By STEFAN MODRICH
The race to succeed retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Olson to represent District 22 in Washington is among the most high-profile political battles in Fort Bend County history.
With just nine days remaining until Election Day, many experts have regarded the high-stakes election between Republican Troy Nehls and Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni in the nation’s most diverse county as a bellwether for which way the state will vote in the presidential election.
Both candidates were sent the same set of questions via email. Nehls, the outgoing Fort Bend County Sheriff, did not respond to attempts to reach him via email or phone call and when approached Monday for an interview outside Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land, declined to comment.
GBAO, a Democratic-leaning polling firm, gave Kulkarni a 5 point edge over Nehls, 48 percent to 43 percent in an Oct. 12 poll.
Kulkarni has 14 years of experience in the U.S. Foreign Service, working in Iraq and Russia. He said he had planned to stay in foreign service for the rest of his life, but he felt that the response by President Donald Trump and his administration to the white supremacist rallies that took place in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017 compelled him to run to represent his community.
“I realized I couldn’t in good conscience serve an administration that didn’t represent me or my values,” Kulkarni said. “So, I decided to resign and return home to fight for true representation for my community.”
The Houston native is a direct descendant of Sam Houston and speaks five foreign languages, including Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Russian and Hebrew. The linguistic diversity has been a notable aspect of Kulkarni’s outreach, communicating with potential voters in 27 different languages, including Hindi, Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Gujarati, Tamil, and more.
“Our minority communities have been ignored by politicians for decades, and it is time they are given a seat at the table,” Kulkarni said. “Although COVID-19 has greatly reduced our ability to meet with the community, we’re still making an effort to stay connected to different cultural groups. We’re holding early voting events with various communities—including Gujarati, Latino, Malayali, and Korean communities.”
Asked how he would reach across the aisle to work with his political opponents, Kulkarni said he would draw on his experience in conflict resolution and negotiations as a foreign service officer.
“I know the value and importance of compromise and cooperation,” Kulkarni said. “I sat with parties that hated each other, and still managed to strike compromises that saved lives, ended bloodshed, and created peace. Similarly, in Congress, I know that my job isn’t to score political points, but to do what is right for my community. I won’t be focused on moving right or left, but forward.”
He also served in the U.S. Senate as an advisor on foreign policy, defense, and veterans affairs in New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office, writing legislation concerning American national security and international priorities, which he said helped him understand the legislative process and prepared him to serve in Congress.
“When I was working in the Senate, I hosted a breaking bread series with my Republican colleagues to discuss kitchen table issues over meals,” Kulkarni said. “While we did not often see ideologically eye to eye, we would use the time to find common ground.”
Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, said he was surprised Kulkarni appears to have made the race with Nehls so close.
“That’s a bizarre race. I would never have thought that Sri Kulkarni would, how do I put this, be favored,” Stein said. “It’s close. It’s incredibly close. Nehls doesn’t seem to have much money. I cannot seem to figure that out. The national party hasn’t been putting in the money. They’ve put in PAC money. It’s an extremely ugly race (in terms of negative ads).”
Stein also said the numbers he’s seeing in terms of early voting and mail-in voting seem to be decidedly in favor of Fort Bend County continuing to turn Democrat, a similar trend to the big shift in 2018 when KP George was elected as county judge and Olson held off Kulkarni by a fairly small margin. He said it also speaks to the continued influx of Asian-American and South Pacific residents who are having more and more of a voice politically.
Kulkarni could also benefit from the endorsement of former President Barack Obama and the boost of having former Vice President Joe Biden and California U.S. Senator Kamala Harris at the top of the ticket, similar to “the Beto effect” George and other down ballot candidates benefitted from when U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso challenged incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in 2018.
Stein added the fact Harris County will be decidedly Democrat could hurt Nehls, since his race includes parts of Harris County and much of Fort Bend County. Stein expects Biden to win Harris County by 20 percentage points or more.
Olson has maintained a low profile as the race heats up to determine his successor. He initially backed Pierce Bush, a nonprofit executive and the grandson of George H.W. Bush and nephew of George W. Bush and Jeb Bush. Nehls defeated Bush in the primary and earned more than 40 percent of the vote.
But Olson did eventually align with Nehls, though he thought Bush had the best chance to win the district.
“I expect Troy Nehls to take my place and become the next congressman from Texas 22. He’s got my support and my big ol’ contribution,” Olson said.
Olson said he believes the Democratic party is being pulled further to the left than Americans are willing to go.
“The bottom line is the American people do not want socialism,” Olson said. “Most Democrats are getting pulled down that route. Joe Biden’s going way left. They’re going way off the rails.”
Nehls and Kulkarni notably clashed in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic over their differing views on mask mandates. Nehls opposes gun control and banning fossil fuels, while Kulkarni supports gun control and plans to invest in renewable and nuclear energy infrastructure.
On the subject of healthcare, Kulkarni supports a public option and Medicaid expansion, while allowing people to keep their private insurance. Nehls said he would seek to build bipartisan support for “increased healthcare offerings while protecting those with preexisting conditions, protecting Medicare and Social Security, protecting Medicaid, and protecting private insurance.”
The two candidates seem to have found more common ground, in broad strokes, in the area of law enforcement and criminal justice reform.
Nehls instituted recidivism reduction programs designed to assist non-violent inmates with HVAC and welding skills training courses to help them find employment upon release.
Kulkarni said he supports the use of body cameras on police officers and sensitivity training, and would also push to ban chokeholds and end qualified immunity, a policy that protects police officers that have committed acts of injustice from being prosecuted, if elected.
“I respect our law enforcement wholeheartedly — the police officers I’ve met are some of the bravest Americans I’ve had the privilege of knowing,” Kulkarni said. “I do not support defunding the police. I am unequivocal in my stance on this issue. However, we must acknowledge that many Americans—especially Black and Brown Americans—have suffered at the hands of police officers that have acted unfairly. Police brutality is a huge issue our communities face and we have to invest in solutions that provide much needed justice and protection for the Black community without hindering the ability of police officers to do their jobs.”