On a recent night in San Francisco, the woman representing the Google engineer famously fired for arguing women aren’t genetically suited to work in tech doesn’t have it in her to attend a dinner of her peers. Those peers – other San Francisco judges and attorneys-run the spectrum, in her view, from liberal to far lefty. The sort of people she’s surrounded by and specializes in riling up. But it can be exhausting.
“If I go today, I’ll be devoured by judges and attorneys asking me how I could represent James,” Harmeet Dhillon says of the annual bar association dinner. This was in January, months after her new client, James Damore, became an inescapable flashpoint in the workplace-gender war. Dhillon had just finished an interview on Fox News, where she makes regular appearances. She ditched the dinner and sat down for another interview instead.
Dhillon is a Republican in the People’s Republic of Northern California. She’s an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, and one of three elected leaders of the state’s Republican National Committee.
She’s a free-speech lawyer who argues the University of California at Berkeley stifled the First Amendment when it bumped a speech by conservative Ann Coulter. She doesn’t believe in fake-news conspiracies and, in an appearance on Fox News, has denounced Robert Mueller’s investigation as “absolutely” corrupt. “I didn’t say Mueller was corrupt. But the investigation itself, it appears to be corrupt on many levels.”
“She’s a person of some dichotomy. On the one hand, she was on the board of the ACLU and fights for many individual rights,” says Neel Chatterjee, a San Francisco lawyer who’s known Dhillon since the 1980s. “On the other hand, she’s a staunch Republican Trump supporter.” And as Chatterjee notes: “She likes fighting political fights.”
“When Harmeet decided to lend her voice to the Trump campaign, there were, especially in the South Asian community, a lot of people who really questioned her integrity and her good faith,” says Paul Grewal, a childhood friend and Facebook Inc.’s general counsel. “She made very clear in the toughest moments of that campaign that what she was standing up for were her own conservative ideals.”
Dhillon, 49, is in America’s progressive hub summoning her own life experience to craft a novel legal argument that posits Damore in her own mold: a conservative in a liberal bubble demanding and using free-speech rights.
Dhillon won’t say whether she agrees with her client’s 3,000-word manifesto, the one Damore used to blast Google’s diversity policies before he was fired. In it he asserts, among other things, that biological variances are a likely explanation for Silicon Valley’s lopsided gender gap. But Dhillon does agree that Google’s work culture crushes conservative ideology while promoting a liberal echo chamber. That ethos, she argues, is ultimately what fueled her client’s termination.
Central to her case are a pair of 81-year-old sections of California’s Labor Code that prohibit employers from controlling employees’ political expression at work or firing them because of it. Where the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment ends, says Dhillon, California’s statute begins.
Dhillon argues that Google’s work culture changed in November 2016, after Trump’s electoral victory. Within days the reality of his victory set in, and many Google employees were in a panic, “having expected a different outcome fully in line with their political views,” Dhillon wrote in the 161-page complaint. The document mentions Trump nine times and uses the word “conservative” 101 times.
The lawsuit appears designed to maximally embarrass one of the world’s biggest companies. One section of her complaint-under the heading “Google Failed to Protect Employees from Workplace Harassment Due to Their Support for President Trump”-decries unnamed managers for sabotaging the careers of conservative employees while promoting like-minded progressives, and in another instance, Google employees allegedly encouraged “unambiguous social pecking” of conservative white men. Later, she accuses Google of welcoming a diverse realm of alternative lifestyles on its internal message boards, including mailing lists for employees identifying sexually as “yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin.” But, she notes, the tech giant neglected to create or encourage such a venue for “traditional monogamy.”
Dhillon says she’s the advocate for a true underdog here. While Google welcomes the “furries and transgender,” she says, conservative men are blacklisted. Among the loudest voices demanding social equality for conservative white males is, of course, President Trump.
Her approach to equality in Silicon Valley is an obvious deviation from the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that have dominated social media in tandem with growing calls for gender equality for women in tech, Hollywood and elsewhere. In fact, while Dhillon sues Google for plotting to hire and promote women instead of men, the U.S. Department of Labor has filed suit against the company for quite the opposite: not hiring enough women.
Dhillon describes them as two different problems. Finding more women in the industry is a pipeline challenge. So long as American universities are churning out four male tech candidates for every one woman, she says, the supply issue can’t be solved. To achieve balance in Silicon Valley, employers cannot stop hiring men: “That’s not legal.”
