With an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard, Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi doesn’t seem like the most likely member of Congress to champion working-class concerns.
Since the first-generation American (and Democrat) joined Congress in 2016, however, he has become best known for seeking to restore what he calls the “dignity of work,” leading an overhaul of a federal education program and enabling states to divert more resources to help students interested in career technical education.
“Unfortunately, we sometimes kind of focus on those careers that really are a product of going to a four-year college,” Krishnamoorthi said in an interview with The Daily Caller. “We have to recognize a vast majority of our friends, neighbors, loved ones and others are not going to a four-year college, and they’re going to end up on kind of another path.”
“I have been talking to a lot of people across the country, everybody, saying we need to get rid of the stigma attached to not going to a four-year college,” Krishnamoorthi added.
The Daily Caller: Your relationship with President Obama preceded your own political career by several years. How did that begin?
Krishnamoorthi: Interestingly enough, I initially volunteered on his campaign for Congress in 1999 and 2000. He ended up losing the primary election that year. In 2002, he said, “I have one race left in me. I want to run for the U.S. Senate.” He asked if I could run policy, so I ended up becoming policy director for that campaign.
I went into Illinois government after that. I got appointed to the board of the Illinois Housing Development Authority. I helped start the anti-corruption unit for the Illinois attorney general’s office. I became the deputy state treasurer and vice-chair of the Illinois innovation council, which was the governor’s technology arm.
So, basically, it was President Obama’s Senate campaign that launched me into Illinois government and later inspired me to run.
The Daily Caller: Your Illinois roots began in your childhood. How did you adopt the state?
Krishnamoorthi: I was actually born in India. My father immigrated to study engineering at the University of New York in Buffalo. He then went back to India to get married, I was born, and my mother and I joined him in the [United States]. He ended up getting his first, and really only, permanent position at Bradley University teaching engineering in Peoria, Illinois. They’ve been there for 40 years, and that’s where I grew up.
The Daily Caller: Since you were elected to the House, the legislative initiative you’ve been most associated with is improving the flexibility states have to promote career and technical education. That’s interesting because it’s an area where a lot of Republicans can agree. Why has that been your priority?
Krishnamoorthi: So before I came to Congress, I was a small businessman. I’m one of the members of the Democratic Congress who ran a small business before coming to Capitol Hill. This firm did a lot of work in research and development in the security sector. We had a very hard time finding talented people to take jobs, so I had a long-term interest in this issue.
It really crystallized when I came to Capitol Hill because there are two interesting statistics your readers should know about. One is that there are seven million unfilled jobs in the workforce because employers can’t find people with the experience or skills necessary to fill them. The second is that only one-third of Americans have a four-year college degree, that number is not changing anytime soon.
I decided that the best way we can enable those Americans to have a path to the middle class, as well as enable employers to find the talent that they need, is to train these people who are ambitious, hard-working and “on the bench.” They’re waiting to be trained and employed.
That’s where career technical education comes in. The Carls D. Perkins — or CTE — law is the primary federal vehicle for funding skills-based education across the country at all community colleges and high school, but it hasn’t been modernized in more than 12 years — before the iPhone was invented. Despite many tries, all of the attempts failed in the House and the Senate.
[Pennsylvania Republican] Rep. G.T. Thompson and I introduced the most recent attempt to modernize Perkins. This time, it got through the House; we finally got it through the Senate six months ago, and President Trump signed it into law four months ago.
It’s a big deal. I think it’s going to enable millions of people to get a family-sustaining job and a path to the middle class, and to really take our economy to new heights.
The Daily Caller: On the topic of blue-collar constituents, both parties are probably thinking a lot about what they need to do to win the Rust Belt in 2020. Do you think Democrats are doing enough to that end?
Krishnamoorthi: I think we’re starting to do more, but we need to do a lot more. I personally think that we have to always value the dignity of work, regardless of what it is. Unfortunately, we sometimes kind of focus on those careers that really are a product of going to a four-year college.
We have to recognize a vast majority of our friends, neighbors, loved ones and others are not going to a four-year college, and they’re going to end up on kind of another path. They could be a tradesperson — a plumber, carpenter or electrician. But they could also be a claims analyst, solar panel installer or cybersecurity expert.
