‘Man’ Of The ‘House’ … Of Representatives: Indian-American lawmakers’ homebound ‘teachable moment’

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New York State Senator Kevin Thomas having a Zoom conference with staff from his home, holds his 16-month daughter on his lap. (Photo: courtesy NY Sen. Kevin Thomas)

As the nation reels under the consequences of COVID-19, and millions remain at home working online or not working at all, either because they are furloughed, lost their jobs, or just plain smart, essential workers are keeping their fridges and pantries filled, and taking care of the sick.

Alongside, Indian-American lawmakers, from Capitol Hill to various state capitals, are rallying for those very essential workers, but doing it from inside their homes.

For these elected officials who have some power, however little, to affect the lives of thousands, it is a “teachable moment” where they are learning tasks they may have not handled before on their own — at home. News India Times was able to connect with a few of the male legislators – those with school-going children.

And the stories are heartening.

In most Indian-American families both parents are employed full-time, and in many cases, in essential services. In normal times, some have the support of  multigenerational family members living together, or even apart. But that is no longer the case in these extraordinary times.

With the advent of the corona virus, the extended support system is melting away as grandparents cannot visit to see their children or help out with grandchildren; wives can no longer pick up the slack; and husbands are pitching in along with their legislative duties.

So the ‘Man of the House’ of Representatives is having his “teachable moment,” as became apparent from the interviews conducted.

“I HAVE A TEENAGER AND A TODDLER. I AM (SO) READY FOR CONGRESS”

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, whose lifeblood is his constituents, has a hard time talking about his home life, even as his three children bustle around him – a 14 year old, a 10 year old, and a 3 year old. His wife, Dr. Priya Krishnamoorthi, works at different Chicago area hospitals, and is away taking care of patients including those with COVID-19, when he fields the News India Times call Wednesday April 1, 2020.

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, tweets his wife Priya’s photo in Personal Protective Equipment (Photo: Twitter courtesy Rep. Krishnamoorthi)

But he indulges in a bit of humor. “I joke that I have a teenager and a toddler at home. I am ready for Congress!”

Here’s what he had to say responding to questions but it is obvious he needs to finish the interview quickly so that he could take the next call from a constituent and/or chair one of the several town hall meetings daily, apart from legislative chores in Washington.

“Certainly, we’ve quickly discovered the challenge of distance learning, of making sure everyone is occupied (at home), and has their own space to learn, … and play,” he told News India Times. “For a 3-year old, they have to play most of the time.”

It is hard for him to keep talking of his family.

“As a lawmaker I want to make sure everybody has quality distance learning. You can see the holes in Chicago — so many children are indigent and don’t have laptops at home or a computer. And once given a laptop, they don’t have access to the Internet. I predict that going back into congress we are going to spend a lot of time on this. We can’t say in any such situation in the future that we didn’t know the holes.”

Momentarily distracted by one of his children, Krishnamoorthi calls out, probably to his toddler, “No, no … leave that,” or words to that effect, before resuming the interview. He has to be reminded that the interview is about how things are proceeding inside the four walls.

“Everybody’s pitching in at home … from grocery shopping to keeping the kids engaged. I do the grocery shopping,” he says. “My wife is a physician. She is on the frontlines. She goes in for cases and operations to (Chicago area hospitals).”

“I am juggling … my constituents have a lot of needs right now, so I am spending my time answering calls. I am in and out of the house, but am glad I am in my district. We convene our Congressional meetings from my home and my District,” he adds.

I DON’T FEEL LIKE AN ELECTED OFFICIAL”

New York State Senator Kevin Thomas who represents District 6 in Nassau County, is at home in Levittown right now (April 1, 2020), but he occasionally drives to his office in Albany two and a half hours away even in the midst of the corona virus.

Sen. Thomas and his wife Rincy have a 16-month old daughter Layla. But frankly, the child is the least of his problems. “She can entertain herself. There are lots of books and toys, and things to watch. It’s not a big burden on me. She is running around the house,” he says, “There is a lot of bonding.”

Before corona raised its head, “My mom used to come to take care of Layla when I and my wife were at work,” he recalls the good old days before corona. Now his mother is one of the vulnerable ones because of age and not getting out from her home with Thomas’ dad. “It’s taking a toll on her not seeing her grandchild for two weeks, so we are doing a lot of video-chatting,” he says.

