How Did Asian-American Voters Fail?

As Diwali, the Festival of Light is being celebrated by the Southeast Asian community across the US and the world, this year’s festival is particularly special, with Mrs. Kamala Harris, a daughter of an Asian immigrant, becoming the first woman vice president of America. Many Asian families justifiably feel exhilarated by her success and what our community can be proud of.

At the same time, we must recognize that not every Asian American candidate can claim this moment of victory as Mrs. Harris in this election. For example, although Texas is home to more than 1.5 million Asian Americans, there has never been anyone being elected to the US Congress from the community in Texas history. This year, the community could have made history with a highly qualified candidate, Sri Preston Kulkarni. Yet his bid to become the first Asian American Congressman in Texas failed again, after two attempts in 2018 and 2020 elections.

This has made the election night results particularly shocking, even more so as Biden in fact, won Fort Bend by 10% points or 38k votes in this election, compared to Clinton’s winning the county by 6% points and 17k votes in 2016. Even more stunning, Kulkarni’s opponent, Nehls on the Republican side, has a record of being a strong Trump supporter with his anti-immigrant, white supremacist, and build-the-wall agenda. In particular, he was fired from his previous police job for accruing some 18 misconduct violations. But how did a strong pro-Trump Republican manage to win this democratic, diverse, and minority-dominant county in the year 2020? This is something worth considering no matter which side you are on. 

Some of the reasons can be chalked up to standard campaign attacks. During early voting, almost $7 million in SuperPAC negative ads aimed at Kulkarni filled up Houston TV, youtube, and online media, funded by big dark money from GOP feeling threatened by unprecedented voter turnout in Texas. Flyers showing frightening and ghastly portraits of Kulkarni flooded voters’ mailboxes, vilifying him as a radical extremist, criminal, and socialist. People who have met Kulkarni knew that these attacks were baseless, outlandish, and deceptive, but the psychological trickery etched itself into the public perception..

It is unfortunate that a diverse, educated, increasingly progressive county will now be represented by someone who won using divisive politics that inflame inter-communal tension and purposefully undermine multiethnic coalitions. Despite the fact the district, now with the highest Asian American population in the southern US, has been under the Republican control for 40 years, we now again elected someone who marched in lockstep with Trump, who used anti-immigran and white supremacist rhetorics, who ran campaigns designed to divide minority communities from each other.

But who truly has benefited from the conflicts and who truly has lost? No, Kulkarni did not lose, neither was it a Democrats’ loss. It was us, the people, you and me, and our communities, who lost. We lost some valuable voting power with the opportunity to elect the first-ever Texas congressman who could represent our voices in our native languages. We lost someone who has sacrificed himself to stand up for our traditions and our values, and a role model who has inspired many young Asian students. So in the end, we voted against someone who we have wanted and pushed our children to be? A great irony but a lesson that must be recognized by the community which let itself fall victim to political deception and “Divide and Conquer” tactic.

Elections come and go. But perhaps, what we as a community can learn from this experience could stick with us and with our children. For their future does not have to depend on age-old Indian politics and British Raj, but what America is truly about. It is up to the younger generations of Asian Americans to define their destiny and what representatives they truly want in US Congress. Diwali is the time of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance. May we, as one people, transcend our past and self-interest, welcome a greater good and brighter future!

Dr. Helen Shih

Dr. Raja Muthupillai

Padma Srinivasan

Ranga Vasan

Harini Sampath

Kumudh Pulijal

Mr. M. Balakrishnan