Mostly known by his first name, Raja is running for the 8th congressional district in IL. His perspective, as most people, is colored by his own life experience. His early memories are of public housing and food stamps as his immigrant parents studied and worked to make a life for themselves. Raja was raised in America’s...
Raja was in SoCal for a short fundraising stop on June 5. He came off as personable and surprisingly for a politician, self-effacing. Earnest in manner, his speech does not lend it itself readily to sound bites.
Q: How did a name like Krishnamoorthi play out in your earlier campaigns?
A: Well, I remember an Irishman hearing the name as Roger Christian Murphy! Latino voters thought I was Raha! There is also confusion on whether I am Tamil or Telugu. So I have figured that people read what they want to read. I just say call me Raja.
Q: You might benefit from the redistricting of your constituency. Are you a proponent?
A: Each party will try to draw boundaries to its favor. I am open to it being done. But the caveat is that it can happen only if it is done across the country and not in just a few places where one or the party has the clout to make it happen.
Q: What numbers of Indian-American voters make up your district?
A: The district embraces immigration. 40% of the district is made up of minorities. A majority of voters were born outside the country and that includes ethnic white. There isn’t an exact percentage of Indian-Americans that I can tell you but I would say the largest subsect of Asians is desi, probably about 23% of that group.
Q: What are the main concerns that the voter in your district, Indian-American in particular, approach you with?
A: Education is big with Indian-Americans. Families struggle to save and will do anything to put their kids through college. But I believe nothing comes from giving things away for free (as suggested by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders). I would like to see more high school grads involved in the work/study program of the kind that I was in. For others we should try to find the way to getthem associates degrees and vocational training. The economy and middle class survival is of concern to Indian-Americans. Intolerance of the kind that folks like Trump (Republican presidential candidate) talk about is another issue. They want the country that embraces diversity irrespective of name or religion.
Q: Are you representative of your district? How about the charge that you are too rich for it to feel its pulse?
A: My wife wouldn’t agree! My district is full of working families, from blue collar to professionals. I know something about that. Thanks to god, this beautiful country and the generosity of all Americans, I am where I am today. In one generation, my family has come from being in public housing to where I am today (Raja is a small business owner – Sivananthan Labs). I am ready to serve and give back. I have taken it as a solemn duty. The job of the government is to give a hand up to those in need.
Q: What is your position on the civil nuclear agreement with India?
A: Its good for both sides. At the same time India should be encouraged to make more efforts toward renewable energy.
Q: Has Bernie Sanders pushed Democratic campaigns to the left of center?
A: He has brought out issues that needed emphasis. He has reminded the country of issues that need to be focused on. He has done a good job of articulating the inequality that exists. He has for sure got the youth to participate. Even in my district that effect could be felt in the primaries.
Q: Who are your friends in the political field?
A: Jan Schakowsky (IL Congresswoman), the President, Jim Himes (CT Congressman). My first interaction with Jim was actually adversarial! I deposed him for 8 hours in a Goldman Sachs case. We have endorsed each other Joe Crowley (NY Congressman), Judy Chu (CA Congresswoman) and Ted Lieu (CA Congressman).
Q: Give us a story about your early days with the President. Was he Barack to you?
A: Yes he was Barack and even now in unguarded moments (smiles). I met him first at a law gathering. He made the mistake of catching up with me after. I remember him saying that he had one more race left in him and the Senate race wound up being a storybook one. He bounced off his DNC keynote speech off me. But what I remember most about him is when I dropped by his law office one day and he was on the phone. It was a long call and through it he was passionate and forceful. It turned out it was some pro bono domestic violence case. There were no cameras, but you had to see his empathy. He is strong about women’s rights and it shows in his family life. I think he has brought great dignity to the White House with his family and if I may, I would say he is a role model. He would pine to be with his family while on the campaign trail. Being with his family every evening was important to him. His first thoughts are of his kids. He likes Indian food. He loved what my mom served him.
Q: Where are your parents now?
A: I won the parent lottery. They were the ones who instilled a deep reverence in me for America and government. Appa is retired now after 40 years of teaching. He would tell me I could do anything I wanted – industrial, electronic or mechanical engineering! Amma worked at a hospital. She teaches Carnatic music. Appa plays the mrdangam. While campaigning its not unusual to have someone or the other walk up to me and say they know one or the other of my parents.
Q:Do you speak an Indian language?
A: I understand Tamil, can’t say I speak it with any fluency.
Q: When did you last go to India?
A: Last year to Chennai , to visit family.
Q: Do you have a favorite Bollywood film?
A: You got me there!
Q: Favorite Indian food?
A: Aloo Gobi
Q: Your political idol?
A: The President
A: Abraham Lincoln. He is of course from IL. From humble roots he reached the greatest of heights with an intellect that was capable of imagining a new America. He had generosity and grace but with a steely resolve that would play out well even today.
Q: Princeton or Harvard?
A: Princeton. I knew nothing. Had no real understanding of anything. The university gave me all the help it could, TA’s reached out getting me up to speed. I was able to graduate with honors. They did it.
Q: Donald Trump?
A: Americans are forward thinking and we have a love of humanity. What binds us will triumph.
Q: In three words describe yourself.
A: Persistent. Hardworking. Fortunate.