How police reform and racial justice are influencing a competitive congressional election in one Houston-area district

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Protesters gather at a rally for George Floyd in Houston. Floyd, a former Houston resident, was killed in Minneapolis police during an attempted arrest. Credit: Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

With tensions boiling over at protests in the wake of high-profile killings of Black Americans by police officers, political candidates across Texas are having to navigate the national conversation surrounding law enforcement.

In the Houston area’s 22nd Congressional District, the issue is playing a more personal role.

Emerging from a career of more than 20 years in law enforcement, Republican Troy Nehls is painting himself as a friend of police, echoing the language of President Donald Trump, Gov. Greg Abbott and other GOP leaders about law and order and backing the blue. After serving for the Richmond Police Department and then as an elected constable in Fort Bend County for eight years, Nehls was elected Fort Bend County sheriff in 2012.

In a recent video posted on his Facebook page, he called himself the “people’s sheriff” and boasted of his accomplishments in Fort Bend County, claiming that rates of burglaries, robberies and aggravated assaults all decreased significantly under his watch.

But while he has pushed his credentials, his Democratic opponent, Sri Kulkarni, has sought to use them against him, citing a record that includes a history of alleged misconduct and complaints about his department’s methods.

According to records, Nehls was fired from the Richmond Police Department in 1998 after he committed 19 violations in one year. Those included improper arrests, failure to contact a victim to obtain information for a report and destruction of evidence.

More recently, he has been criticized for his record as sheriff. In 2015, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards warned him that his department’s jail needed to take corrective steps after two inmate deaths in less than two months. This summer, the Houston Chronicle questioned whether the county’s narcotics task force was practicing racial profiling since its officers overwhelmingly stopped and searched Hispanic people.

“Nehls refuses to commit to a debate because he doesn’t want to have to try and explain why he was fired for misconduct, why he downplayed the coronavirus, or why he supports a reckless agenda to take away health care from millions of Texans,” Kulkarni campaign spokesperson Jack Doyle said in a statement, accusing Nehls of hiding by denying invitations to public forums and debates.

This isn’t the first time Nehls has faced attacks on his record in a competitive race. He has won two countywide elections as sheriff. During the primary runoff for this election, his opponent, Republican Kathaleen Wall, spent heavily on television attack ads, accusing Nehls of not taking human trafficking seriously enough in Fort Bend County.

Nehls didn’t spend a dime of his own on TV ads during the runoff and still defeated Wall by nearly a 40 percentage point margin.

He is taking a similar approach in the general election as he and Kulkarni vie for an open seat being vacated by Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Olson.

“I was able to defeat Kathaleen Wall not because of the medium which I used to communicate, but because of my long record of service to the district,” Nehls said in a statement. “For the past twenty eight years they’ve seen me in their community making a difference. That’s why Kathaleen failed to defeat me with her negative attacks and why Sri Kulkarni will fail as well.”

Nehls has brushed off the claims that he is staying away from voters in fear of facing his record, saying in a statement that he has spoken with “hundreds of voters.” He recently hosted a rally in Sugar Land with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who emphasized that Nehls will fight for freedom against “socialism” and “dismantling the nation.”

“I need somebody to join me that knows what it is like to be on tough streets, knows to be in far lands to defend freedom and liberty, knows to sacrifice their life for people they don’t even know and want to give the new generation a better opportunity, and [for that] there is no better person than Troy,” McCarthy said at the rally attended by a few hundred people.

One of the key questions in the race is how the district responds to that pitch — and Nehls’ background. The suburban district was long considered solidly red but is viewed as a top pickup opportunity for Democrats in Texas. It’s also known for its diversity, with sizable Hispanic, white, Black and Asian populations. When Kulkarni challenged Olson in 2018, he made news for having volunteers who could speak with voters in 16 languages. Kulkarni, who is a former foreign service officer, can speak six languages.

Suburban voters have been an explicit target of Trump’s when he talks about “law and order” on the campaign trail. And many Republicans have sought to turn the issue of policing and criminal justice against Democrats during a time when it is becoming a more important issue to voters.

In the days after George Floyd's death, as protesters took to the streets to call for racial justice and an end to police brutality, their message received strong support. But public opinion has since shifted some. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll saw an increase of 15 percentage points from June to September in the share of voters who said violence caused by protesters is a big problem. In the same poll, the issue of criminal justice and policing ranked two points above the coronavirus for swing voters, with Republicans ranking it as the second most important issue behind the economy.

And a University of Texas at Austin poll of the state found that 43% of Texans believed that deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers are isolated incidents. Of those respondents, more than 75% identified as Republicans and 43% as independents.

At the Republican National Convention in June, almost every speaker, including U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, suggested Democrats were to blame for civil unrest in major cities and accused them of not supporting law enforcement.

A video of U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, who is running for reelection in the 21st Congressional District, went viral after he listed the names of the 43 law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty so far in 2020 on the House floor.

Last month, Abbott called on all candidates in the state to sign a pledge against police funding cuts after the Austin City Council cut the city’s police department’s budget by $150 million. Nehls said the next day on social media that he was proud to sign the “Back the Blue” pledge. Kulkarni has remained silent on whether he will sign it.

While Kulkarni said in an interview with The Katy Times that “the solution isn’t to defund the police or demonize hard working members of law enforcement,” Nehls and the National Republican Congressional Committee have suggested that he feels otherwise, saying that he has taken donations from groups that support defunding the police.

“I’ve raised my family here and built relationships and trust with this community,” Nehls said. “Sri Kulkarni has none of that. I believe the people of this district value law enforcement and reject the idea of defunding law enforcement.”

Kulkarni does have name recognition in the district, however. He lost by a small margin in 2018 when he ran against Olson.

In hopes that the district will flip blue, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeted the race and is helping fund Kulkarni’s campaign through its Red to Blue program. The House Majority PAC — a Democratic super PAC — also released an ad targeting Nehls’ record as a “fired cop.”

“Families and communities expect their police officers to protect and serve, but Troy Nehls did neither,” said Abby Curran Horrell, executive director of the political action committee. “The last thing we need in Congress is someone like Troy Nehls, who simply can’t be trusted to keep us safe.”

TX-22 is one of the three House races in the state that is labeled as a toss-up by the Cook Political Report.

With protests ongoing and Trump increasing rhetoric on law enforcement, it is likely that voters will go to the polls with the issue of policing and criminal justice on their minds. Nehls said it will remain a top issue of his, but Kulkarni is hoping that voters will go to the polls with the pandemic and health care on their minds instead.

“Our commonsense message is bringing an historic coalition of diverse voters together in the nation’s most diverse district in support of Sri’s campaign to protect Texans’ health care and get small businesses back to work safely amid this pandemic,” Doyle said.

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