Poll Shows Sri Kulkarni in Virtual Tie with Incumbent Olson

Congressional Dist. 22 Democratic challenger Sri Preston Kulkarni at the recent Janamashtami celebration at the GRB Center with Sri Ravula dressed as Krishna.

Congressional Dist. 22 Democratic challenger Sri Preston Kulkarni at the recent Janamashtami celebration at the GRB Center with Sri Ravula dressed as Krishna.

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: It was a feat that many in the so far staunchly conservative district which has always sent a white candidate to Congress felt could not be done. Yet, this past May, despite infighting among a field of candidates, Sri Preston Kulkarni rallied his supporters to win the Democratic primary garnering 62.1% of the votes cast.

And in doing so, Kulkarni tapped into the imagination of Fort Bend County’s population, often called the most diverse county in the nation with near equal number of Asian, Hispanic, black and white residents among the 881,000 people who live there. Even in the gerrymandered 22nd Congressional District which meanders around like a twisting intestine from Pearland to south of Katy, the diversity of residents – 20 percent Asians, 25 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black and 41 percent white – is the greatest of any district in Texas.

Kulkarni, 39, himself is the product of a Marathi father and a white mother, as are his three other siblings. He is a former State Department diplomat who has served in Iraq, Israel, Russia, Taiwan and Jamaica and speaks Hindi, Spanish, Mandarin, Hebrew and Russian. This mixed background and his ability to relate to people of many cultures has endeared him in the minds of people of District 22 and Fort Bend, 25 percent of whom are foreign-born themselves. And it has also captivated the increasingly suave and cosmopolitan professionals of all races who live there.

Many have said that they are tired of the folksy and unsophisticated style of the man who Kulkarni will face in the November 6 midterm election, Republican Congressman Pete Olson, 55, who has been in office since 2009. A Navy pilot for nine years, Olson worked for former Texas Senator Phil Graham, then became Senator John Cornyn’s chief of staff before running for the seat in Congress. He has won by landslides with an average margin of 31 points.

Although Olson has wooed the South Asian community in the past 9 years, many are frustrated that he has not been able to deliver to them any significant seats at the table of governing councils nor championed any of their causes. They feel that Olson has but a superficial familiarity with the perspectives and values that permeate the diverse elements of their community. Far too many Asians has complained that they are tired of having to educate their elected officials in the ways of their cultures and the tide is moving to vote in those who understand their needs better. Their sentiment seems to be that although politicians tout the region’s diversity, they have not delivered any tangible benefits to the different communities here.

Kulkarni seems to innately understand that need and points to data that exemplifies just that. In the primary election Asian voter participation jumped to 28 percent from only 6 percent four years earlier. Also, a recent poll by Change Research commissioned by his campaign showed that when people learnt about his background and his message, the margin of victory against Olson decreased to 1 percent. “That makes it virtually neck-to-neck,” exclaimed Kulkarni recently at an Eid-Al-Adha celebration this past weekend. “We have to make sure that we get our message out to everyone.”

The phone banks at Kulkarni’s campaign headquarters in Sugar Land reflect the diverse community he hopes to lead after the election and their enthusiasm for his race is palpable as they spread his message. Kulkarni recently returned from a visit to the Bay Area where he shared his experience in garnering the hopes and aspirations of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural base. If it works, it’ll be a recipe for victory that many other minority candidates will be sure to emulate.