The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law
Raja Krishnamoorthi’s Remarks at the Peoria County Bar Association’s Diversity Luncheon, September 2, 2010
Thank you for having me today. I’d like to start with some humor, and I wanted to mention a story I heard about a Peorian and his attorney. The Peorian asked his attorney about his fees, and the attorney responded that he charged $500 for three questions. The Peorian asked, “Isn’t that a bit high?” The attorney replied, “Yes, and what’s your third question?”
When I was asked the question of whether I could address today’s Diversity Luncheon, I very much appreciated the opportunity, and I’m excited to be here today.
I’d like to thank the Peoria County Bar Association and its President, Karl Kuppler, as well as the Diversity Committee and its officers and members, including John Kim, Adrian Barr, and Sonni Choi Williams, for having me here as well as making the arrangements for today.
I’d also like to thank my friends and former teachers, including my French teacher and 4th grade homeroom teacher, who are here today.
Last, I’d like to thank Senator Dave Koehler for his warm introductory remarks. He’s one of the most intelligent, hard-working, and honest legislators in Springfield. I should also note that he is a crime-fighter. In November 2009, he fought off and subdued an armed assailant who assaulted him at his business. At first, the assailant asked the Senator for his money, which the Senator dutifully handed over. Then, the assailant asked the Senator for his cell phone. At that point, the Senator let him have it…If you need economic assistance, feel free to ask the Senator for help, but please don’t mess with his cell phone. Things could get ugly! Thank you again, Senator Koehler.
It’s great to be back in Peoria, where I’m among many friends. My observations regarding issues of diversity are rooted in my background, which I’d like to briefly touch upon. I was born in India, and my family moved to Peoria when my father obtained his first and only teaching job he’s ever had – namely as a professor, teaching engineering at Bradley University. Indeed, he has been on the faculty there for over 30 years. I was raised in Peoria, where I attended grade school and high school, and I made some of my closest friends here.
I went off to college and law school, and I returned to Illinois where I clerked for a federal judge. Then, I joined an Illinois law firm and eventually became a partner in the litigation department. In 1999, I met a man who changed my trajectory, namely Barack Obama. I worked on his campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, which didn’t go so well, but in 2002, I became policy director for his U.S. Senate campaign, and for those of you, regardless of party who have a dream in your heart, but don’t know how it will come to pass, his campaign is instructive. He defied all the odds to first become his party’s nominee and later a U.S. Senator. The rest is history.
After this campaign, I entered public service at the state level. I joined the Board of the Illinois Housing Development Authority; and I was later appointed a Special Assistant Attorney General and helped start the AG’s Public Integrity Unit. Unfortunately, business was good! Then I became Deputy Treasurer for Illinois, overseeing a multi-billion-dollar program budget and almost 100 state employees across the state. I’m proud to report that despite my state government service in these different offices, I have not been indicted for anything!
In the spring of last year, I decided to run for State Comptroller, which is the Chief Fiscal Officer position for Illinois. We ran on a platform of bringing more openness and accountability to state government, and this message resonated with people across the state. We started with zero money, zero party support, zero name recognition, and zero name pronouceability. One year later, we ended up with record fund-raising, 100 state-wide endorsements (including by my home-town newspaper, the Journal-Star), and we came within 1% of toppling the political machine. Not only that, people could now pronounce my name…okay, my first name.
This was a windy road, but looking back, I learned a few lessons that I’d submit for your consideration.
First, it’s extremely important to devote time to public service. I found this was beneficial for at least two reasons: (a) I found mentors with like-minded interests, who took me under their wings and taught me how to fly; and (b) I learned to demonstrate my legal skills in ways that helped me to build confidence in my practice of law and renewed my spirit at the same time. The best example of this in my career was my representation of a Congolese man from Africa who sought political asylum in this country. He fled beatings and torture because of his Christian beliefs and his criticism of corruption in the government. He made his way to Chicago, and I took him on as a pro bono client. We gathered evidence from four corners of the world, and we went to trial before the Chief Judge of the U.S. Immigration Court in Chicago, who also happened to be the strictest in the circuit. The proudest day of my legal career was hearing the Judge declare that my client was granted asylum. I was so proud of my client for the courage he showed during the proceedings; I was proud of my firm for footing his expenses; and I was proud that I beat the odds to win. After that day, breach of contract cases and securities actions seemed like a piece of cake. I had the confidence to succeed in this profession.
Second, I have always tried to assume the best in people and give them the benefit of the doubt when they are confronted with my ethnicity and background. I find that if you assume the best in people, and give them a chance to learn more about you, they open up, and everyone grows in the process. I also find it helps to have a sense of humor about it. Take for instance my name during the campaign. When people saw it, they didn’t know what to do with it. So wherever I went, I usually began by acknowledging that a lot of people ask me the question, “What does Raja Krishnamoorthi mean?” I explained that loosely translated from an ancient Asian language, it means, “Illinois State Comptroller”! After that joke, issues of ethnicity, race, and my name simply melted away, and we were able to talk about ideas and our common challenges as Illinoisans.
Third, I think it’s very important to take a chance in life and follow your passion. This is incredibly important because if you follow your passion, you’ll likely demonstrate excellence in what you do. And excellence is what I believe we should all strive for. So after the election, I was confronted with a choice – go back to the law firm world, where I was very comfortable, or do something different. I decided to do something different. I joined a company that is focused on the research and development of new technologies for the future. I’m helping to build a company that I hope will help bring manufacturing jobs back to Illinois and will create jobs in new sectors for Illinois’s economy. This is what I’m currently passionate about, and I’m happy to report I enjoy going to work every day.
I am again very honored to be back in Peoria, and I want to thank all of you for the privilege and honor of addressing you. I hope to keep in touch, especially with the students in the audience, so if any of you are on Facebook, let’s be friends!
Thank you again. ■