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Our Revolution

Sri Kulkarni’s youthful indiscretion

We’ll see how big a deal this turns out to be.

Sri Kulkarni

A candidate’s drug arrest at the age of 18 has riled up a Democratic primary contest for the right to challenge five-term Republican incumbent Pete Olson in a potentially competitive congressional district in Houston’s southern suburbs.

Sri Preston Kulkarni, a leading labor-backed candidate in the five-way March 6 primary, acknowledged Tuesday that he was arrested for possessing less than a gram of cocaine when he was a teenager in 1997.

The felony charge later was dismissed by a Harris County judge after a two-year probationary sentence, a disposition known as “deferred adjudication” that is frequently meted out for first-time drug offenses.

Kulkarni, now a 39-year-old ex-foreign service officer and onetime Senate aide, described the incident as a youthful indiscretion at a stressful time in his life when his father was terminally ill with cancer.

“We should not be stigmatizing our youth for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Nevertheless, the issue, raised at the start of early voting in Texas, has shaken up a U.S. House race where Democrats hope to make inroads in their quest to loosen the Republican Party’s long grip on the state.

Kulkarni disclosed the arrest to the Chronicle on Tuesday after the case was raised by the Fort Bend County chapter leader of Our Revolution, a group representing a progressive coalition of activists who supported the 2016 presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

[…]

Kulkarni said his drug arrest 21 years ago should be seen through the prism of criminal justice reform, a top Democratic priority, and not as an election season attack.

“This is a very important issue,” he said. “I’m happy to talk about it in that context.”

Kulkarni is hardly the first candidate to have a youthful indiscretion in his past, and his response is a good one both in general and for a Democratic audience that is indeed interested in criminal justice reform. You can read the story for the rest of the details, but whatever one thinks of his brush with the law, it didn’t prevent him from having a successful career that included getting a top secret security clearance. As a general rule it’s better for stuff like this to come out early than late, and it’s best to own it and answer questions about it in a straightforward manner. Basically, as long as there’s nothing more to it than this, it probably won’t be that big a deal.

Two upcoming candidate forums

Mark your calendars, Part I, for the CD2 Democratic Primary Candidate Forum.

CD2 Democratic Primary Candidate Forum
Hosted by Humble Area Democrats, Kingwood Area Democrats, Spring Democratic Club, and Democracy for Houston

Tuesday, January 23 at 6 PM – 9 PM
Teamsters Local Union No. 988
4303 N Sam Houston Pkwy E, Houston, Texas 77032 (Map)

The Democratic Primary candidates, running for U.S. House Representative District 2, will participate in this moderated Forum to express their stances on important issues affecting constituents in Texas’ Congressional District 2.

Candidates (as they will appear on the ballot) are:

H.P. Parvizian, Ali A. Khorasani, Silky Malik, J. Darnell Jones, Todd Litton

The event begins with a Meet & Greet (6:00 pm – 6:45 pm)
The Forum will begin at 7 pm.
(Attendees will be offered an opportunity to submit questions, which will be answered, as time allows, at the end of the program.)

Come meet your candidates and discover where they stand on issues of importance to you. Visit representatives from each of our partners in this event to learn how you can get more involved.

Co-Hosts of this Forum are:

Humble Area Democrats
Kingwood Area Democrats
Spring Democratic Club
Democracy for Houston

Joining us to put this event together:

The Harris County Democratic Party
Indivisible TX-02 – Northeast

I’m publishing interviews of CD02 candidates beginning today, so you can get to know them before you go see them for yourself. We’ve all got a lot of important decisions to make this season, so we all need to do our due diligence.

And Part II:

See here for event details, and here for a map to the location. I’m not interviewing in any of these races at this time, though I may get to CD22 for the runoff, so you’re on your own. Get out there and meet some candidates.

The Nation on Our Revolution in Texas

Here’s a feature story in The Nation from before the holidays about Our Revolution, one of the many grassroots groups that have become prominent post-Trump to organize and get better people elected. The focus of this story is on what OR is doing in Texas.

When Jim Hightower, Nina Turner, and the Our Revolution road show rolled into Tyler, Texas, Ed Moore liked what he heard. “This is basically what we’ve all been needing,” explained the retired factory worker and union leader, who lives in a town where factories and unions have taken a lot of hits in recent years. Moore, a city councilman who represents working-class neighborhoods shaken by deindustrialization, nodded in agreement as Hightower channeled old-school Texas populism into a warning: “The powers that be…are knocking down the middle class. They are holding down the poor” and attacking “the essential ethic that holds America together—and that is the notion that we are all in this together.”

Our Revolution is the national group created by backers of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run with the goal of transforming the Democratic Party. When Turner, a former Ohio state senator who now leads the organization, finished her address by declaring, “We can change the world—one community at a time, one state at a time…. Tyler, Texas, can we do this?,” Moore joined the enthusiastic multiracial, multiethnic crowd, which was packed into an activity center on the local college campus, in answering: “Yes!”

