- YOU CAN'T WIN IF YOU DON'T RUN: After spending eight years as an educator in economically depressed Helena-West Helena, Chintan Desai is asking East Arkansas to send him to Congress.
Chintan Desai knows a little about learning on his feet. In August 2010, the day after he graduated from the University of California-Davis, he moved cross-country to teach fifth-grade social studies in Helena-West Helena at KIPP: Delta College Preparatory. The charter school serves a student body that's 92 percent low-income and 94 percent African American. A new Teach for America corps member, Desai had never set foot in the South.
"Take everything where I grew up in California, and take the exact opposite, and that was Helena, Arkansas," he recalled. "It's a poor town, it's got a lot of challenges, it's got racial dynamics which were very different from what I grew up with. ... And on top of that, I was learning a new skill, a new profession, at the age of 21. ... I struggled pretty mightily, but I made it through — not without thinking about quitting a few times."
One criticism leveled at Teach for America is that its young recruits often leave K-12 education as quickly as they entered. The nonprofit requires a two-year commitment in the classroom, after which many TFAers head to grad school, law school or a more lucrative career track. Desai was one of those who stuck around. Eight years later, he owns a house in Helena and works as a project manager — a generalist administrator position — for KIPP's small network of East Arkansas schools. (KIPP also runs over 200 schools nationally.)
This fall, Desai is applying for a new job: U.S representative for Arkansas's 1st Congressional District, which comprises most of the eastern half of the state. Republican Rep. Rick Crawford has held the seat since 2010, when Democrat Marion Berry declined to run for re-election. Crawford has been re-elected three times since then, each cycle with a higher margin of victory than the last; he didn't even draw a Democratic opponent in 2016. Barring some extraordinary development in the next two weeks, he'll win again on Nov.6.
Glance at a county-by-county map of 2016 election results and one might think the region holds a glimmer of hope for a Democrat. Out of the eight Arkansas counties that voted for Hillary Clinton, six were in the 1st District — Delta counties like Phillips and Crittenden, with large African-American populations. But they are more than offset by white, rural, Trump-loving north Arkansas counties such as Randolph, Baxter and Independence. The numbers are grim for Desai: A Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College poll in September showed the incumbent leading by 35 points among likely voters.
Dr. William McLean, the chair of the political science department at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, said Desai had run a good race, considering the odds. "I think he's done all the things that he's supposed to do. ... He's very, very effective at retail politics. It's not him personally that can't get elected; it's the institutional barriers that prevent it."
First, national politics dominates most any race these days, McLean said, and the 1st District is simply a conservative place. Second, Desai has low name recognition, having never held office before. (He ran for city council in Helena-West Helena in 2016 and lost.) Having a name that sounds unusual to many Arkansans likely doesn't help, either, nor does the color of his skin. The child of first-generation Indian immigrants, Desai doesn't fit neatly into the white/black racial dichotomy that shapes life in many Delta towns.
He's become a well-known community figure in Helena-West Helena, but Desai acknowledged that he's encountered "a little bit" of racism traveling to other places in the district. "And you know, I get it in a certain way," he said. "When my parents moved here, if they had believed everything they had learned about American pop culture based on the movies and the music and the TV they had seen and heard, they probably would have thought their only kid growing up in America would, you know, join a gang and start selling drugs. ... They had a fear of the Other, and they wanted to make sure I lived a good and safe life. So if you haven't encountered personally people who look differently or have a different cultural background, I can understand the fear that you might have initially.
"But my argument is ... if you meet me and you actually talk to me, you'll see that I'm not that scary," he added, grinning.
McLean said Desai's ethnicity hasn't come up as an issue in the campaign. "Obviously, I think any nonwhite candidate faces some kind of uphill battle," he said. But in rural Arkansas, he added, "I think it probably hurts him more just being an outsider/interloper rather than race per se: 'Hey, you're not from here, you're from California.' "
Desai has the same answer to each of these obstacles: Get out there and work. "We're trying to meet as many people as possible. We went to all 30 counties in the district in 30 days in July." Just as national Republicans once wrote off the 1st District as unwinnable, national Democrats now do the same, he noted. "I don't know if Barack Obama ever came to Arkansas. I'm here. I'm getting everywhere. ... That, to me, is the missing link," he said.
