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How to Navigate the Competing Pulls of Polarized Constituents: A Conversation With Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi

How to Navigate the Competing Pulls of Polarized Constituents: A Conversation With Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi

  • The Illinois Congressman in his third term talks about the many challenges the country is facing, including the much-needed immigration reform.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi was friends with Barack Obama since the late 1990s when the latter was a struggling politician in Chicago. Krishnamoorthi has been one of the most influential Congressmen to spring from President Obama’s coattails when he was first elected to Congress in 2017. He represents Illinois’s 8th congressional district, which is not only ethnically diverse, but hosts deeply polarized Indian and South Asian American communities. He takes criticism from all quarters, particularly from the extreme left, in stride, keeping his focus on unifying the community in common purpose. “The only way we are going to be able to safeguard our families is if we unify, and confront the common challenges we have,” he told American Kahani. But navigating the pulls and pressures of the competing interests and ideologies of his constituents is not the only challenging assignment Krishnamoorthi has as a U.S. Representative.

The third-term Congressman has just back from a week overseas, where as part of the group of House Intelligence Committee members, he visited U.S. military officials and intelligence analysts in Germany, Poland, and Austria, and discussed U.S. efforts to support the Ukrainian war effort.

In June, he easily won the Democratic primary, defeating Indian American challenger Junaid Ahmed. With 85 percent of the precincts reporting, Krishnamoorthi received 28,222 or 70.5 percent of the votes, while Ahmed got 11,816 or 29.5 percent. He will face GOP candidate Chris Dargis in the November polls.

Last week, he joined Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York and Sara Jacobs of California in launching a probe on reproductive health data privacy. He has expressed his pleasure about Biden’s recent action to protect access to reproductive care and medication but says there’s more to be done. “I am very concerned about the numerous states that are essentially banning abortions,” he says. “To me that’s an attack on the fundamental freedoms of Americans, and of course women,” he adds. “Reproductive rights are fundamental rights; it’s a human right. You should be able to control your body and you should be able to determine your reproductive health.”

The Congressman has lauded President Biden for passing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which strengthens background checks for weapon purchases. As a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, he participated in a hearing in May where he questioned different witnesses about the Uvalde, Texas massacre. He pointed out how the gun industry “has crossed so many red lines,” including marketing assault weapons to children. “This is absolutely unacceptable, and I think the majority of Democrats and Republicans oppose this level of gun violence and this free access to guns.” 

Additionally, Krishnamoorthi has advocated his own bill that would have a three-day waiting period for the purchase of guns, “and will be a vital step for cooling down crimes of passion.” He is also urging additional federal legislation to fully address mass shootings. 

A longtime champion of reforming the immigration system for high-skilled immigrants, he is an original cosponsor of the Equal Access to Green Cards for Legal Employment (EAGLE) Act (H.R. 3648).

Krishnamoorthi sat down for a conversation with American Kahani at his office in Washington, D.C. recently, and discussed several issues, including the growing gun violence in America, the challenges facing the country with the overturning of Roe v Wade, the policies he’s working on and the challenges he’s been facing in navigating a large and diverse South Asian American community in his district, especially on matters relating to immigration. Excerpts from the interview:

What are your thoughts on the ongoing Jan. 6 hearings?

The Jan. 6 hearings are on the top of the mind of some of the members of Congress including myself because I lived through it. A bomb was placed 200 feet from my office window and I was evacuated multiple times that day. It was one of the most harrowing days that we lived through. It was a dark day for Democracy and we are still living with the scars from that day. These hearings are crucial for understanding how it was planned, why it happened, what went wrong, and how we prevent this from happening again. That’s why everybody is paying attention to the details, especially the testimonies given by Trump administration officials during their videotaped and live depositions. 

Are these hearings in the minds of the general public? Are they having any impact?

I think everybody should pay attention to what’s happening because at the end of the day this is about whether or not we are going to respect the word of the people through the election process; whether violence should ever be used as a tool of change. And I think the answer is absolutely — 100 percent — no. Also, how do we prevent this from happening again, and hold accountable those people who committed crimes on that day. That’s why people should pay attention because it’s about the fundamentals of democracy. I know there are other issues people care about, but at the same time that we are considering dealing with those issues, we should also be talking about how to make sure Jan. 6 never happens again. 

What would you tell parents who are worried and concerned about sending their kids to school this fall?

