Unorthodox outreach in one of the most diverse districts in America
In one corner, jokes are flying back and forth in Chinese. Frustration with Donald Trump is being discussed in Hindi in another section of the room. A few seats over, a plea to get out the vote is being delivered in Malay.
Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni describes the mix of languages in his campaign office as “really beautiful,” but it represents more than that: It’s also the core of his longshot bid to unseat 5-term Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Olson in one of the most diverse congressional districts in the nation.
Once a week, dozens of campaign volunteers from Fort Bend, Brazoria and Harris counties assemble on the third floor of a nondescript office building in Sugar Land to call potential voters in more than a dozen languages. On the walls are reminders of outreach efforts planned for the Nepalese, Salvadoran, Sri Lankan, and Turkish communities, among dozens of others.
“What languages do you speak?” Kulkarni field director Emily Isaac asks as volunteers step off the elevator.
Kulkarni, who speaks a half-dozen languages himself, including Hindi, Hebrew and Russian, said people have questioned the time and resources he’s pouring into an effort to reach out to immigrant communities that often don’t make it to the polls.
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“I’ve had consultants tell me this isn’t going to work, that it’s going to be too low of a return on investment to try to talk to people in different languages,” Kulkarni said. “Some have said don’t bother with Asian-American voters because they don’t vote. And I said, ‘Maybe they don’t vote because we don’t bother to reach out to them.’”
Kulkarni, 39, sees the outreach as critical to pulling off what would be one of the biggest upsets in Texas. Olson won his 2016 re-election by 19 percentage points over Democrat Mark Gibson.
“The demographic changes have been huge,” Kulkarni said of a district that was originally drawn a decade ago with the hopes of assuring a Republican would carry it. Then, District 22 had 700,000 residents.
But it has grown more than any congressional district in Texas, swelling to more than 881,000, according to the U.S. Census. And foreign-born residents make up a sizable part of that growth. According to Census data, one-quarter of the residents of the district are foreign-born — the second-highest percentage in the state, behind the neighboring 7th Congressional District in Houston.
More than 167,000 residents of District 22 identify as Asian, nearly 20 percent of the population. No other district in Texas comes close. The statewide average is about 4.5 percent. The district is 25 percent Hispanic and 14 percent black.
Fort Bend County: Diverse and well-educated
At the core of the district is Fort Bend County, which has been called the most ethnically diverse county in the nation by Rice University’s Steve Klineberg of the the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
Klineberg said Fort Bend has nearly equal shares of Asian, Hispanic, black and white residents. It has nearly doubled in population since 2000, largely due to immigration. What makes the growth even more unique is its saturation of residents with higher education and professional skills, he said. About 45 percent of the residents over age 25 have college degrees, according to the U.S. Census. The national average is 30 percent.
Kulkarni said those demographics tell him he has a shot if he reaches out to those communities in a way few political campaigns have. His father was of Indian descent and Kulkarni spent more than 14 years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department, serving overseas in Iraq, Israel, Russia, Taiwan, and Jamaica. He speaks Spanish and Mandarin in addition to Hindi, Hebrew and Russian.
He said he loved his job with the State Department, but became increasingly alarmed at the divisions he felt Donald Trump was creating back home. He points to the white supremacists rally in Charlottesville — his mother’s hometown — as a turning point.
“I was compelled to do something about it,” said Kulkarni, who grew up in Houston and is a graduate of the University of Texas.
Speaking to people in their native languages is the key to bridging cultural differences, Kulkarni says. It’s not that immigrants can’t speak English, he says, but it is a powerful way to demonstrate respect for them: “You’re signaling to them that you care about their community and we have a connection.”
It’s that message that helped Kulkarni prevail in a five-way primary election. He said his data showed Asian voter participation jumped to 28 percent in the district compared to just 6 percent four years earlier.
But past election cycles show Kulkarni faces a steep task.
Olson’s average margin of victory: 31 percentage points
Since Olson, 55, was elected in 2008, the former Air Force pilot has won every re-election by a landslide. His average margin of victory over his Democratic challengers has been 31 percentage points.
After 9 years in the Navy, Olson worked for former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm and later became U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s chief of staff before winning his seat in Congress.
Olson has invested in his own outreach programs for years to work with his increasingly diverse constituents, including creating advisory groups for the Indo-American and Asian-American communities. He said he makes it a priority to attend cultural events, speak to minority-owned business leaders and be in the community as much as possible.
“I’ve committed my time to understand and receive guidance from everyone whom I am honored to represent,” Olson said in a statement.
Olson says being deployed overseas in the military and working in Congress have sent him to the Middle East, India, China and Japan, travels that gave him an in-depth understanding of U.S. relationships around the world.
“I’m proud to represent one of the most diverse congressional districts in America and greatly value the contributions each community makes in adding to the rich tapestry of our region,” Olson said.
Olson has been a reliably conservative vote in Congress, earning high marks from groups like the Americans for Prosperty and Club For Growth.
Some national political experts are changing their forecasts for the race as they watch Kulkarni’s unique outreach effort and analyze Trump’s underperformance in the district in 2016. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which tracks competitive congressional races across the country, last month moved the race from being solid Republican to “likely Republican,” calling the move a “precaution” based on Republican vulnerabilities in the Houston suburbs.
And just on Friday, at the Cook Political Report, longtime analyst David Wasserman for the first time put the district on his watch list of competitive races.
“Kulkarni’s challenge will be to motivate the district’s young and non-white voters, who have a poor track record of showing up in midterm elections,” Wasserman said. “His diverse heritage could help. It’s still a long shot for Democrats, but one to watch in a wave.”
The 2016 presidential election shows some favorable winds for Kulkarni. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried the district by 25 percentage points. But in 2016, Trump won the district by 8 percentage points. Republicans say that gap is still too big to make the race anything more than a longshot concern.
While Olson has won past re-elections easily, he hasn’t faced someone like Kulkarni, says Padma Srinivasan, one of the dozens of volunteers who spent a Thursday night in August calling voters in Hindi.
“No matter what the language of the voting public, he can connect with them,” she said.
“No other candidate can do this, he is very unique,” adds Ling Luo, chairman of the Asian American Democratic Club in Houston, who speaks fluent Chinese and attests to Kulkarni’s command of the language.
If Kulkarni wins, it would be historic in that Texas has never elected an Asian-American to Congress. And he would join just 12 current U.S. House members that are of Asian-American descent.