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From an Orphanage in Calcutta to New York State Senate, Jeremy Cooney’s Audacious Journey

From an Orphanage in Calcutta to New York State Senate, Jeremy Cooney’s Audacious Journey

Alpana Varma
  • Adopted by an Irish American single mother Cooney sees himself as one raised by the entire Rochester community which he now represents in Albany.

His zeal and passion to serve the community that has given him so much, has been Democrat Jeremy Cooney’s driving force in the race for office. After an unsuccessful attempt in 2018 in which the then incumbent New York State Senator Joe Robach remained entrenched in his seat, the results this Nov. 3 certainly brought cheer. When the final vote count last week showed a victory by a margin of 14,500 votes, over Republican rival Mike Barry, it was indeed humbling for him. “It is clear who the residents of the 56th Senate District have chosen to serve as their next state senator,” he was overjoyed at flipping the seat. 

He was quick to credit his adopted mother for all his success. The most important influence in his life has been his mother, Cooney tells American Kahani: “None of my successes would have been possible without her love and guidance and I miss her every day. Her work as a professor at Monroe County College instilled in me a lifelong appreciation for education and public service.”

Born in an orphanage in Calcutta, Cooney was adopted as an infant by his single mother in Rochester, New York, with the church and the community of Rochester as her pillars of support. Even though he was always conscious of being different growing up in a white environment, he always received immense love and this is what he gives back wholeheartedly. “I think voters recognized my genuine love for the Rochester community, which, as a collective, helped raise me.” He went on to add, “the thousands of neighbors we connected with were able to see my deep roots in the community and agreed with my vision for ‘what’s next’ for upstate New York.”

Jeremy Cooney with his wife Diane.

Cooney has often said that he was raised in a home with Irish values that placed a lot of emphasis on family, faith and community. Talking to American Kahani, Cooney said, although he was raised in an American home with Irish roots, he did get plenty of exposure to the Indian community as he was growing up. In the 1970s there had been a large migration of educated Indians who came to work in engineering or healthcare jobs in Rochester, he said. Then, while he was still at school, he went with his mother to spend a month in Calcutta, to get the cultural connection to his “home” and he was very much touched by the experience. 

Cooney strongly identifies himself as an Indian American and proudly states that he is the first Asian American to be elected to the New York Senate from Upstate. “I hope we have opened this door and now more Asians will come out and run for office, at all levels. Even the local school board elections are very important, you know,” he said. In the past Indians tended to be very insular, as they didn’t feel the need to come out and make the effort to mingle with others. They stayed within their groups and remained very focused on family, work, career and professions, he said. “But now we see increasingly that Indians want to connect to the larger community,” he added referring to the unprecedented large number of South Asian American contestants in the recent elections. 

One incident that Cooney shares with some emotion is when an Indian American voter told him that he would tell his son, “Look you too can run for office. Someone who looks like you (in terms of skin color) has made it.” This made him swell with pride and also acknowledge the responsibility that comes with it, of representing a larger ethnic group. 

Although he was raised in an American home with Irish roots, he did get plenty of exposure to the Indian community as he was growing up.

Cooney appreciates the tremendous support he has received from the Indian American community during the election. “The campaign has deepened my connection to my roots, to my home culture and I feel accepted by them,” saying that some of his biggest supporters and donors were Indian Americans. “This means a lot to me.” 

On a lighter note, he narrated an incident when he met a woman from New York City who asked him, “where are you from” and he replied, “I’m from Calcutta.” She replied, “Oh, I am from Calcutta too and I will help you.” Stories like these tug at his heart.

Mother’s Suffering

After attending public high schools, he obtained scholarships for college and went on to graduate cum laude in Public Policy Studies and then studied law and got a PhD in law. At college he was student body president and even did a study abroad term in central Europe, spending time in Germany, Romania and Hungary. He returned to Upstate to take care of his mother suffering from dementia and cancer. “Ultimately, it was her end of life challenges with health care access that pushed me to run for state office,” Cooney told American Kahani.

Cooney dedicated his career to giving back to the community that helped raise him. He worked at all levels of government — serving as an aide to the late Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, law clerk to Gov. David Patterson, and Chief of Staff to Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren.

Jeremy Cooney and Monroe County Democrats.

Among the issues close to his heart, is no doubt, healthcare, which, he says, is too expensive and has not worked for too long. Families struggle with co-pay and seniors are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and denial of access. On taxes, he feels strongly about increasing the burden on the rich, and reducing it on small businesses, who, he says are the mainstay of employment in the country. 

See Also

Universal Basic Income

He is very keen to try out a universal basic income (UBI) pilot in a small Rochester community of 750,000 people and see how it bears out. “I am not sure if it is the only solution,” but he likes the idea of UBI, as propounded by Andrew Yang, who also endorsed Cooney’s campaign. He says his studies in economics have shown him that citizens will make the most rational choices for themselves. This should be a far better option than letting the government decide what people would spend on. It is also better than giving the money to a nonprofit. “Everyone has different needs and should be allowed to prioritize the spending.”

On Biden’s win, he says, “Our work is not finished, but it’s terrific to see Donald Trump’s bigotry and dangerous politics soundly rejected by the American public. I have had the pleasure of meeting President-elect Biden and I know he is a genuinely good man who loves his country and only wants the best for our nation.”

He hopes that a Biden presidency can work to unite the country and dial down the hateful rhetoric — on both sides. “We need a President that believes in science, equal application of the rule of law, and democracy for all.

Cooney says he cannot wait to get started representing his home. In his late Twitter message, he announced that his wife Diane and he have cancelled the 5-person family get together for Thanksgiving and urged everyone to do the same. 


Alpana Varma worked as a Research Assistant at the Delhi University and then as a journalist for over 10 years for several leadng Indian national dailies. After leaving India for Europe, she has been working as a teacher, translator and freelance writer and editor. She lived in Mexico briefly where she worked in intercultural communications. Currently she is based in Miami. 

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