In a lot of cases, you don’t need a four-year college degree to get those jobs. I have been talking to a lot of people across the country — Democrats, Republicans and everybody — saying we need to get rid of the stigma attached to not going to a four-year college.
We have to make sure that, instead, we do two things. One: we have to modernize our skills-based education. Perkins allows for innovation at the state and local level. And secondly, we have to encourage a culture of lifelong learning regardless of what post-secondary route we travel. None of us can just stick to the education that we may have gotten 10, 20 or 30 years ago. We have to upgrade — “upskill” — ourselves so that we can stay on the cutting edge.
The Daily Caller: What priorities do you think your colleagues in Congress should focus on for the next two years if they want to get re-elected?
Krishnamoorthi: I think we need to continue to deliver for the middle class. I think one reason I was hired and re-hired for this job, I ran on an agenda of what do we do to help grow the middle class. In a sentence, it entails helping everyone onto the “up” escalator of the economy.
If you’re working-poor and willing to work hard, you should be able to get to the middle class. If you’re in the middle class and working hard, playing by the rules, you should be able to survive and thrive. If you want to take a risk, start a small business and create some prosperity for your community and country, we want you to succeed. Whatever you have to do to get to each of those places, we want to help you along the way.
One of the policies I’m going to continue to promote in the next Congress is rewarding companies who invest in their workers, especially small and medium-sized businesses. I and [Virginia Democratic] Sen. Mark Warner have put forward the Invest in American Workers Act, which basically provides a tax credit when a business — above what it normally does — invests in worker training. We want to definitely help those businesses who are doing the right thing by their workers.
I believe there are other policies we should continue to promote beyond workforce development. One is investing in infrastructure. You don’t have to go far to see our competitors on the world stage are investing massive amounts of money in telecom and logistics infrastructure. If we don’t do the same, we won’t be able to keep up.
We also need to control the cost of healthcare, and prescription drug prices are a big part of that. The Oversight Committee, which I’m on, has jurisdiction oversight over this particular issue. Given that President Trump is interested in this, as well, hopefully we can get something accomplished.
The Daily Caller: Speaking of the Oversight Committee, you just had a hearing with former FBI Director James Comey. How much do you think Congress should pursue questions into the issue of what Comey and his colleagues in the intelligence community did or did not do to surveil President Trump, and how much should Congress pursue the issue of Trump’s alleged misdeeds?
Krishnamoorthi: I think [my colleagues and I] were hired to be in Congress, and this time to take the majority, to deliver on certain promises for the middle class.
On the other hand, another part of the equation was definitely to make sure there’s a check and balance on the Trump administration and to perform our duty and oversight. So I think we’re going to continue to have to do that on Oversight and on other committees.
My hope is that we can avoid fishing expeditions. We don’t want to engage in purely, kind of partisan exercises meant to create rhetoric, and basically meant to create smoke and not shed light. We need to bring transparency to our government, make sure there’s no corruption or self-dealing or ethical lapses. We have to do that on Oversight.
The Daily Caller: Are there any candidates you’re leaning toward supporting in the 2020 presidential election?
Krishnamoorthi: I am staying out of the fray right now regarding 2020 presidential candidates. It does seem like there’s a strong number of people of Congress, both in the House and Senate, who will be traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire in the near future. Whoever flies there from Washington is probably going to get some business.
The Daily Caller: What’s on your recommended reading list?
Krishnamoorthi: One is Start-up Nation. Basically, it’s the story of Israel. It’s a fascinating account of how and why so many start-ups take root in Israel and succeed. I think it’s really an interesting look at the culture there, and the ingredients for success in a startup, which is really woven into the fabric of Israel’s society.
I tend to read kind of geeky books from time to time. One I really like is “Peak” by Anders Ericsson. It’s the idea of what is necessary to develop expertise in a subject. He kind of disagrees with Malcolm Gladwell’s [idea that it takes] 10,000 hours. He takes a look at the idea it’s not an amount of time, it’s focused practice. He looks at violinists, basketball players, dancers. It’s an interesting look at life and expertise, and it reminded me of the amount of time my office spent on the Carl D. Perkins Act, which was 10,000 hours.
Those are two I would highly recommend. I am looking to get on to my next Lincoln book; I’m from the Land of Lincoln, so I try to read at least one book a year on Lincoln.