Priya and I are parents to three school-aged kids — 17, 13 and a 6-year-old. So we live with these issues every day. And every time I go to my children’s school, it does sometimes feel like you are visiting a prison, given the lockdown measures that have been put in place. I am always concerned about how that affects their mental health long-term. Obviously, we are all concerned about receiving that text ‘that your child’s school has now been targeted by some deranged gunman.’ I think what these parents need to do is continue to have their voices heard in the ongoing discussion/debate about reducing gun violence and pitting common-sense gun reforms. Indian American parents, desi parents, Asian parents, everybody for that matter, regardless of ethnicity, need to speak up.

The other hot-button topic is Roe v Wade. What steps do you propose to take to ensure that women are provided easy and safe access to abortion?

I am very concerned about the numerous states that are essentially going to ban abortions, and to me, that’s an attack on the fundamental freedoms of Americans, and of course women. Reproductive rights are fundamental rights; it’s a human right. You should be able to control your body and you should be able to determine your reproductive health. We need to codify Roe V Wade. I am proud that the House has passed the Women’s Health Protection Act which codifies Roe v Wade, but now that’s basically being filibustered in the Senate. I think long term the only way we are going to be able to police these rights is by electing officials and holding accountable those already in office for their views and their votes on reproductive rights. Until now I don’t think we have sufficiently held people accountable for their viewpoints, and now we must. There’s no other choice.

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Can you give us an update on the immigration reforms that are in the offing. The green card backlog for Indians is still an issue.

Well, the House had passed many of these pieces of legislation and now they are sitting in the Senate. They haven’t come up for consideration. So I am very concerned because 30 percent of my constituents are immigrants. So immigration is kind of part of the lifeblood of my district. But frankly, I think our immigration system is — if you will — the competitive killer app that the United States possesses, that a very few countries do, and that has made our country exceptional. With regard to progress, I am pushing a couple of amendments to another bill called the COMPETE ACT, also known as the Chips Act, which is under consideration in the House and the Senate. My amendments will exempt from the green card quotas, certain advanced degree holders in the STEM field and certain related fields. I think that’ll help a lot with the green card backlog as well if we can get that passed. 

With 30 percent of your constituents being immigrants, and a large part of them tracing their roots to India and the subcontinent, are you, as their representative, and an Indian American, expected to comment on issues in those parts of the world?

Yes. There are a number of people who believe I should comment and give my viewpoints on what’s happening in other countries, not just India. And I have. I try not to do it on a frequent basis because I’m pretty occupied with what’s happening here. But on the other hand, when something happens that is so serious that it deserves a comment then I make that comment, I put out statements. By now I think a lot of people have probably seen these statements on a number of issues with regards to minority rights in India, and the erosion of secular democracy, not only there, but here. How do we make sure that minority rights are upheld everywhere? Because to me — I go back to this saying — which is that in a democracy our diversity is our strength, but our unity is our power. If you don’t uphold minority rights then you are sapping the strength and the power and the potential of a country to succeed, economically and in so many other ways. That’s why I believe so strongly in this issue. 

Indian Americans are getting more and more divided when it comes to issues related to India. How do you navigate these divides?

I try to be consistent in what I say, what my principles are, so that people understand where I come from, and how I review a particular issue. I believe so strongly in secular democracy that I have written about it. Last year, on the International Day of Conscience, I wrote a long Medium post about it. And ever since then I’ve been issuing statements on it repeatedly. Recently, I just put out a statement regarding certain officials of the BJP (India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party) having made some really offensive comments about Prophet Mohammed, and how they were disciplined by the party. I wanted to make my own views on the remarks known because they were so serious. I think that the more I am talking about my principles and putting them in action, it sends a message that we should all stand for what we believe in, regardless of our religion. 

Any final thoughts?

The only way we as Indian Americans, Pakistani Americans, or Indian origin people or desis, or any type of Americans, are going to be able to safeguard our families is if we unify, and confront the common challenges we have. Whether it is reducing gun violence, protecting women’s rights, liberties and freedoms, or putting everyone on the ‘up’ escalator regardless of class and occupation and where you come from, or how you pray, or how many letters there are in your name — there are 29 in mine! The only way we are going to be able to deal with these challenges is if we are in this together. We can definitely disagree on certain issues. But, the way in which we talk about those differences, and keeping a perspective on where we can work together, even as we might disagree on certain issues, is really important. We are going to make progress as a whole. That’s where I am focused. That’s what I try to do every day. You can also see from my constituent services that we have helped literally thousands and thousands of people at this point, with their most personal challenges like immigration, reuniting with a family member, or getting a Social Security check, or making sure that someone gets their PPP loan to survive. I am so proud of what we as an office have done. We don’t care whether you voted for me or not, or what party you are. That is what being a representative means. You represent everybody regardless of their background or their political preferences. I will continue to do that to the utmost of my ability because this is an honor of my lifetime to represent this constituency in Washington, D.C.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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