provide some recourse to them.” Despite her misgivings, she says she’ll vote for Trump in November without hesitation. “He’s going to be the nominee, and because of that, I feel that, yes, I should vote for the candidate that my party is promoting. “I would never switch my vote over to (Vice President Joe) Biden.”

A tumultuous junior year

Bringing the Davidson College Republicans back from the dead wasn’t easy. This past spring semester, she says 10 to 12 people were attending the club’s meetings every two weeks — nothing to get too excited about, but a start nevertheless. (By comparison, College Democrats meetings typically drew 30 to 40 people last year, according to 2019-20 club president Cutler Renard.) Davidson College Republicans Meeting.jpg Maya Pillai, center, with other club members at a Davidson College Republicans meeting. Courtesy of Maya Pillai And Pillai’s individual star was rising, too: After pitching in on Tariq Bokhari’s campaign in the fall and making even more connections within the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, at the beginning of March, she was elected as an alternate delegate for the Republican National Convention, which at the time was scheduled to take place in uptown Charlotte in August. Between that and an internship she’d landed with the RNC, she was ecstatic about the prospect of playing some small role in what promised to be a historic summer for politics.

Then COVID-19 hit. Davidson dismissed students on March 12. The day after packing up her things and leaving her residence hall, Pillai — figuring at the time that things wouldn’t be shut down for too long — signed a lease on an apartment in Charlotte so she could be in position for her internship as soon as things started opening back up. But they didn’t. So, having followed the reports of rallies in downtown Raleigh staged by ReOpenNC in protest of Gov. Roy Cooper’s extension of his stay-at-home order until May 8, Pillai decided to organize a Reopen Meck rally in Charlotte. She says the May 1 event drew close to 400 people, and that she was “very adamant” about attendees wearing masks and practicing social distancing; in fact, whereas Raleigh protesters had gone face-to-face with Capitol Police officers, participants in Charlotte were encouraged to line up in a parade of cars, and she says most of them did. Pillai saw it as a huge success.

Some of her fellow students saw it much, much differently. ‘To some degree, it’s fair game’ “... It is clear that Pillai and other Reopen protesters believe that individual lives, particularly those who are Black, Brown, disabled, fat, or low-income, are expendable for the sake of America’s oppressive capitalist machine,” senior Meghan Rankins wrote in The Davidsonian. Davidson junior Snneha Saha penned another op-ed for the student newspaper, positing, “Is it really hard to believe that we will have several other students like her on campus every day?” The piece implied that Pillai and other students who supported reopening would put others at risk by gathering for parties at which social distancing did not apply. Pillai calls them “hit pieces,” saying they unfairly mischaracterize her beliefs — which, by the way, she says do include that wearing masks and social distancing is important.

Says Maya Pillai: “People ask me, ‘Well, what’s been your greatest memory at Davidson?’ I don’t have one. Because of my political affiliation it led to not having friends. And because it led to not having friends, it led to not having a fair reputation on campus. So I’ve been essentially outcast due to my political views.”

She also says she’s complained to the administration at Davidson. She alleges that it has not been supportive of her. In its statement to the Observer in response to Pillai’s claims, Davidson College wrote: “Federal privacy guidelines appropriately forbid us from discussing individual students, but Student Life staff work hard to address all student concerns promptly and appropriately. When students reach out, they receive thoughtful responses within hours, offering clear next steps designed to help the students address situations directly.” “It’s an election year, in a divided country,” the statement says. “Students who disagree will argue vehemently, all defending their positions. If they think a policy or comment is discriminatory they will say so. ... We encourage our students to engage in substantive, vigorous discussions and to listen to each other.”

Renard, the former Davidson College Democrats president who (according to both him and Pillai) had a good working relationship with Pillai, believes it is “fundamentally rude” to treat someone harshly because of their personal political views. But there’s a caveat, he says. “If you step forward and you make yourself into a public figure — and this would apply to someone on the progressive side, too — one of the natural costs is increased scrutiny. Maya put herself forward as a leader of that movement, and was very publicly known as that. So to some degree, it’s fair game.”

And the game is wearing on Pillai. So much so that she’s avoiding campus at most if not all costs this fall. What does the future hold? Since the high of the May 1 Reopen Meck rally, Pillai has had her share of lows this summer. In addition to the criticism from fellow students, her internship with the RNC evaporated after the convention was moved to Jacksonville (and then subsequently essentially canceled). Though some RNC business will still continue in person in Charlotte, the limited nature of the event means she’ll not get to participate in anything as an alternate delegate.

She will resume her role as president of the College Republicans, but all clubs are being strongly advised to not meet in person for now, and she elected to attend classes virtually instead of in-person this fall. “Davidson gave students the option,” Pillai says. “The main reason I decided to attend virtually is not entirely because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but because I am afraid of being targeted. ... If students have written these articles about me in the few months of being off campus, imagine what they will do to me on campus, when they see my face and see me walking around.” Just get through this last year, she keeps telling herself, then it’s on to law school.

But if you think by now that Pillai is serious about pursuing a career as an attorney, well, you haven’t been paying attention “You can use that expertise that you gain in law school,” she says, “whether it’s the critical thinking skills, or all these different skills that you learn and all these case studies that you do, to help you better understand different aspects and different issues that are occurring in your community, or in that district that you represent.” It seems pretty clear, but just to be sure, we ask her to spell it out for us. “Yes,” she says, with just the faintest smile creeping across her face. “I’m leaning more towards politics at this point.”