- Her parents came to the U.S. to seek special education opportunities for her brother. As a legislator Kulkarni is giving back to the community that embraced her family.
Nirupama ‘Nima’ Kulkarni, an immigration and employment law attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, who immigrated to the U.S. with her parents at age six from Jamshedpur, was elected for a second term to the Kentucky House of Representatives, Nov. 3. The 40-year-old defeated fellow Democrat Dennis Horlander in the June primaries and ran unopposed in the general elections. Two years ago, in the 2018 Democratic primaries, Kulkarni had challenged Hollander, who was in office for the past 20 years and has often run unopposed in this largely Democratic district. That year, she defeated Republican Joshua Neubert in the general elections. Kulkarni is the first Indian-American elected as a state representative in Kentucky.
Unlike many immigrants who come to the U.S. in search of better financial opportunities, Kulkarni’s parents, Suhas and Surekha Kulkarni, left their cushy life in India to seek special education opportunities for her brother Nikhil, who had learning disabilities. “The DePaul School in Louisville serves kids with learning disabilities and my parents wanted him to get that specialized education as it was not available in India at that time,” she told American Kahani.
Her father, who was an executive in India, arrived in Louisville in 1986 along with his family. “Although my parents both spoke English and were educated they couldn’t find jobs here. So they saved and borrowed money to open a corner grocery store in what’s called Germantown, because of the huge German immigrants that lived there,” she says.
Her family knew that working hard was important to their new life as Americans and both Kulkarni and Nikhil worked delivering groceries. “Working there wasn’t scary for me,” she says. “It was mainly fun. I saw that the community embraced us, although the residents were predominantly older White folk who had lived there for generations. They couldn’t pronounce my parents’ names. But looked out for us. So we never had to keep a gun in the store. Never had to worry about security on that level and we made a lot of friends. That, to me, was important when I think about the idea of community, what it means to be a neighbor and what it means to be welcoming. At that time, we were amongst a handful of brown immigrants to Kentucky. It wasn’t normal, as normal as it is now to see all these Indian families here, post the ‘90s.”
This sense of community shaped and influenced Kulkarni’s later foray into public service, along with her parents’ motto of giving back. “My parents built back up a successful life here and always stressed on the idea of giving back,” she says. No matter what happened, they would always try and help people however they could, even if we didn’t have very much. Eventually, my mom started a non-profit that helped refugees and disadvantaged women and my dad ultimately became the first director of the Office of Globalization for Louisville. So I guess the idea of public service was something I had seen by example growing up.”
With a big desire to help people no matter what she did in life, Kulkarni was educated in the Jefferson County Public School System and graduated from Atherton High School. She received both her B.A. in English and her M.B.A. from the University of Louisville. “Ultimately, because of my experience, education and background, public service became the right path for me.” Interested in policy and not really looking to practice law, Kulkarni went to D.C. for law school “hoping to intern with NGOs, as DC is the heart of all that.” She received her J.D. from David A Clarke School of Law, University of D.C.
Kulkarni adds, “I went to a law school that was social justice oriented and we had to do 700 hours of clinical legal work in the community. And one of those clinics I took was an
immigration clinic. Since then, I’ve been in immigration law because I saw in that field how much direct impact you can have on people. You get immediate tangible results that help a family that comes to the U.S. to achieve the American dream.
Not shy of challenges, Kulkarni faced an uphill battle while campaigning against incumbent Horlander during the Kentucky General Assembly primaries in May 2018. “It was incredibly challenging,” admits Kulkarni honestly, adding with a laugh, “I was advised by a lot of friends and those who know better to maybe pick another race and not run against a 20 year incumbent. Not because they didn’t think I could do it, but because they didn’t want me to be disheartened and never run for anything again, if I lost.”
Running from District 40 was a “gut decision” by Kulkarni who says, “I was looking around and saw this person’s (Horlander) record and saw the level of disengagement in our district and thought I can do this now. I thought that even if I lost, it would serve as a learning experience. It felt like the right time.”
