Raja Krishnamoorthi will assume office on Capitol Hill, despite being mistaken for Sen. Chris Murphy

Phone conversation with the debutant Congressman-elect from Illinois.

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NEW YORK: Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi, who beat Republican Peter DiCianni in the Nov. 8 elections, had a few hurdles on his way to debuting in the US House of Representatives from Illinois’ 8th District, especially trying to get across the pronunciation of his last name. That undoubtedly was a mindboggling effort for most non-Indian-origin Americans: a voter told him that he had already contributed to his campaign, but it turned out that he had erroneously sent money to the war chest of Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy (well, no point in trying to scratch your head on that one, if you’re not Caucasian).

Krishnamoorthi, 43, who was born to Tamil-origin parents in New Delhi, India, but moved to the US when he was three months old, didn’t try to find a solution to simplify his name to voters like another Indian American politician did successfully: Upendra Chivukula, who is at present the Commissioner of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, had early on in his political career, running for the State Assembly, in 2002, broke down his last name to ‘Chevy-Cola’. That struck a chord with most voters. It helped him win too.

Krishnamoorthi, on the other hand, barring a few mishaps, like the accidental donation to Sen. Murphy and an Irishman terming ‘Raja Krishnamoorthi’ as ‘Roger Christian Murphy’, decided to familiarize himself to voters with just his easy-on-the-tongue first name ‘Raja’ (now that has universal appeal, especially to Shahrukh Khan fans who know him as ‘Raj’ in multiple films!).

Raja Krishnamoorthi
Raja Krishnamoorthi

It also helped that voters fathomed that Krishnamoorthi was a very determined man in his zeal for public service, unfazed by two losses in Democratic primaries, beginning from 2000, for Comptroller, and then in 2012, for the US House of Representatives.

Voters also respected Krishnamoorthi’s stellar academic and work background to back his vision and judgment to help the community and nation progress: he has an undergraduate engineering degree from Princeton, before embarking for law school at Harvard. Along with being an attorney, Krishnamoorthi also managed couple of science research-oriented businesses – as president of Sivananthan Laboratories and, president of Episolar Inc.

Now, as Krishnamoorthi prepares to assume office in the 115th Congress on Jan. 3, and begin a new chapter in his life, he’s well aware of the challenges, conflicts and the fun of it, too, which await him for the next two years, before the onerous process of elections begin anew.

In a conference call with some Indian-origin journalists, on Thursday, Krishnamoorthi delved into a few topics: his recent visit to Tamil Nadu, India, with his family, including his toddler daughter Sonia, who was born in May of this year (his wife Priya is a doctor, and he has two other children, Vijay, 11, and Vikram, 7); trying to help the middle class in the US – the main thrust of his campaign; and how he wants to give President-elect Donald Trump a chance to lead the nation and bring the country together, but would not compromise with his own ethics and ideology if it comes to that (“ I want to give Trump the benefit of the doubt”, he explained); and that he’s excited to work and collaborate with four other Indian Americans on Capitol Hill – incumbent Rep.-elect Ami Bera, and newbies like him, Rep.-elect Ro Khanna, Rep.-elect Pramila Jayapal and Sen.–elect Kamala Harris – Democrats all.

Krishnamoorthi, Khanna and Jayapal would be among 56 new members of the House of Representatives (42 Republicans and 14 Democrats), while Harris would be among four new Senators (three Democrats and one Republican).

Krishnamoorthi revealed in the phone conversation that though he doesn’t know his congressional committee assignments so far, he’s been in touch with the other four Indian American politicians through text messages. He would also, in keeping with law, resign from his companies by the end of this year, to avoid any conflict of interest.

“Regardless of what Committee I get assigned to, I will be working to promote my campaign platform that people elected me to fulfill – to help the middle class,” said Krishnamoorthi.

Krishnamoorthi, who came to the US after his father enrolled as a graduate student in engineering, spent the first few years of his life living in public housing, getting food stamps to get by. He, thus, is well aware of the struggles of the middle class to achieve the American Dream.

On bringing down cost for college education, he expounded on the prospects of two-year degrees and technical certifications after finishing high school as well as making community colleges free of cost for students. With automation replacing human labor rapidly, that well might be the way forward in years to come. Krishnamoorthi pointed out that Tennessee has made community college free and 15,000 students have signed up for it.

Krishnamoorthi paid tribute to voters in his district terming them as ‘open minded’ and decent’ – comprising of a diverse community which has substantial Indian and Pakistani-origin voters. The 8th Congressional district in Illinois covers parts of Cook, DuPage, and Kane counties. It comprises all or parts of Addison, Barrington Hills, Bloomingdale, Carol Stream, Carpentersville, East Dundee, Elgin, Elk Grove Village, Glendale Heights, Hanover Park, Hoffman Estates, Lombard, Palatine, Roselle, Schaumburg, South Elgin, Streamwood, Villa Park and Wood Dale. Krishnamoorthi and his family live in Schaumburg.

Unlike Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has often shied away from talking of his Indian-origin roots, Krishnamoorthi is deeply attached to his Indian upbringing, and talked at length of the development and optimism in masses, on each of his visits to India.

“There is increased optimism, increased spirit. Economic development is on the rise. Not just in India, but around the world. I have seen my family purchase their first refrigerator, their first TV, their first automobile…to see that leap in one generation is remarkable. Opened my eyes to economic opportunities,” he said. “There’s a crackdown on corruption underway. It’s a good thing,” he added, alluding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetization move.

(Sujeet Rajan is Editor-in-Chief, The American Bazaar. Follow him @SujeetRajan1)

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