In American culture, Peoria, a small town in the state of Illinois, symbolises the country’s middle, as in the average Main Street ethos of the nation. It’s perhaps a testament to the cultural shift in the country that a candidate raised in Peoria is likely to become the first-ever Hindu of Indian origin to be elected to the United States House of Representatives.
That’s 43-year-old Raja Krishnamoorthi, the Democratic Party candidate for the 8th district of Illinois, who mulled over that distinction in a conversation, "It’s humbling, I think the Congress will increasingly look like America and reflect the diversity of America and I will hopefully be one part of that."
He's very likely to be sitting in that chamber in January next year. He won the primary with nearly 60 percent of the vote, and given that this is a Democratic district, a defeat in the general election on 8 November would be a significant upset. He’s clearly not taking victory for granted though, as he says, "Our campaign has clearly done a good job of creating a positive message and identity."
There are plenty of distinctions to distinguish Krishnamoorthi. Born in New Delhi, he came to America when he was merely three-month-old when his father joined graduate school in Buffalo in upstate New York. His family moved to Illinois in 1980, and he’s lived in the state for the vast part of his adult life, other than securing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Princeton University. Krishnamoorthi then went on to graduate from the Harvard Law School. He talks of the "privilege" of coming from a family that emerged from “moderate circumstances” and believing "it was very important to me to make sure others had the same opportunities for climbing the economic ladder."
He tasted politics “licking envelopes and planting yard signs for Bill Clinton, back in 1991”. His engagement, though, truly grew when he became involved in the political career of an emerging star from the state – a certain Barack Obama. Krishnamoorthi was a "lowly researcher" as Obama ran, unsuccessfully, for Congress in 2000, and he helped with the keynote speech Obama delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. He was the policy director for Obama’s 2004 campaign for the US Senate, one that propelled the current President onto the national stage. "I’ve known him since the summer of 1998," Krishnamoorthi says.
"We met at a civil rights reception. We’ve got to know each other quite well.” In fact, Obama has been to his parents’ home in Peoria for "typical" Indian home food, in this case, a vegetarian meal. It isn’t surprising then, that President Obama has endorsed Krishnamoorthi, one of just three House candidates so honoured. The candidate is obviously “thrilled” with that: “We feel very lucky to have his support.”
Obama was an inspiration in many ways for Krishnamoothi (who goes by the simpler name Raja on the campaign trail): "He proved that regardless of where you come from and what your name is, how you appear, people of Illinois are good, forward-looking people who really want to know what your ideas are and what your stand is and what kind of agenda and programme you’re bringing to the table. That really convinced me that someone like myself could potentially go out and succeed," he said.
Krishnamoorthi brings plenty more to the table than just vegetarianism – he’s also an entrepreneur, having established Sivanathan Laboratories in the Chicagoland area. That firm is a high technology business, manufacturing infrared night vision military technology and solar technology based on a similar method.
He maintains family ties in India, since many members still live in South India, particularly Tamil Nadu. Krishnamoorthi is optimistic about the India-US relationship keeping its momentum in the next administration: “I really look forward to helping to foster those ties,” he says.
Meanwhile, the November election is possibly not the only challenge that’s keeping him up at night. While he and his wife, Priya, a doctor, had two sons, their third child was born this summer. "It’s a little bit of a three-ring circus but I think that’s good preparation for Congress," he jokes. "I think that you hear a lot of different voices and a lot of people who are going in different directions and so, you have to keep your sanity and keep your wits about you and try to make the best of the situation and move things forward."