AP NEWS

Indian-American takes historic place as Fort Bend County judge

December 31, 2018

In December, that strange suspended-in-motion month between his election and taking office, K.P. George was checking out the quaint old domed Fort Bend County Courthouse, soon to be his domain. In November, to the surprise of almost everyone outside his campaign, George had been elected Fort Bend’s county judge — which is to say, the top boss of one of the United States’ fastest-growing counties, with 765,000 residents, nearly 3,000 employees, and an annual budget over $370 million.

When George takes office on Jan. 1, he’ll become arguably the most powerful Indian-American in U.S. government — as well as a potent symbol of the new Fort Bend, and of Asian-Americans’ growing power in Texas and American politics.

It’s heady stuff for a man who was born in Kakkodu, a village in southern India that didn’t have electricity. His father, a truck driver, earned only a couple of dollars a day, but managed to educate all seven of his children. As a kid, George did homework by the light of a kerosene lamp.

For Fort Bend, too, it’s a historic moment. The latest Census estimates indicate that Fort Bend is now the most diverse county in Texas, and among the most diverse in the country: 35 percent Anglo, 24 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian and others; and 20 percent African-American.

But until now, the county’s government didn’t much reflect that diversity. Of the four county commissioners serving in 2018, one was African-American, and the other three were Anglo. And until now, only Anglo men have occupied the top slot as county judge.

From the courthouse’s first floor, George, 53, and his aide Taral Patel, 24, admired the dome above them. Up on the second floor, in the hallway balcony, hung portraits of previous county judges. George smiled, thinking how much his brown face would stand out in that row.

“I broke a glass ceiling,” he said, looking up. “People from all sorts of minority backgrounds, they all want to talk with me. It’s a wonderful thing, to inspire people.”

‘A historic election’

“K.P. George is now the most prominent Indian-American to hold an executive position in U.S. government,” said Rice professor Mark Jones.

The word “executive” is an important qualifier: California Sen. Kamala Harris, discussed as a presidential candidate, is far more visible, and there are also Indian-Americans in the House of Representatives. As governors, Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal each held more power — but neither currently holds an executive, buck-stops-here job.

George, Jones said, will govern a county with a larger population and budget than theIndian-American mayors of cities like Anaheim, Calif., and Hoboken, N.J. And besides, as a county judge, George will wield more outright power than most mayors can muster.

And still, to most political insiders, George’s election came as a surprise. “He was not someone on our radar,” said Gautam Raghavan, executive director of the Indian-American Impact Fund. “It wasn’t a race we engaged in. In hindsight, that’s a lesson for us: In some of these places with fast-shifting demographics, like the Texas suburbs, there are huge opportunities for us.”

“For Republicans in Fort Bend County, Donald Trump is a real liability,” Jones said. “Socially and fiscally conservative Asian-Americans used to vote for more Republicans. But Trump’s rhetoric and policies are seen as anti-immigrant — anti-Latino, but also anti-Asian.”

“Many Trump administration policies, such as targeting Muslims as terrorists, don’t play well with Asian-Americans…. Indian-Americans may not love Pakistanis, but the same racial discrimination that targets Pakistanis targets them.

“In Fort Bend, there was a double whammy for Republicans. A much larger proportion of Asian-Americans voted for Democrats, and Asian-Americans also turned out at a much higher rate than they had previously.”

Observers have long predicted that Texas’ changing demographics will eventually turn the most Republican of states into one that’s more bipartisan or even reliably Democratic. That’s already true of Texas’ cities. Now the battles have shifted to the suburbs.

Notably, George is a Democrat. “It’s a historic election for Texas,” said Jones — Fort Bend is the first exurb to elect a Democrat to the top of its county government. “It could portend the future for diverse counties such as Denton and Collin.”

‘Thank you, U.S. of A.!’

In Kakkodu, an isolated village in southern India, George grew up speaking a language called Malayalam and lived in a straw-thatch hut. His three kids have a hard time imagining that world.

George got his first shoes, a pair of slippers, when he was in fifth grade. When his son first heard that story, he couldn’t get his head around the idea of walking barefoot. “How did you get to school?” the boy asked. And, “Did you at least have a pair of socks?”

When George was 15, his family moved to a larger town, where George attended college. After graduating, he got a job in Mumbai, where for the first time, he started speaking English. He worked awhile in the Middle East, then in 1993, moved to New York to work for a financial firm. He met his wife, Sheeba, there.

Around six years later, a recruiter called to ask whether George would be interested in a job in Texas. George told the recruiter no.

But over the following weekend, he talked with his wife. “What if that was a call from God?” he asked her. (George, a devout Christian, talks a lot about God’s plans.) On Monday, he called the recruiter back, and by the end of 1999, he and his family were installed in Sugar Land. “We celebrated the millennium here,” he said.

He now owns and manages a financial planning firm, and his family lives in a two-story, red-brick house. “I’m not a doctor or an engineer. I don’t work in IT,” he said. “I don’t do the things Indian people are known for. It’s not been an easy journey, but we have a nice life. A comfortable, middle-class life.”

He first ran for office in 2010, hoping to be elected county treasurer. “Do you know how many times people asked me in Richmond and Rosenberg, ‘Why are you running?’ It’s not easy for a person like me, brown in color, with no political power, no name recognition. I’d say, ‘Because I can. I’m not a felon. I’m a citizen. Thank you, U.S. of A.! I hold your values close to my heart.’”

But that Tea Party-dominated year was disastrous for low-on-the-ballot Democrats. George’s younger daughter cried when he lost.

In 2014, he again ran for office: This time, for Fort Bend ISD school board. He won, and in 2017 he was re-elected with 63.8 percent of the vote. (He remembers the digit after the decimal proudly.) “I was building a brand,” he said. “People in Fort Bend knew me.”

Around that time he decided to run for county judge. He’d noticed that a large chunk of Fort Bend’s Asian voters had supported Hillary Clinton, but not the Democrats below her on the ballot. “I thought I had a chance with them,” he said.

His opponent, incumbent Robert Hebert, had held the job for 16 years. But George campaigned in places that weren’t used to seeing county candidates. He visited mosques, churches, booming Sugar Land and Katy.

He explained, over and over, what a county judge is, that the job has nothing to do with trials. He talked about the need for better emergency preparation, the possible need for a county flood-control district, the need for more transparency in government.

Around 250 people showed up at his victory party. As with the 2010 election, his younger daughter cried when she heard the election results. “But this time,” she told him, “it’s for a different reason.”

AP RADIO
Update hourly