And with a last name like Kulkarni, that proved to be a challenge as well. “We wondered
whether we wanted to use the hard-to-pronounce name on the yard signs etc. There are very few immigrants — Asians and Indians – that live in my district. It’s a lot of older White and Black families. I’ve got a student population and younger professionals. It’s a very diverse district ideologically. Finally, we did use it because I wanted name recognition. That name was going to be on the ballot. My competitor has been on the ballot for 20 years. It was the only name my constituents knew. Nobody had challenged him. Most of the Indian community could not vote for me. They contributed to my campaign financially and volunteering, which they did, because I represented something to them. I stood for the community. And I feel very grateful since I would not be here without them. And personally, I’m proud of my name.”
Not only did the support of the larger Indian community help her secure a win, both in the primary and in the general elections, but so did sheer “door knocking”. “This was pre-pandemic, in 2018, all I did all day was knock on doors and try to talk to people. I didn’t have all the answers, but I was going from house to house asking ‘what is important to you?’, ‘what are you worried about?’ and ‘what do you want to see happen?’ And I can’t remember an instance when my Indianness or my background came up. It mattered to people that I showed up and was concerned enough to ask them what mattered to them. That is ultimately what allowed me to win, not once but twice against the same person.”
The only instance of negativity that Kulkarni can remember occurred over summer while campaigning for the GE. “Some people around my opponent kept trying to use my background against me saying I was not from there and didn’t belong. They would say ‘we can’t even say her name, so how can she represent us’. But clearly the voters did not feel that way, because I beat him with an 80 percent margin,” Kulkarni says confidently.
As to what’s next, Kulkarni says, “We (Democrats) had a rough election. We are in the State House at a 75-25 disadvantage. Our Republican colleagues do not need to work with us. They do not need to include us in anything. So my primary concern is maintaining relationships with members of the majority party that I have built. They know I am a person of my word and I am willing to work with them and that ultimately we are colleagues.”
Talking of her main agenda, Kulkarni states, “The big thing I want to work on is expanding unemployment benefits for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, so that they are not forced to go back to work usually where their attackers know they would be and have a little cover while looking for a new job. The next bill I want to work on is anti-SLAPP legislation.
Kentucky doesn’t have one and this will be the first time that it will be introduced. What this is, is that anytime someone has more money, power, influence, if you sue them, a lot of times their first reaction is to file a counter defamation suit. The hope is to drain the complainant’s resources and time so that the underlying issue is never got to. We see this in Me Too suits. They are also used a lot of times in the context of free speech. And Trump has used this a lot of times to silence people in court. This legislation will ensure that the person who brings the frivolous SLAPP suit will pay all court costs, and not the original complainant. This applies to everybody and I’m hoping it will have bipartisan support because of this and the free speech angle. Everyone should get their day in court and money should not determine this and in Kentucky it currently does.”
Ecstatic over the Biden-Harris win, Kulkarni is looking forward to a smooth working of
government. “It feels pretty amazing,” says Kulkarni with a laugh, when asked about the Biden-Harris win adding, “of course, with Kamala Harris being of Indian descent, I think this is a huge historic moment for Indian Americans and Indians around the world.”
“I think Harris presents a lot of unifying identities that she presents – her legal background, her black and Asian heritage, daughter of immigrants – she combines a lot of skill sets, perspectives that have been lacking in the current administration over the past few years. I am hopeful that now we are really going to have adults in the room,” she says chuckling.
She also believes that Biden with his decades of experience as a public servant and as VP during the Obama administration along with Harris’ perspective “will get us on the right track.” Kulkarni adds with hope and a dig at the Trump administration’s self-serving policies, “I know they have already started looking at executive orders they can implement to either reinstate important policies or to get rid of harmful policies.”
This trailblazer is now all set to break glass ceilings and let girls of color know that the sky’s the limit and that “they can now literally do anything they set their mind to!”