[…]

Of the many resistance and rebuilding groups that are working on the ground to renew Democratic fortunes in the states, Our Revolution has made a notable decision: It’s betting big on Texas. As soon as the Sanders campaign gave way to the organization—with its slogan “Campaigns End, Revolutions Endure” and its promise to “transform American politics”—Hightower and a new generation of Lone Star populists vowed that they would make Texas Our Revolution’s most engaged, active, and, they hope, politically successful state branch. And after a shaky start, Our Revolution is developing into a muscular grassroots organization with nearly 500 chapters in 49 states and a burgeoning capacity to organize on behalf of issues and to help win elections. This is about the recognition of a need: Political movements that evolve out of presidential campaigns often have a hard time defining themselves as more than a reflection of a particular candidate and a particular moment in history. To get to that broader definition, groups that seek to fundamentally change parties and politics must deliver successful examples of how the politics of an insurgent presidential campaign can elect candidates in other races.

[…]

Designated by Our Revolution’s national board as the organization’s first state affiliate, the Lone Star group has hired staff; used Sanders-campaign lists to connect with grassroots activists; and begun organizing chapters at the local, county, and regional levels. It has spelled out a progressive agenda—a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, worker rights, support for immigrants, policies to address climate change, and a commitment to get big money out of politics—and it is encouraging political newcomers who came of age in the Sanders campaign, as well as the worker-rights, immigrant-rights, and Black Lives Matter movements, to start running in Democratic primaries and nonpartisan local elections.

Some of these newcomers have already won. Activist La’Shadion Shemwell, 30, was elected in June to the McKinney City Council in conservative Collin County, north of Dallas. “If I can do it,” Shemwell says, “having been arrested, being a minority, having tattoos and dreadlocks, being a poor person with all the odds against me—if I can do it, then anybody can do it.” In San Antonio, history teacher John Courage surprised nearly everyone by winning his uphill run for a City Council seat. “We can’t overstate how huge an upset this is,” said Our Revolution, which backed him. “Education activist John Courage has won his race in San Antonio’s most conservative district!”

The group plans to endorse candidates in 2018 for posts like state commissioner of agriculture—where Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and rancher who has become a dynamic advocate for sustainable food production, seeks the Democratic nod—as well as in hundreds of down-ballot contests that have often been neglected in recent years. And it’s exploring the possibility of endorsing for governor and US Senate. There will be some primary fights, but in many parts of Texas, Our Revolution activists are working with local Democrats and stepping up as candidates supported not just by Sanders backers but by 2016 Clinton backers. “They’re bringing energy and a lot of young people into the party,” says Lorraine Broll, president of the Circle-C Area Democrats club in Central Texas. She isn’t a member of Our Revolution, but she’s pleased the group is organizing in places like Hays County, an area between Austin and San Antonio where Trump narrowly won in 2016 but where Democrats hope to make dramatic progress in 2018.

Part of the Our Revolution Texas strategy is to run in places where Democrats aren’t supposed to have a chance. To that end, it’s organizing not just frustrated Democrats but also independents and members of the largest political group in the state: nonvoters. This emphasis on expanding the voter roll and the candidate list intrigues Texans who have grown cynical after years of hearing that the demographics of this minority-majority state will soon make Democrats dominant.

It’s always interesting to get an outsider’s perspective on things in Texas. Sometimes they see things we don’t, sometimes they provide a reality check on our warped perspective. And sometimes you shake your head and say “you really should have run this past someone who knows something about Texas”. I have a few admittedly nitpicky examples of the latter to discuss.

First, a genuine question: What practical experience does Jim Hightower have in grassroots organization, and turning that into an effective means of not just communicating but actually winning elections? All due respect, but I can’t think of any prominent recent efforts he’s been involved in. He does his pundit/humorist thing, and that’s fine, but my perception here is that his main function is eminance grise and “Texas liberal person whose name non-Texan readers of The Nation will recognize”. Maybe I’m selling him short and if so I apologize, but it might have been nice to have had his recent accomplishments listed in the story.

The story does mention a couple of recent wins by OR-affiliated candidates, and that’s really where my observation about getting some input from a local applies. I mean, calling John Courage a “newcomer” is more than a little silly. Courage, who I interviewed in 2012 when he ran for State Senate, had previously run for Congress in 2006, and served on the Alamo Community College District Board of Trustees in the 1980s. I think highly of John Courage and am delighted that he won his race for San Antonio City Council, but he’s not a newcomer.

To be sure, there haven’t been that many opportunities for any group to exert influence in an election this year in Texas. The May elections were the main event – it would have been interesting to have seen what might have happened in a Houston election, but we won’t get that until 2019 – and there have been no legislative special elections as yet. The upcoming primaries will offer some opportunities. Kim Olson is unopposed in March, so that won’t tell us anything. The race to watch if you want to see what OR can do is in CD21, where OR has endorsed Derrick Crowe, who faces three opponents including one (Joseph Kopser) who has a lot of establishment support and has raised a bunch of money. I looked at the Our Revolution Texas Facebook page and didn’t see any other endorsement announcements – I don’t recall seeing any others while looking at all those Congressional candidate Facebook pages, either – but there’s still time and plenty of races to choose from. I will definitely be interested in that, and I expect there will be other players looking to leave their mark on the races in 2018 as well.

