Pranav Jandhyala doesn’t want you to know he’s a Republican. At least not right away.
The 20-year-old UC Berkeley business and economics student who just finished his sophomore year, is the only Republican running to represent the overwhelmingly Democratic residents of Berkeley and its neighbor cities in the state Assembly primary on Tuesday.
It’s an all-but-impossible quest in an area that defeated the 2016 Republican candidate 91 to 9, which is why on a recent evening canvassing door to door, Jandhyala made a point to talk policy, not partisan identity.
“If I say I’m the Republican, people stop listening,” Jandhyala said after talking to a voter a few doors down from his fraternity house on Prospect Street. “If I don’t say (I’m a Republican), then I’ve gotten some words out about something I care about.”
Jandhyala cares about a lot. He likes to talk about getting tough on crime and making Berkeley safer. Many of his classmates, he said, have been the victims of crime.
He’s an ardent environmentalist who campaigned in favor of cap-and-trade regulation of greenhouse gases during the state Republican convention. And he thinks state and local governments should cut regulations to make building housing easier.
But mostly, Jandhyala wants to give the 6 percent of voters in the area who identify as Republican — and the 23 percent of voters who say they don’t have a party preference — a chance to consider “intellectual diversity.”
“When everybody is liberal and presents the same ideas, I think that is a very negative feedback cycle,” he said. “You have voters that exist outside of that and they don’t have a voice. It would be equally bad if there were a race in Missouri with 12 Republicans and no Democrat on the ballot.”
It’s a role Jandhyala has also played on campus. He was a member of conservative groups that twice invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at UC Berkeley. Both events drew riot police, angry protestors and national media attention.
In 2017, he wrote in the Washington Post that a nonpartisan group he’d co-founded called BridgeUSA had invited right-wing commentator Ann Coulter to participate in a debate-style Q&A about immigration “to create a national example for what free discourse and the questioning of ideas should look like here at Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement 50 years ago.”
“Coulter’s ideas have an audience, and though most members of our group don’t agree with her, we recognize the following she draws,” he added. The Coulter visit was cancelled when campus administrators said they couldn’t provide a safe venue.
Jandhyala bristles at the suggestion he’s running for office to get attention, noting that the state Republican Party has a tradition of asking Berkeley students to represent conservative values in local races.
“They want me to just portray a good message and make sure that no other crazies run and so they won’t be forced to endorse someone crazy,” he said. “They like to mentor students and give them a chance to see what it feels like when they decide to run.”
He said his top consideration when deciding to run were his grades, which need to stay “as close to a 4.0 as possible” if he wants to attend law school as planned.
And even if he’s short on experience or campaign materials, at candidate forums and when meeting with voters, Jandhyala speaks sincerely about wanting to make politics less extreme.
“We need to change the perception that Republicans hate the people, the planet and the poor,” he said, so caught up in what he was saying that he walked right by the home of the potential voter he was trying to meet.
Politicians should be pragmatic, open to compromise and less extreme, he said, adding that he considers both former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, a progressive public policy professor at Berkeley, and Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, the only Republican to represent the Bay Area, as mentors. (President Donald Trump, Jandhyala said, is “in some ways is a source of extremist rhetoric.” )
“There are very good Republican solutions to these problems,” he said, pointing to climate change, crime, housing and education. “I care about the problems the same as my fellow students do, but I just see a different set of solutions.”
Jandhyala knows he’s likely to be defeated in the top-two primary on Tuesday. He plans to spend the summer living with his family in Cupertino and interning at a company specializing in corporate environmental responsibility.
Still, he doesn’t think running is a waste of time.
“I want to be able to inspire people to stand up for what they believe in, even if finding allies may be hard,” he said. “The worst thing I think could happen is that Republicans would stop running because they feel like this is a lost cause.”
Contact Will Kane at firstname.lastname@example.org