You might recognize Sri Preston Kulkarni as one of the background actors in Billy Bob Thornton’s 2004 The Alamo. But it’s more likely, if you follow politics, that you know him as the Asian-American who in 2018 almost single-handedly upset incumbent Republican Congressman Pete Olson and came within less than five percentage points of turning the 22nd Congressional District blue.
And this year, he just might do it.
“When I started running in 2018,” Kulkarni says, “I was literally one person working out of my cousin’s living room, calling people I knew in the community to see if they were interested in what I had to say. A true grassroots movement grew out of that, and while we absolutely retain that mentality, we now have a great deal more resources to bring to the fight.”
And a lot of those resources come from the national stage. A press release earlier this year from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee stated, “When he ran for this seat in 2018—campaigning in 16 languages across a quickly-diversifying district—Sri expanded the electorate, grew the Asian-American vote, and came within 14,000 votes of defeating Congressman Pete Olson.”
The 22nd District encompasses parts of Fort Bend, Harris, and Brazoria counties, and is an open seat this year after Olson announced his retirement. Kulkarni’s campaign is considered one of the top-tier red-to-blue races in the country.
The 42-year-old was born in Louisiana, but his family moved to Houston when he was a toddler. His father, Venkatesh Kulkarni, was an India-born novelist who taught creative writing at Rice University. His mother, Margaret Preston, is related to Sam Houston.
“As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, I studied linguistics, and I also studied abroad in Moscow in 2000, the year Putin came to power,” Kulkarni recalls. “I saw firsthand the damage that corrupt leadership could do to society. It inspired me to serve my country, and do so in a way that not only safeguarded our institutions, but also strengthened our global relationships and promoted our values.”
After getting a Master of Public Administration degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Kulkarni spent 14 years in the Foreign Service. “While serving our country overseas in the Foreign Service, it was my job to promote American values like free and fair elections, protection for minorities, and gender equality,” he notes. “Over the last few years, all of those things have been attacked at home, culminating with our government’s response to the deadly Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017. That was when I decided that our current government did not represent me, or any of us.”
That shameful 2017 episode prompted Kulkarni to return home to Sugar Land and run for Congress in 2018. He’s been living off of retirement savings while he focuses on his second race. His mother and sister are helping with the campaign, which is vastly different than his first run because of the pandemic.
“The focus of this campaign shifted immediately to protecting the community,” Kulkarni says. “This means finding and disseminating information on critical topics through virtual town halls and our website, organizing and participating in supply drives for food and PPE, and setting an example by following science and evidence-based guidelines. We suspended all in-person events and now do everything virtually—phone banks, interacting with voters, wellness checks, town halls, a virtual campaign academy, and more. Our focus is on the health and safety of our community.”
Kulkarni is facing Republican Sheriff Troy Nehls in this race. “Troy Nehls owes the voters of our district a lot of explanations,” Kulkarni says. “He was fired from a previous job as a police officer for numerous citations of misconduct that included destroying evidence, improper arrests, and obstructing another officer. Since being elected sheriff, he has used his power to go after political enemies. In April, he called the face-mask mandates ‘un-American’ and ‘communist,’ attacking public officials who were trying to control the virus. He said then that the worst of the pandemic was past us. He owes voters an explanation for his record, and why he feels it’s appropriate to play political games with Texans’ lives. So far, he has refused every invitation to a debate or public forum. He refuses to answer for his record, and he thinks that he can win this race by hiding from voters.”
Kulkarni’s key issues are jobs and the economy, health care, veterans, gun violence, flooding, police accountability, and anti-racism.
And he has a lot to offer the LGBTQ community.
“As a member of Congress, I will continue to raise issues of equal rights, just as I have done in my overseas tours to countries such as Jamaica, which still have sodomy laws,” Kulkarni says. “I will also ensure that my staff is representative of the diversity of my district, including the LGBT community, and that I have an open door to the entire community to discuss issues of equality and discrimination.”
He also vows to speak out against hate crimes and push for more resources to investigate them.
Following the divisive 2016 presidential campaign, Kulkarni and a Republican friend founded Breaking Bread, a program to reduce partisan hostility.
“I want to start Breaking Bread in Congress, because the gridlock and polarization of the past decade can’t continue,” he says. “Taking a step back and relearning how to relate to one another in such a polarized, divided environment is essential to moving forward.”
For more information on Sri Kulkarni, visit sri2020.com.
This article appears in the October 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.