Anyway, read it and see what you think. Olson and Crowe were the only 2018 candidates mentioned by name, so I hope there will be more to be said about what OR is doing.

Framing the 2018 question

This Chron story asks the question “what might it take for a Democrat to win statewide in Texas in 2018, then never actually engages it.

At the five-top table in the corner at Russell’s Bakery, a northwest Austin restaurant and coffee bar, the conversation among the five women, all self-described as “recovering Republicans,” veered from the signature cinnamon rolls and traffic to President Donald Trump and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“I have two questions I’d like to know the answer to: Is there any way for a Democrat to win a state office next year, and what would it take for some Republicans to lose in this state?” Chrys Langer, a 47-year-old tech consultant and mother of three, asked a reporter sitting at a nearby table. “Politics has taken a turn for the worse, in my opinion, in Austin with the bathroom bill and all kinds of other conservative-male nonsense and in the White House with – well, with Trump being Trump.”

[…]

In interviews with voters of both parties, from Houston to suburban San Antonio to Dallas to Austin, the question comes up time and time again, as does an underlying frustration with governments in both Washington and Austin.

Despite that, more than a dozen political scientists and consultants interviewed by the Chronicle said they see almost no chance that Republicans will lose hold of their 23-year grip on statewide elective offices during next year’s elections, despite the fact that Democrats made notable inroads in Dallas and Houston a year ago when Trump won Texas by just nine percentage points – down from previous double-digit support of Republican presidential candidates.

“There isn’t any way Democrats can win statewide office in Texas, short of some astounding collapse of the Republicans in Washington or Austin,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “Winning is a habit, and so is losing. The Democrats right now have no well-known candidate, no bench, their funding has evaporated, and they have no experience in their volunteer base. The Republicans have all of that.

“And at the end of the day, the Republicans who say they’re not satisfied with things will vote for a Republican because, with the polarization of the political process in recent years, Democrats are now seen as enemies of the state, and they won’t jump across and vote for them.”

Jillson’s sentiments echoed those of all the others, even with the so-called “Trump Factor” that Democrats are touting as a key to some unexpected victories in the November 2018 elections.

“Trump’s approval rating would have to drop into the teens where it might hurt Abbott and Patrick and the other Republicans on the ballot in Texas, and even then I doubt the effect would be significant,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “Even though the Democrats will try to tie Abbott and Patrick as close to Trump as they can, every time they get a chance, they can distance themselves from Trump because Texas voters in a midterm election pay more attention to state issues than Washington.”

Let me begin by saying that Rottinghaus’ statement about midterm elections is not at all in line with the results of at least the last four midterms, at least as far as Republican turnout goes. If you don’t think Texas is reflective of the national climate, I’m not sure what to tell you.

That’s the first thing to think about when considering possibilities for 2018: What will Republican turnout look like? On the one end, we have 2006, where statewide Republican vote totals ranged from 2,135,612 to 2,661,789. On the other end, there’s 2010 where the low was 2,737,481 and the high was 3,151,064 (I’m skipping races where there was no Democratic challenger, such as Comptroller in 2010). In between is 2014, with a range from 2,691,417 to 2,827,584. Which of those years will 2018 most closely resemble? Obviously, a 2006-style year makes for a more competitive environment for Democrats, but it’s not something Dems have control over. What are the factors that might lead one to expect a 2006 versus a 2014 or a 2010? Polls, fundraising, tone of rhetoric and advertising, Presidential popularity, some combination, something else? Put those PhDs to use and give me your thoughts on that.

Then there’s Democratic turnout, which as I’ve noted ad nauseum has remained stubbornly flat since 2002. The high end, with a few exceptions, has been around 1.8 million. If Dems could boost their base turnout by about 600K votes – that is, roughly the boost Republicans got from 2006 to 2010 – they’d be at 2.4 million, which would have been enough to capture the three Commissioner races and two contested judicial seats in 2006. Two point four million represents about two-thirds of the 2016 overall turnout for Dems, which again is about what Republicans achieved in 2010 over 2008. What factors might make a political science professor think such an achievement was possible? We know that the key in Harris County in 2016 was a big increase in voter registration, which in turn led to a much larger pool of Democratic-aligned voters. Dems may not have the infrastructure Republicans have enjoyed, but there are now multiple grassroots organizations – Pantsuit Nation, Indivisible, Our Revolution, the scaled-down version of Battleground Texas – that are out there engaging and registering and doing the things Dems should have been doing all along. Multiple Democratic Congressional candidates continue to excel at fundraising. Again, what do the people that the newsies reach out to for comment think of all that? What if anything might make them think there’s something happening here?

Picking the Republicans to hold serve again is very likely to be accurate, but it’s not very interesting. It doesn’t address the obvious fact that the climate is very different now, so it doesn’t give us any way to think about how that might change what could happen in 13 months – or five months, if you want to ask the same question about the primaries. It will be much harder to answer these questions than it was for me to ask them, and those answers may well change over the next year and a month, but surely we should be asking them anyway. I’d like to think I’m not the only one thinking along these lines.