Her ideals were born out of her tiny hometown in rural North Carolina, at her dinner table where her devout parents taught her about tort reform, taxation and what it meant to be an immigrant in Jimmy Carter’s America. Coming from India’s socialized democracy in the 1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on the cusp of temporarily suspending the nation’s constitution, the idea of intense government intervention and regulation didn’t resonate with the tax-averse, gun-holding Dhillon family. They fled India for the United Kingdom, then to America’s promise of free-market capitalism, only to be miffed by the Carter administration’s tax rates on capital gains. Discussions often centered on the U.S. gas shortage, flaws in socialism, foreign policy and family values.
Senator Jesse Helms, a leading North Carolina conservative at the time, was central to the family’s political identity. As he spoke out against the Indian government’s persecution of Sikhs, he won favor with the Punjabi diaspora in his own backyard. In the 1980s the Dhillon household became a political hub for Helms, who found wealthy donors among the state’s hundreds of Sikh families.
While mulling her career path, Dhillon considered following her father into medicine. He never discouraged her, but he did describe surgery as physically taxing while asking her to contemplate her own physical strength and endurance. “Women have a lot of choices, and they frequently choose not to go into certain fields, which is totally legitimate,” she says.
“My father was a turban-wearing man of faith when he decided to be a Republican in a Democratically controlled, Klan-heavy state in the South.”
Instead, Dhillon studied classics at Dartmouth before going to law school at the University of Virginia. Her politics began to take shape as she served as editor-in-chief of the Dartmouth Review, a biweekly conservative newspaper, where in 1988 she published a satirical column likening the school’s president to Adolf Hitler. She told the New York Times then that the column sought to shine light on “liberal fascism,” while demonstrating how the school had mistreated conservative students.
Now, as a Republican Party official in California, she applies her professional stature as a free-speech lawyer to advocate for conservatives. For example: She’s representing the UC Berkeley students who are suing the school for snubbing Coulter.
Damore’s class-action case fits that mold, arguing that he and other conservatives have been ostracized because their ideology was “un-Googley” at a place where there’s an incentive for discriminating against whites, males and conservatives.
Dhillon was one of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s candidates to help run the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, and she was reportedly considered for other political appointments in California and D.C. Had she gotten the civil rights job, Dhillon says, she would have prioritized First Amendment violations against conservatives, chased down human traffickers and fought for free speech at abortion clinics.
“I’m a supporter of the administration and the president, and that’s my position. As a member of the RNC, if I couldn’t support them on important issues, then I would resign my position,” she says.
At a June 2016 Trump rally in San Jose, Dhillon witnessed city police ushering his supporters into the teeth of what would quickly boil over into a bloody confrontation with anti-Trump demonstrators. Stones and fists flew; red hats burned. The lawsuit, on behalf of 20 pro-Trump protesters, was Dhillon’s reintroduction to national politics. The headlines opened doors for Dhillon, making her a fixture on Fox News as its only South Asian contributor. (Dhillon defeated San Jose’s bid to dismiss the case, which is under appeal in federal court.)
Weeks after her Trump protest suit was filed, she offered a Sikh prayer to open the second day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, covering her head during the Punjabi invocation that sought holy protection and guidance for America to uphold the values of humility, truth and justice. Trump accepted the party’s nomination the next day. In response, she says, she received death threats from fellow Sikhs and Indians.
Dhillon is soft-spoken about the ways in which she differs from her party and, particularly, the president. She does say America needs immigrants-legal immigrants. She’d prefer to leave the government out of marriage and abortion rights. She hates talking about that time she wrote now-Democratic Senator Kamala Harris a $250 check for a city campaign. “It was a nonpartisan race,” she says, sounding like she has made this case before.
In 2012 she ran her only political campaign to date, vying for a seat in the California State Senate. She was trounced in San Francisco’s famed Castro neighborhood, but the 54,887 votes she won were the most ever for a Republican in the state’s 11th District. She credits that small victory and her subsequent success to bending her California environment to her family, her party and her own ideals.
“My father was a turban-wearing man of faith when he decided to be a Republican in a Democratically controlled, Klan-heavy state in the South,” she says. “I’m not Nikki Haley, and I’m not Bobby Jindal. I’ve never been looking to assume that assimilation mentality.”