Democrat for Congress candidate Sri Kulkarni talks to his supporters during a fundraiser in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
Democrat for Congress candidate Sri Kulkarni talks to his supporters during a fundraiser in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

The candidate has a shot of representing a diverse Houston district that traditionally backs Republican representatives.

Sen. Kamala Harris made history as the first person of South Asian descent to be on a major presidential ticket in the United States. But she isn’t the only Indian American who could be a first for the country. Sri Preston Kulkarni is running for Congress in a Houston, Texas, district that has mostly been held by Republicans since the 1970s. If he wins, not only would he be the first Democrat to represent the district in 11 years, he would also be the first Asian American representative from Texas.

Kulkarni grew up in Houston, where his mother, who has roots back to Sam Houston, and immigrant father got their start in a two-bedroom apartment with nine people living in it. Kulkarni attended the University of Texas—all the while helping to raise his three younger siblings and working several jobs—and got a master’s degree from Harvard, and then was commissioned as a foreign service officer for the State Department. Over 14 years, that job had him serving in Iraq, Israel and Russia, where he advocated for the United States using his polyglot skills: In addition to English, Kulkarni speaks Spanish, Hebrew, Hindi, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese.

Kulkarni first ran for Congress in 2018, against Republican Rep. Pete Olson. His campaign was a long shot, but Kulkarni came within five points of beating the long-term incumbent in a conservative stronghold that voted for President Donald Trump by eight points.

Olson announced his retirement in 2019, one of the many House Republicans who decided to leave during the Trump era. This time around, it looks like Kulkarni has an even better shot of heading to Washington, DC. He is running against Republican Troy Nehls, a county sheriff in the district and a staunch supporter of Trump. An internal poll from the Kulkarni campaign from Oct. 8-11 showed their candidate beating Nehls by five points. Early voting is already underway in Texas ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

The Houston Chronicle endorsed Kulkarni in this election, just as they did in 2018 against Olson. In its endorsement, the newspaper said Kulkarni was the right representative for the diverse district, which has a large immigrant population. Texas’ 22nd congressional district has a population that is 17% Asian, 12% Black, and where 25% of people identify as Hispanic.

During an interview with the Chronicle, Kulkarni said he would use his years of diplomatic experience to serve not only the differing needs of his district, but also to work with Republicans.

“The key is to turn everything into a common challenge instead of a partisan issue,” Kulkarni said.

One of the issues most important to Kulkarni is affordable health care. When he was 18 and just starting college, his father was diagnosed with leukemia. Kulkarni returned home to help care for him. But after his father died, the medical bills left behind almost bankrupted his family. 

“When my father was diagnosed with leukemia, the medical bills nearly bankrupted our family. No one should face financial ruin just because a family member falls sick,” Kulkarni said in a statement.

The candidate backs expanding Medicaid in Texas, and supports a public healthcare insurance plan that anyone can buy into if they wanted it.

On the economy, Kulkarni again points to his father’s experience, this time as an immigrant who “came to this country because he knew he would have the chance to make something of himself when he got here.” The candidate says he wants to focus on helping small businesses grow amidst the economic ruin of the coronavirus pandemic, helping them get access to early capital and loans.