An infectiousness laces Sri Preston Kulkarni’s speech. A laugh in the voice and an enthusiasm which, when translated to the written word, would demand most sentences end with an exclamation mark. Message in hand, he is prone to nudging the conversation there in a keen but affable manner – hallmarks of a good diplomat. He is also a listener, a positive trait if a politician is to be viewed as sincere.
Sri, short for Srinivas, is taking his second shot at Texas’ 22nd congressional seat which he lost narrowly in 2018 to Republican incumbent Pete Olsen. On March 3, the Indian American candidate won the primary, securing a convincing victory. Micro targeting immigrant and neglected communities, the polyglot reached the voters in 13 languages, identified the social media specific to each – Indians on Whatsapp, Chinese on WeChat – generating an enviable turnout and creating mimickers across the U.S. this election season.
Today, he is considered among the top 10 races to watch in the country.
Kulkarni, 41, was born in Louisiana and raised in Houston, the city of his forbearer Sam Houston, whose descendent is his mother Margaret. A formative period in his life was when his father Venkatesh, a professor and intellectual at Rice University, was diagnosed with cancer. Slammed with medical bills that ran to almost a $1 million, Sri dropped out of college. His mother wrote that he “took on many of his father’s responsibilities, such as supporting his younger siblings. I have never been more proud of my son in my life for his love, gentleness, compassion, vigilance, and tireless efforts.”
Later, fulfilling one of his father’s dreams, Kulkarni went on to Harvard University and the Foreign Service. Finding it difficult to defend the Trump administration’s policies, especially over race and immigration, he quit to run for office as a Democrat.
The gerrymandered district which includes a swathe of the Greater Houston metropolitan area, most of the cities of Sugar Land and Missouri City, has in the past sent to Washington the likes of Ron Paul and Tom DeLay. Trying to buck that trend, Kulkarni is now positioned as the frontrunner against Trump supporter and Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls. Excerpts from candidate Kulkarni’s conversation with India-West:
Q: What did you experience as a diplomat when Trump came to office that made it untenable for you?
A: During lunch people would talk in whispers about headlines of the day. There was a sense that political appointees would report back. This was obviously not paranoia as now everyone knows Rudy Guliani was having the ambassador in Ukraine tailed. Trump has had a chilling effect. While I was messaging that in Venezuela we support the people and were not intervening, Trump announced that all options were on the table. There were and are no working policies, just his whims. I have worked on countering Russian misinformation…the news of the bounties on our soldiers sickens me to my stomach.
Q: Is Texas turning blue this cycle?
A: I think based on the numbers this is happening. We have the biggest blue shift in the country and we are one of the top races. If the immigrant community comes out to vote then this will happen, absolutely.
Q: So what does it say that here you are seeking to represent a diverse constituency and on the GOP side there were two “Trumpians” in the runoff after having bested moderates like Pierce Bush (nephew of George W Bush)?
A: Look, our district in 2018 got the first Indian American judge (K.P. George) and there are African Americans here making history. I will be the first person of color to represent this district. Two things are happening here. One, the representation is catching up with the changing demographic of the population. The second is that people are disappointed and disaffected with the GOP’s extremism, like sending the military into cities. People are turned off.
Q: With things going largely digital how have you restructured your campaign?
A: We have a virtual town hall each week where we are open to any questions. We are excited to have organized a virtual campaign academy and just graduated 56 volunteers after a five-week course.
Q: What did they learn?
A: How to organize within the community, email messaging, the conduct of Zoom meetings and phone banking. There are times when we call in, in eight or nine languages. If someone can speak Gujarati or Tamil, they work with a list of Gujarati and Tamil speaking voters. I say this campaign is powered by aunties! I am happy and thankful they are always ready and eager to make calls and talk to voters. It is a grass roots approach.
Q: Through micro targeting, what have you found to be the concerns of the Indian American that are different from, say, the Korean or Vietnamese American?
A: The hotel and motel industry is big here and they have been harmed by the pandemic. They are looking for support. Everyone can see how some of the stimulus checks were going to those who didn’t need it. The H-1B visa issue is huge; it is the engine that powers this district. But there are also a number of issues that are of common concern like healthcare and the food service industry.
Q: Do Indian American voters place issues pertaining to India ahead of what affects their lives here?
A: I would say there is diversity. Some watch only Indian television and tend to be interested in reactions to what they hear. Part of our effort is to tell them we breathe, drive and drink the water here. There are others who are active about issues here. For instance, parents who moved to the area so their kids could have a good education. After the mass shooting right outside the district (El Paso, August 2019), they want to know how their children will be protected.
Q: What did you make of the announcement on international students having to leave the country if classes were to be online?
A: In the first place, my father came here as a student. Many changes have happened in immigration that has allowed us to come here and be here. This is about racial equality. In 1969 my father was a guest speaker at an event in Louisiana but when he visited the bathroom he was told he was in the wrong one. After George Floyd’s burial in the district there is a lot more talk on racism. There is a clear choice now and it cannot be the anti-immigrant GOP.
Q: Have you felt the lash of racism?
A: I have been called a carpet bagger. There are comments about not belonging, not being native, which is extremely difficult to hear when you are born here and this is your home. But you don’t get mad, just involved in the political process and fight for what is right.
Q: And your family traces its lineage back to Sam Houston…
A: (Laughs) In 2018, I was at a polling station and in the parking lot met a voter who said he liked me but he had to vote Republican as his people were from among the first 120 families in history to settle here. He told me it was a matter of survival! I told him my relation was an immigrant in 1832. He could not connect the dots. The name was foreign and the face was brown! It just means he doesn’t know the history of America. Immigration and interaction has made America strong and innovative.
Q: With statues being pulled down how would you feel if something were to come up about your ancestor?
A: No one is perfect. History is complex and it’s important to contextualize with education. Statues and flags don’t teach history. The statues of (Robert) Lee or the name Fort Hood (John Bell) don’t educate but represent. Growing up I saw the Confederate flag everywhere, a symbol honoring white supremacy. Germany does not have Nazi flags and statues of Hitler. I wear two bands on my wrist. One represents Gandhiji and his ideas of racial togetherness, and the other, John Kennedy, who was not perfect but inspired the moon landing, arts and more. Representations have to be positive.
Q: Tell us about your interest in languages?
A: Language gives access to the soul of a community. My father spoke Telugu and Marathi. I wish I could speak it like he did. Whichever country I served in, it offered an opportunity, a window to learn and understand the people more.
Q: Your early years were fraught…what is the lesson you would want young people to learn from your life?
A: When you are young you have all these goals but as we are finding out now during the pandemic, it is relationships that matter most. At one point after my dad passed, we had no money, but friends and community helped us. The Indian American community is so connected. It’s one of the reasons we are successful. So I would say we should not attack each other but pull together with common interests in mind. My dad had advice about identity and would say, “Srinivas you are American, don’t let them tell you anything else.” People struggle with whether they are more Indian or American. I want kids to know they don’t have to choose. We are American and whatever we bring, yoga or music, we enrich our society.
Q: Have you traveled to India, visited your dad’s home?
A: Yes, I have. I have family in Hyderabad. I shaved off all my hair at Tirupati and then got the news that Pete Olsen had dropped out. Everyone told me it was Balaji’s blessings! I have also visited Chennai and Mumbai.
Q: Are your siblings involved in the campaign?
A: Oh my god! My siblings! If someone were to ask what the most valuable thing I have is, it would be them. There is no payment for running for office and it is a seven-day job. These guys have helped physically and emotionally.
Q: You are single.
A: (Pauses. Laughs) Yes! To be honest, the campaign takes all your time.