Nathan Truong was teaching in Taiwan the day that Donald Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 presidential election. At 26, he’d grown up in Sugar Land, Texas, long the bastion of notorious Texas political boss Tom DeLay, so he was no stranger to the triumph of reactionary politics. But something about Trump was different and when Truong returned home, he was determined to do something about it.
Truong, 26, managed to link up with the congressional campaign of Sri Preston Kulkarni in Texas’s 22nd District. Truong didn’t recognize the radical nature of what he was about to engage in; he just considered it common sense. “If a block walker looks like the constituent, they’re more willing to listen,” Truong said.
Truong, who is Vietnamese-American, is now part of a sophisticated new experiment to target and turn out historically non-voting Asian-Americans by reaching them precisely where they are.
Kulkarni, a 40-year-old Democrat, is facing incumbent Rep. Pete Olson in November, armed with a multilingual, multigenerational, multicultural battery of dedicated volunteers, in a rapidly changing district that national Democrats had long ignored, but suddenly believe is flippable. On Wednesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee broke a long silence and put Kulkarni on their coveted “Red to Blue” list. “Sri has put together a strong, people-powered campaign that makes this race competitive,” said DCCC chair Ben Ray Luján in a statement.
That may be something of an understatement. The campaign has held phone banks in 13 languages, including six major dialects spoken in India and a Nigerian language called Igbo. Organizers have dispatched volunteers to micro-target tiny communities. It has taken a street-by-street approach to outreach that has already paid dividends. When Kulkarni defeated four challengers for the Democratic nomination, his campaign’s internal figures show that they increased the Asian-American percentage of the primary electorate from 6 percent in 2014, the last midterm election, to 28 percent in 2018.
If Kulkarni succeeds, his tactics will become a model for how to target communities that historically don’t vote, primarily because nobody has ever tried to engage them in politics.
Along the way, volunteers have broken out of their clusters and gained a cultural education of their own. “All the people I’ve met I never knew before January,” said Renée Mathew, an empty-nest mother and precinct chair in Sugar Land. “Whatever happens on November 6, we’re going to still be here. We’re all connected in an amazing way.”
Along the way, Kulkarni’s campaign is challenging the popular mythology of Texas. Olson has derided Kulkarni as an “Indo-American who’s a carpetbagger,” but it is Olson who’s the relative newcomer. Kulkarni’s family can trace its lineage back to migrants from the 1600s — and he is descended directly from the founding father of Texas, Sam Houston. Texas: It’s complicated.
The breadth of this organizing is necessitated by the astonishing growth in Fort Bend County, a suburban ring outside Houston that’s home to 80 percent of the district, as sugar cane farms and open fields have given way to master-planned subdivisions. Good schools and several major arteries to downtown Houston have attracted young families. In 1990, the population of Fort Bend County was a little over 225,000. By 2017, it stood at nearly 765,000, a gain of 239 percent in 27 years. Estimates say it will be 2.1 million by 2050.
Texas’s 22nd Congressional District, eight years after reapportionment in 2010, now has 897,000 residents, making it the largest congressional district in America by population, outside of the state of Delaware. The demographic makeup — 90 percent suburban, well-educated, and above average in median household wealth — mirrors the kinds of districts that national Democrats have been contesting in 2018. And the shifting political tastes here are apparent. In 2016, Trump won TX-22 by 8 points, a 17.5 point swing from Mitt Romney’s victory over Barack Obama in 2012. That’s one of the largest congressional district swings in the country, and now two more years’ worth of new residents have moved in.
The difference — and perhaps the reason why national Democrats have been slow to recognize the opportunity — is that this district is incredibly diverse. Paradoxically, Democrats in Washington have long believed that their emerging coalition relies heavily on minority voters, but when they gaze toward the suburbs, they see white people, and that’s not the complexion of this Houston suburb. Fort Bend County is 65 percent minority, with almost equal amounts of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans. Within those large banners are dozens of subgroups; Kulkarni’s campaign estimates that 100 languages are spoken within the district. Churches mix with temples and mosques, fast-food joints with biryani restaurants along the main boulevards. “We don’t look like Texas now, but this is what it will look like in 20 or 30 years,” Kulkarni said.
Though Asian-Americans have trended sharply left in the last decade, these communities have largely been ignored in politics. Those who do vote in the affluent district vote Republican. Consultants and strategists don’t see enough return on investment to put in the effort to raise historically low turnout. “When I ask people why they haven’t voted before, I get variations of them saying, ‘No one ever talked to me about it,’” said volunteer Nathan Truong.
Doing the outreach properly would require a small army of campaign workers. Who could inspire so many people to engage so deeply? The answer is Sri Preston Kulkarni, who is almost preternaturally situated to organize a place like this. “Sri is an Asian Barack Obama. When you hear him speak, that’s it,” said Ali Hasanali, a second-generation Indian-American who joined the campaign early.