When Thomas goes to Albany, his wife, who is a pharmacist and basically dealing with the general public, stays home to look after Layla, and he takes over when she leaves for work “on the frontlines,” he said. She takes the day off when he has to go to Albany. “It is very stressful,” he concedes, but “This is a new reality.”

Last week, he had to do two radio interviews, and on one of them, anyone listening could hear Layla ‘screaming’ he relates.

“And I’m not doing the things I used to do – attending 7 to 8 events daily. And now it’s me, in my home office, in front of my computer … . I don’t feel like an elected official!” he mourns.

“We are Zoom-ing, emailing, WhatsApping to get things done. But we are getting things done,” Sen. Thomas says. A picture of him and his staff chatting over Zoom shows him cradling Layla in his lap as he interacts.

The legislature is busy with the state budget. “We’re in the middle of passing the 2020-2021 budget and have this pandemic looming over it,” he says worried about the rising numbers of COVID-19 affected people in New York, and the mortality.

Asking if he helps with the housework more than before, he answers in the affirmative, but immediately contends, “But it was pretty equitable before (corona virus) too,” especially as his mother had been coming in to help not just with Layla, but also with some of the cooking That’s out now. “Now we do it all ourselves.”

He is helping with getting the groceries. “I try not to get myself in any place where there is a crowd. In fact, I don’t see a crowd!” which is a good thing because it will help flatter the curve of corona virus, as experts keep repeating.

Although this is a terrible and deadly pandemic, “I’ve learnt that this is a great opportunity to spend time with my wife and daughter that I was not available for before,” says Sen. Thomas trying to find the positive in a sea of negatives.

HAVING A ROUTINE, BEING CREATIVE WITH LEFTOVERS

For North Carolina State Senator Jay Chaudhuri, having a routine is the most important in these times, with the children home, and keeping up his work in the legislature as well as his practice as an attorney.

North Carolina State Senator Jay Chaudhuri’s children, son Neel and daughter Leeya, chop up vegetables to help out with the family meal as the schools shut down and allow families to spend more time with each other despite home-schooling. (Photo: courtesy Sen. Chaudhuri)

“Our home life is like most families – trying to stick to a schedule,” he said.  He, and wife Sejal, have an 8 year old son and an 11 year old daughter. He details his daily schedule –

Sen. Chaudhuri gets up at 5 am or so to deal with Senate duties until around 7:30 am because he wants to get some critical information off to his constituents in District 15; breakfast together with wife and kids; then focusing on online learning, and Sejal and he do some home-schooling of Neel and Leeya; then he is off to the North Carolina legislature because he lives close by and can go to office.

“It is almost empty, hardly anybody is here,” he says. He spends that time till evening, helping constituents with issues they are facing which run the gamut with filing for unemployment claims at the top.

Meanwhile, having a far more crowded daily schedule has its pluses.

“It’s been nice having lunch together with Sejal and the kids. We joke we are running a ‘diner’,” he laughs. The kids are happy to get more Indian meals compared to the bagged lunches they took to school routinely.

Plus, “Sejal and I enjoy cooking. We are making Indian food more often. And experimenting (with other dishes) – and the verdict is good,” Sen. Chaudhari says.

“I’m creative with leftovers. Fried rice is always great to make, which Sejal made,” he said.

North Carolina Senator Jay Chaudhuri tweeted his Keema Nachos, made from leftover tacos. It was a hit with chef Maneet Chauhan. (Photo: courtesy Twitter via Sen. Chaudhuri)

“And since we like to encourage local businesses and order take-outs,” he jokes, “There were some nachos left over from yesterday, and I made some keema – and we loved our Keema Nachos.”

He tweeted a picture of his Keema Nachos creation to well-known Nashville chef Maneet Chauhan, and got a reply endorsing it. It was the highlight of his chef-manship, by the sound of his voice.

On the work front, apart from constituents’ immediate needs, Sen. Chaudhuri has been holding conference calls with small business, and another with Indian-American physicians in the Research Triangle, who are on the frontline. “I am trying to follow leads for N95 masks,” he says. He also conference called Indian-American hoteliers on the challenges they are facing and what the state relief package could offer them.

“It’s challenging balancing my law practice, legislative duties and all this,” he says indicating the home schooling now part of his schedule. His wife is also busy fielding calls and helping the community as she is on several boards of non-profits. They both, like Sen. Thomas and Congressman Krishnamoorthi, consider it fortunate to be able to spend time with family.

“As long as you have a schedule, it takes away a lot of the stress,” he recommends.

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