More than any other race, the dead-heat competition in the state’s 22nd Congressional District embodies the tussle between old Texas and new Texas. The Republican candidate is a far-right, power-abusing, anti-mask, fired-cop controversy machine, the archetype of Trump-era conservatism. Democrats, on the other hand, have nominated a long-time State Department Foreign Service Officer who has fostered a huge coalition in a very diverse district.
Sri Preston Kulkarni, the Democratic candidate, first ran for this seat in the 2018 election, before it was clear that the state was trending blue. He spent over 15 years working overseas, mediating negotiations and peace deals between hostile nations. Once Trump took over, that job became more and more difficult — the United States was supposed to be a beacon of democracy, but it was starting to look and feel more like a troubled nation.
“After everything I’d seen, from [Trump’s] birther attacks and saying that Latinos are drug dealers and rapists, then the Muslim ban, then the Charlottesville Nazi rally, I just had to do something,” Kulkarni tells Progressives Everywhere. “I started out not thinking that this was winnable, I was doing because it was the right thing to do.”
He wasn’t really on the national Democratic Party’s radar — the DCCC was focused on flipping the House and prioritized the obvious swing districts. Left to figure it out on his own, Kulkarni decided that he’d expand the electorate in one of Texas’s most diverse districts.
Kulkarni’s campaign built the largest relational organizing program in the nation during that election cycle, with volunteers phone-banking in 13 different languages. By connecting with so many tight-knit communities within the district, the campaign became something of a community in and of itself.
“The third-largest language we speak in Texas is Vietnamese and Texas has the largest Muslim population out of any state in America — these are not stereotypes people have of Texas, but that’s what it looks like out here in the suburbs, and it’s just about getting them into the electorate,” he says. “Inclusion is what we do. By reaching out to people, showing up at mosques and temples and Chinese community centers, having volunteers to speak these languages and understand these cultures — that’s the only way you get change, through coalition building.”
In the end, Kulkarni came just a few points shy of a massive upset victory over Republican Rep. Pete Olson, and in fact gave him such a scare that Olson announced his retirement the following summer. Kulkarni quickly declared that he was going to run again to finish the job.
From the start, he focused his second campaign on issues such as affordable healthcare (the trauma of his family nearly going bankrupt when his dad got sick has stuck with him all these years later) and removing big money from politics (“the amount of time we spend fundraising is not healthy for democracy,” he says, “and I’ll push from day one to have publicly financed campaigns.”)
While Olson was certainly conservative, his 2020 Republican opponent, Troy Nehls, is (as I noted before) a far-right, power-abusing, anti-mask, disgraced-cop controversy machine. His record is appalling: Nehls was fired twice as a police officer for a litany of offenses; is being sued for overseeing a jail where a 15-year-old boy was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a volunteer and failing to act; and at the height of COVID-19 ravaging Texas, he decried a mandatory mask order as “communist.”
That last part shows just how disconnected he is from modern Texas and his district in particular, which is home to more doctors than any other district in the state. Kulkarni, on the other hand, can list off a whole litany of steps that need to be taken to both continue to protect people from a second wave and ultimately recover from the wreckage of the pandemic.
Letting science determine policy, helping small businesses and sole proprietors get the loans that the disastrous PPP largely denied them, supporting business relaunches, outfitting schools with the latest technology and ensuring that students have remote learning devices — it’s all there, ready for policy meetings as soon as he gets to Congress.
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He’s been able to keep tabs on what’s happening in his community despite the virus in large part thanks to the relational voter program that the campaign maintained and expanded this cycle. It’s once again the largest in the country and has proven a lifeline for so many people in the district during the pandemic. The plan is to ensure that it continues to do so for the long term.
“We don’t want to just win an election on November 3rd, we want to have the largest community organizing project that we’ve ever had here,” Kulkarni says. “That means that everybody in the community knows they have a voice and they can communicate through those leaders directly up to Washington, DC, in the highest halls of power. And when we have something that we’ve done for them, we pass that message back through the community so that they don’t feel separated from their elected representatives in Washington, because that’s how you lose faith in democracy and your representatives. We have to restore faith in democratic institutions.”
Right now, the race is officially listed as a toss-up. Let’s help Kulkarni get over the finish line and turn Texas blue.