Kulkarni spent 14 years in the foreign service, with tours in Iraq, Israel, Russia, Taiwan, and Jamaica. He speaks six languages fluently (English, Spanish, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, Hebrew, and Russian). Hasanali told me about Kulkarni visiting the Texas Democratic Party convention, discussing working in Iraq at the Muslim caucus, and cracking jokes in Hebrew at the Jewish caucus. Kulkarni has also practiced his diplomatic skills in conflict zones. “In Iraq, I sat across the table from a person funding roadside bombs,” he said. “I was literally sitting next to the man trying to kill me! If I can talk to him, I can talk to anyone.”
Few other candidates have this life experience, and it could prove useful in Washington. But Kulkarni, whose political experience consists of a brief fellowship working for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on the Senate Armed Services Committee, had to get past a five-person field in the Democratic primary. He charted a path to victory by activating dormant, cloistered communities across the district who hadn’t traditionally turned out, especially for midterm elections.
“There was a study that spent several years figuring out how to get people who don’t vote to vote,” Kulkarni said. “They found that you needed to talk to them. Big surprise!”
Kulkarni, along with a core campaign team of second-generation immigrants and millennials, had a fundamental insight: Nobody views themselves as solely Asian-American. East Asians from the Philippines, China, and Taiwan had to be approached differently from South Asians from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Even within that, there are sub-groups from the Indian subcontinent, like Gujaratis, Punjabis, and Bengalis. And all of these cultures are represented in the 22nd District.
The campaign took a list of 85,000 registered Asian-American voters and manually broke it down into as many categories as possible, whether by religion or ethnicity or homeland or personal knowledge from volunteers. “We were figuring it out from last names,” said Kulkarni. “This person is Patel, they come from this region. This one is Subramanian. The Ismaili Muslims, they’re a sect of the Shia and you can tell from the names.”
After the categorizing, they split the voter lists into notebooks and designated volunteers to speak to people within their communities. Gujaratis would call Gujaratis. Urdu speakers would call Urdu speakers.
Meera Kapur, a Punjabi-American Kulkarni volunteer, related the micro-targeting to a campaign she worked on two decades ago for Martha Wong, the first Asian-American on the Houston City Council. “In those days we were a smaller community; we would go door to door and talk to our friends,” Kapur said. “It’s just going to the places where a lot of people are who don’t pay attention. On their grounds, where they feel comfortable.”
Kapur said she would not always start phone bank conversations in Punjabi, but downshift into it along the way. Others, like Nathan Truong, open with “xin chào” as a general hello greeting for Vietnamese speakers, or “Ni hao” for Chinese. He saw it as a sign of respect, making people comfortable with the messenger and subsequently, the message. Just pronouncing someone’s name properly or throwing in a common phrase can earn that trust. “From my time in the classroom, effort goes a long way,” Truong said.
The campaign believes that they’ve increased phone bank response rates between twofold and fivefold. The outreach led Kulkarni to the top 30 percent in the five-way primary, and over 60 percent in the runoff to take the nomination. “We were told that the easiest way to lose is go after voters who don’t vote,” Kulkarni said. “We did this on our own with a strategy that they said can’t win. It’s like, tell me one more of your conventional wisdom rules.”
For the general election, Kulkarni has expanded the scale. “Instead of just phone banking, we take a group, like the Gujarati list or 18-year-olds in a certain high school,” he explained. “I give [a volunteer] this list of voters, and I say, identify the people you know on that list. If you can identify 300, I’m not going to have you randomly phone bank, you’re going to call the people you know. If they don’t show up on the first day of voting, you’re going to call them as someone who knows them directly.”
The campaign has filtered by social network: Chinese-Americans tend to use WeChat, while South Asians use WhatsApp. They’ve deputized high school volunteers to cover their circles of friends. They’ve organized within temples and mosques, and professional organizations for people of color. In master-planned communities, they’ve found individuals in homeowner associations who know all the families. It’s hyperlocal targeting to friends, and friends of friends, as an offline complement to social networking. It’s all designed to get someone with a direct connection in front of voters.
“We find actual community leaders to be the organizing force for specific communities,” said Hasanali, who has honed this technique at a smaller scale on campaigns in Fort Bend County since 2010. “You can’t have token representation. That never gets you community-based knowledge that someone in the community does.”
That Kulkarni can even attempt this strategy is a testament to his success as an organizer. “Building a volunteer corps that can reach out in this many languages proves there’s a connection,” said Maria Urbina, political director for Indivisible, which has backed Kulkarni. “That’s why we’re excited about him, he’s not just chasing the same people.”
Kulkarni likes to emphasize different aspects of his platform depending on his audience. For Indian-Americans, he finds that everyone knows someone with an H1-B or H-4 work permit visa issue, so he highlights that. With Chinese-American groups, he discusses family reunification (what Trump calls “chain migration”). For Latino groups, it’s family separation at the border.
