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Faces of the 115th Congress: Raja Krishnamoorthi

Illinois Democrat set to become second India-born House member in history

Krishnamoorthi is running for the House in Illinois's 8th District. (Courtesy of Raja for Congress)

If at first you don’t get elected try, try again — that was Raja Krishnamoorthi’s path to Congress.  

The 42-year-old businessman and attorney won the Democratic primary in Illinois’s 8th District on March 15 after two previous attempts at elected office. Krishnamoorthi’s nomination in the Democratic-leaning district in the Chicago suburbs makes him the prohibitive favorite in the general election, and the first likely new member of the 115th Congress.  

Krishnamoorthi would bring diversity to Capitol Hill next year, considering he would be just the second member born in India to serve in the House. California Democrat Dalip Saund Singh served from 1957-1963.  

Currently, California Democrat Ami Bera is the only Indian American in Congress, but he was born in Los Angeles. He was elected in 2012 after an initial loss in 2010. Former GOP Rep. Bobby Jindal’s parents were Indian immigrants, but the now-former governor was born in Louisiana. Like Krishnamoorthi, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado was born in New Delhi, but it was while his father was ambassador to India.  

“Congress increasingly represents the diversity of America,” Krishnamoorthi said in a recent interview. “If I’m privileged to be elected, I’d be blessed to represent a diverse district, including South Asians and Indian Americans.”  

He added: “Indian Americans are now taking the next step to take part in the American dream.”  

Krishnamoorthi is on target to replace Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who is challenging GOP Sen. Mark S. Kirk this year, and could keep the 8th District as the only seat between New York and California held by an Asian American. (Duckworth was born in Thailand.)  

The pair ran against each other in the 2012 primary, after Democrats in the state legislature redrew polarizing GOP Rep. Joe Walsh’s district to be considerably more Democratic. Duckworth was the establishment choice, after a narrow House loss in 2006 and serving in the veterans affairs departments at the state and federal level, and won the primary 66-34 percent.  

It was his second primary loss before he turned 40 after losing a race for state comptroller in 2010 by 1 percentage point.  

What did he learn? “Don’t run against Tammy Duckworth,” Krishnamoorthi joked in an interview before this year’s primary.  

But soon after Duckworth announced her bid for the Senate, Krishnamoorthi returned to the campaign trail. This time, he became the candidate to beat, securing endorsements from Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, five members of the Illinois delegation, and 10 members from outside the state, including Bera. He also raised over $1.6 million, considerably more than his opponents.  

Krishnamoorthi won the 2016 primary with 57 percent over state Sen. Mike Noland (29 percent) and Villa Park President Deb Bullwinkel (14 percent). He is the heavy favorite in the general election against Republican Pete DiCianni, a DuPage County board member who raised less than $136,000 through Feb. 24 in a district Barack Obama won with 62 percent and 57 percent in the last two presidential elections.  

Even before the previous losses, the road to Congress wasn’t easy for Krishnamoorthi.

'Climbed their way'

   

His family moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in the mid-1970s. After some economic struggles, the family lived for a time in public housing and on food stamps. Krishnamoorthi eventually grew up in Peoria, Ill., where his father became a professor at Bradley University.  

“My father found the religion of the United States,” the candidate said, talking about the American Dream. “My parents climbed their way to the middle class.” Krishnamoorthi was the product of public schools and went on to earn degrees from Princeton University (in mechanical engineering) and Harvard Law School.  

He clerked for a federal judge in Chicago before meeting up with a then-state senator named Barack Obama. Krishnamoorthi worked as a “low-level” staffer on Obama’s 2000 primary challenge to Rep. Bobby L. Rush and as issues director for Obama’s 2004 campaign for U.S. Senate.  

For a decade, Krishnamoorthi held various positions in the public and private sectors. He was partner at the large law firm Kirkland & Ellis, special assistant attorney general under Democrat Lisa Madigan, and deputy state treasurer. He’s currently president of Sivananthan Labs and Episolar, Inc., which develop and sell products such as night vision and infrared technology for defense and civilian applications.  

If elected, Krishnamoorthi would likely bring a fresh perspective to a Democratic Party that is sometimes viewed as being anti-business.

What's next?

   

“As a small businessperson, I’ll be able to talk to my colleagues in a real granular way about how hard it is to start and grow a small business,” he said. The candidate is in favor of immediately raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour (instead of the $15 per hour being pushed by some liberal groups), while also allowing variations for distinctions between rural and urban areas, where the minimum would need to be higher.  

The 8th District includes parts of Cook, DuPage, and Kane counties outside of Chicago and is home to headquarters for Sears, Motorola Solutions, and Zurich North America and just across the district line from McDonald’s corporate offices. (Krishnamoorthi lives in Schaumburg, a northwest suburb of Chicago, with his wife — a local doctor — and two young sons.)  

Even though Krishnamoorthi won the primary election handily, the seat wasn’t handed to him. There were rumblings that he was too wealthy for the blue collar district and EMILY’s List was openly searching for a female candidate to replace Duckworth. But Krishnamoorthi came to the race with a humility that comes with running (and losing) a couple of races and the experience to know how to build a strong, well-funded operation.  

Krishnamoorthi is likely to be a mainstream Democratic member who may reach across the aisle. The biggest question remaining is whether he will be in the majority or minority party next year.  

Faces of the 115th is a Roll Call series profiling those all but certain to become members of the Congress beginning in January 2017. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.