"There's a clear contrast between what we were doing and what Congressman Crawford has been doing for years, which is being very inaccessible," he added. Crawford has held one town hall in the past eight years and has shut down his social media page, Desai said. "Congressman Crawford has unfavorables north of 50 percent. ... If you get my message out to enough people, I think we can surprise a lot of people in terms of how well we do," he said.
Asked for comment, Crawford's campaign manager issued a statement: "Congressman Crawford has balanced his time as a legislator and with his family while traveling internationally doing his part to keep all Americans safe through better relationships with America's strategic partners. He's also sought to find new ways to connect and communicate with his constituents while trying to ensure online mobs and fake people aren't degrading the engagement he has through platforms [that have] been compromised on multiple occasions. He will continue to do all of this, as well as the many meetings and visits he's had all across the 1st District, should the voters choose to send him back to Washington to fight for smaller government, greater fiscal reforms, and a safe and secure America through enforcement of current immigration laws and stronger border security."
So what drives an ambitious young person to give up the better part of a year running full tilt at a goal that seems so clearly out of reach?
Desai, who majored in political science in college, said he's always had a "political itch." When he pondered his logical next step in life, "the obvious answer was go to Capitol Hill and work as a staffer in D.C. ... but I didn't want to leave Helena yet. This area means a lot to me. I think the work that we're doing [at KIPP] is really important. ... So, I looked up the race, saw there wasn't a Democrat, and I got mad."
"And, you know, the Trump thing a year before," he said with a laugh.
His family had "zero" interest in politics when he was growing up. "They voted for the first time in 2016, because I made them," he said. Desai's parents emigrated from Mumbai in the '80s in search of a better life. In India, his mother had worked at a bank and his father had studied microbiology, but after they found their way to California — "with $50 in their pockets and not much else" — they had to take whatever work they could find.
"My dad — there's probably regret on his end, but you can't just move to America and get a job as a researcher in microbiology. ... When my mom got pregnant with me, he had to pay the bills, so he got a job at a fast-food restaurant. It's just kind of what he was then locked into. He worked his way up, and he's been a general manager at a Carl's Jr. for the past 20-plus years. My mom worked at a motel, and eventually they saved up enough money to buy a house."
They settled in San Luis Obispo, a mid-sized city between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which, Desai said, afforded them (and him) "all the opportunities in the world." That included access to great K-12 schools and California's famed university system. "I realized at some point in college I got that great public education simply because of my ZIP code," he said. That's when he found out about TFA. "Learning about the educational equity gap kind of fired me up. ... I was fortunate enough to get in, and I ended up in Arkansas."
Desai's core campaign message attempts to link his parents' immigrant experience with one of the great structural challenges facing East Arkansas: outmigration.
"It is not easy to leave everything that you know — your friends, your family, everyone you love — to come to a place where you don't know anyone, where you don't have any resources," Desai said. "[My parents] had to start from scratch, and I want that to be first and foremost in people's minds when they think about immigration.
"What I'm seeing is that there are too many Arkansans that are faced with a similar dilemma. They feel like they have to leave Arkansas, leave where they grew up, to find a better life. Young people — they don't think there are jobs here. Seniors, whose families have left them. That is the theme we hear over and over again, and to us it is about restoring opportunity right here in Arkansas."
His proposed remedy, unsurprisingly, starts with a national investment in public education, including universal pre-K, a boost in teacher pay, and more affordable college and career and technical education. He also proposes a massive national investment in infrastructure and expanding the social safety net, including an embrace of "Medicare for All."
Desai is only one among several former or current educators to run for office this cycle, a trend also seen in other red states. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Henderson ran Teach for America's operations in Arkansas until last year. Several other teachers are running for state legislative seats as Democrats. But some education advocates see charter schools as an existential threat to traditional public schools and may be wary of Desai's extensive background at KIPP.
Little Rock has some charters that are underperforming and "ought to have been closed yesterday," Desai said, but he defended KIPP's results in the Delta. "We're quadrupling the national low-income average in terms of college graduation," he said. He also pointed to recently improved relations between KIPP and the Helena-West Helena School District, including a partnership in which the charter provides college counseling to students in the traditional schools.
Desai said charters and traditional schools share a common enemy: "the general lack of resources that are attributed to public school education in the U.S. ... Me, I think we need to widen the pie."
What's next after Election Day? "I'm thinking until Nov. 6, and then we'll see," he said. "Hopefully, I'm a congressman-elect, right?"