Other issues cut across groups. “We all care about health care, we all care about keeping kids safe,” said Renée Mathew. Kulkarni can draw on local and personal experience here. Santa Fe High School, where 10 were killed in a mass shooting, is just outside the district. And when Kulkarni was 18, his father contracted leukemia, and being the oldest son, he dropped out of college to care for him. His father died the next year, and the family needed donations to stay out of bankruptcy. “Medicare for All” is the top issue on his website.
But Kulkarni also points to pride as a way to rally voters around someone who would be the first Asian-American member of Congress from Texas in history. “In Hinduism we have the concept of dharma, obligation or duty, all cultures have that,” he said. “If you appeal to that feeling of communal responsibility, people will be more motivated to show up.”
He continued. “We have people who speak Tamil; in the primary they were saying that all Tamils will show up. We showed them that only 30 percent turned out in the primary. Now they’re all extra-motivated, they want to show us that they’ll turn out!”
Kulkarni’s campaign doesn’t merely run on intense volunteer organizing. He has raised over $1 million without taking corporate PAC money, well outpacing Pete Olson, his Republican opponent, in the most recent fundraising quarter (half of Olson’s cash comes from corporate PACs). He earned an endorsement from the Houston Chronicle editorial board, with the board raving that Kulkarni “represents our politics at its best.”
Olson, on the other hand, didn’t show up to the editorial board and is seen by many in the district as a non-entity. Elected in 2008, Olson has named his two greatest accomplishments as a bill he wrote to reverse ozone standards that has yet to pass, and the renaming of a post office. “A countywide Republican official told me, ‘You know what they call people like Olson in Congress?’” asked Hasanali. “Office furniture.”
In a video of a meet-and-greet with local supporters in Sugar Land, supplied by the Kulkarni campaign, Olson calls his opponent a “liberal, liberal, liberal Indo-American who’s a carpetbagger.” Kulkarni was abroad in the foreign service and then in Washington and at Harvard’s Kennedy School until 2017, but he was born and raised in the district and literally has familial ties to a founding son of the state. Says Kulkarni, “When Olson said I was an Indo-American carpetbagger, my mom said, ‘Why not ask him if he’s related to Sam Houston?’”
Olson continues in the video to question Kulkarni’s raising of money from “a group called Act Blue.” Apparently unaware of the fundraising tool for Democratic candidates, Olson marvels that “somehow the other side has arranged for people to send money to this group in Massachusetts, to send it all across the country.” And he further intimates that the money must be “coming from overseas” or through some other illegal means.
“You don’t assume when you get a donation from someone with the name Murphy that it’s coming from Ireland,” said David Manners-Weber, Kulkarni’s campaign manager. “We have a lot of diverse supporters who are Americans.”
It was not the first time Republicans in the area have used ethnicity as a club in the Kulkarni race. Earlier in the campaign, Olson blamed Pakistanis for 9/11, later calling it “accidental.” Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Kulkarni saw it as a way to pit traditionally adversarial communities, like Pakistanis and Indians, against one another. More recently, the Fort Bend Republican Party had to apologize for a campaign ad likening the Hindu deity Ganesh to the GOP elephant.
Olson wrapped up his talk this way: “We’re going to make sure they don’t turn this county blue because that’s their dream. … Mrs. Clinton won this county by 10,000 votes in 2016. Democrats saw that. And they know if they can put a blue tinge, a little purple, on Fort Bend County, they may be able to take Texas. If they take Texas, guess what happens? We never, ever have a person like Donald Trump in the White House.”
Said Kulkarni: “Sounds good to me!”
The volunteers, all unpaid, span generations, occupations, and electoral experience. Most have never worked on campaigns before. Kulkarni has attracted mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, and numerous members of his extended family. There are Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipinos, Indians of all ethnicities, African-Americans, Latinos, and yes, some whites.
Renée Mathew reflects the campaign’s spirit. She’s white; her ex-husband is from south India; her son, like Kulkarni, is a polyglot, working on his sixth language and studying abroad in China. She has held campaign meetings in her house and provided a couch for field organizers. She praises Kulkarni for his “compassion, reason, and decency,” and ability to disagree with respect. “It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Even if Kulkarni doesn’t succeed, the campaign will leave an infrastructure in place for the future: from waves of new Democratic voters locally, to interns and organizers schooled in community engagement who can replicate it anywhere in America. When you activate communities, that switch rarely turns off.
I asked Ali Hasanali, who has been banging away at this strategy for a decade, what it would mean to win. “I think for me personally it would be a lifelong dream,” he said. “I have had people yell at me, call me a terrorist in public school. This would be a sign that change is possible. If you trust your instincts and do community building, you can see dividends being paid.”