Winning wasn’t everything for Krishnamoorthi. Then along came Obama

Illinois Democrat recalls how the former president helped him break a losing streak as a campaign aide

Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi worked on Barack Obama’s early campaigns for the House and Senate. The former president “was in the world of politics and public service for the right reasons,” Krishnamoorthi says. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi worked on Barack Obama’s early campaigns for the House and Senate. The former president “was in the world of politics and public service for the right reasons,” Krishnamoorthi says. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 28, 2021 at 5:30am

When Raja Krishnamoorthi first bumped elbows with a future president in 1998, he wasn’t looking for a winner. 

In fact, he had a pretty solid record of volunteering for candidates who lost, so the idea of supporting a long-shot bid for Congress didn’t faze him. 

Barack Obama lost that first messy House primary, set his sights even higher, and the rest is history. But for the law student who helped set his policy agenda, those days are still fresh in his mind. 

Now a third-term congressman himself, Krishnamoorthi remembers basement meetings and attic huddles with a candidate who was “about as different from the mainstream politician as they come.” That inspired him.

“I didn’t know how people would view someone like myself running for office,” the Illinois Democrat told CQ Roll Call in 2017, when he first came to Congress. “I have an interesting name, as you can tell. There are 18 letters in there, in case you were wondering.”

Four years out from the Obama presidency, some in Washington are thinking back to that era, eager to compare and contrast. “Hope and change” feel a world away from a pandemic and violent extremists storming Capitol Hill. But Krishnamoorthi has some advice for anyone wondering whether now is the right time to pick a career in politics or public service.

“Don’t wait,” he says. “Get involved now.”

Q: How did you first meet Obama?

A: I met him at a civil rights reception in Chicago. Somebody said, “Hey, you’re both from the same law school.” He had graduated like six or seven years before. 

Then he made the mistake of inviting me out to lunch. I’m not even sure whether we had that lunch, but we had a meeting after that, and he was telling me about his aspiration to run for Congress. And I said, “That sounds great. How can I help?” So he plugged me into his research efforts through a guy named Dan [Shomon], who was his campaign manager at the time. 

Q: It sounds like you made an impression.

A: Oh, I don’t know about that. I can’t tell whether he was being polite, or what prompted the invitation. 

It was at the Museum of Science and Industry, actually, and I remember we all sang the Black National Anthem as part of the event. But that was the first meeting.

Q: What drew you toward working for the campaign, knowing that he was going to challenge an incumbent? 

A: I had been on many campaigns by that point, doing research on policy issues — and I don't think any of those campaigns prevailed, by the way. So my track record was pretty poor in choosing to work for winners. 

But I was just interested in people that seemed to genuinely want to do something positive and meaningful in their communities, and he struck me as one of those types. So that’s why I signed up yet again. Being the winner was not my main criterion for who I volunteered for.

Q: What was your typical day like?

A: At that point I was a law student, and I was also in a summer associate position in a law firm. So basically I did whatever I could in my spare time. I would research and write short memos and then answer questions.

I think you know what happened with that particular campaign against Bobby Rush. And by the way, Congressman Rush reminds Barack Obama of that result every time they meet, even today. 

After that, we kept in touch. Then, in the summer of 2002, I met him in his law office, which was in an attic of a house. That law firm [Miner, Barnhill & Galland] was so small that they used a house as their office. He said, “I have one race left in me,” and I said, “What is it?” and he said, “I’m going to run for U.S. Senate. Michelle said I can run for U.S. Senate,” or something along those lines. “She gave me permission.” 

I about fell out of my chair, because at that point, people had prematurely written his political obituary. They basically said, you know, he’s kind of done for in higher office, because of the aftermath of the Bobby Rush race. 

But, as I said before, I had felt deeply that he was in the world of politics and public service for the right reasons. Winning a race was not my criterion. 

He said, “Can you help me?” and I said, “Of course. What do you need?” And he said, “Can you run my policy, essentially?” — I think we came up with “issues director” or something like that — and I said, “Sure. How much does it pay?” He said, “Nothing.” And I said, “Sign me up.”

It was another volunteer gig, but this time the responsibilities were huge in the sense that it really did become kind of a full-time job for me on top of my full-time job. 

Q: What’s your favorite story from that time on the trail?

A: There was some kind of event we attended in the summer of 2002 in an attorney’s home on the North Shore in Chicago, which is a really affluent area. Afterward, I asked him, “What are you doing next?” and he said, “Well, it’s time for ice cream. I got to take my girls out for ice cream now.” The reason that left a mark on me is because Barack Obama, among all the people I’ve ever met in public service, is one of the most devoted family men. Family came first in a lot of ways. 

There’s another moment that struck me. I talked about campaigns I worked on that didn’t end up in victory, and one of those was Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign. I was on his national advance team, so I got to know him pretty well. Anyway, after Barack Obama announced his Senate candidacy, I then reached out to Bill Bradley and said would you be willing to meet him when you’re in Chicago, with the idea that hopefully we can maybe arrange an endorsement. So we met in this basement of a hotel — a nice hotel, but like a basement cafe or something. I remember Barack Obama was so impressed, because you know he’s a huge basketball fan and followed Bradley very closely on the Knicks. But he also admired Bradley’s principled stands on the issues and thought of him as a workhorse senator, a real hard worker.

That conversation was fascinating, because Obama was so impressed with Bradley, but Bradley became so impressed with Obama that he ended up endorsing him.

Q. I’m hearing a lot of basements and attics.

A: That was the glamorous life of Barack Obama in the past. [Laughs.]

Q: So he was successful in that Senate race. Did you consider staying on and following him to Washington to become a Hill staffer?

A: I did. He invited me, but I ended up staying [behind] for a couple of reasons. One, I believe my wife was expecting our first around that time, and if I'm not mistaken, she was finishing up her residency, her medical training. I really didn't want to disrupt any of that. Two, he inspired me to consider getting even more involved in public service in Illinois. 

The end of his campaign was like a storybook political event. When I joined, nobody besides perhaps him and people like me thought he had a chance of winning because the field was so huge and there were so many potential pitfalls along the way. But he ended up prevailing in a huge victory. I was just struck by how the people of Illinois — they’re good people, and they look past your race and ethnicity to see who you are as a person. I really felt good feelings about the people of Illinois who selected this person who was about as different from the mainstream politician as they come as their next U.S. senator.

Q: It’s a hard time to work in politics or on Capitol Hill as a staffer, whether that’s lack of diversity or low pay, or now the attack on Jan. 6. What do you say to those staffers?

A: I say to them that we're going to get through this. We're going to do it together. We're going to support each other. That's the only way that we're going to get through this. 

Even at the same time that we hold people accountable and investigate what happened and deeply reflect on how to proceed going forward, we also have to learn how we can work together in ways that help to stitch us together again. Because we do share a lot more in common than divides us. 

We just have to find those places and moments and issues where we can really join hands and move forward under [President] Joe Biden. 

Q: Would you advise young people to get involved in politics right now?

A: Oh, absolutely. First of all, I would advise people to make sure they have at least a season of public service, if not a career of public service, and that goes for everybody. 

If you're interested in politics of any kind, find that person, that man or woman, who inspires you and get going — work for them, volunteer for them, do whatever it takes to get them into office. 

Obviously, if you have an interest in government service, you can do that too, you can volunteer in different people's offices, you can do internships. Don't wait. Get involved now. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.