February 13, 2018

jay-chaudhuri-3.jpg

Jay Chaudhuri MIA ’95
Jay Chaudhuri MIA ’95

Jay Chaudhuri MIA ’95 is a state senator in North Carolina whose Wake County district includes parts of Raleigh—the state capital—and neighboring towns in the Research Triangle area. He also practices law in the local office of a Washington, D.C.-based firm.

Chaudhuri earned a JD at North Carolina Central University in 1999 and went on to serve as special counsel to the state attorney general and later as general counsel and senior policy advisor to the state treasurer. Over his career he has driven various successful progressive initiatives — protecting public pension monies and pursuing the rights of pension funds as shareholders, investing in innovative local businesses, and protecting children on online social networks.

At SIPA Chaudhuri studied international policy analysis and management. In this SIPA News Q&A, he talks about his journey to elected office, how he juggles his roles as a family man, politician, and lawyer, memories of SIPA, and more.

How did your career progress from SIPA to your current position as a state senator in North Carolina?

When I applied to SIPA I had a real passion for international affairs, and to some extent I still do. I had internships in New York and a Javits Fellowship in Washington—which I received through SIPA—working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under [then U.S. senator] Russ Feingold. But I came to realize that I could make the most meaningful difference by returning to my home state of North Carolina.

After law school I began a public-service career that took me to the highest levels of all three branches of state government. I spent more than 15 years as senior counsel to our then attorney general [Roy Cooper], who is now governor, and our former state treasurer [Janet Cowell]. After serving as general counsel and senior policy advisor to the state treasurer, I decided to run for an open state senate seat.

What does that experience entail?

After resigning from my position in May 2015 I ran for state senate for essentially nine months straight. We very much focused on reaching out to voters at the grass-roots level. I knocked on 7,000 doors personally, our campaign knocked on over 40,000 doors, and we made over 300,000 phone calls.

Chaudhuri triumphed in the March 2016 primary election in a district that has traditionally elected Democrats. He was appointed to his seat one month later after the incumbent resigned to seek higher office. Chaudhuri went on to earn a full term, winning the general election in November by a large margin.

As a senator, how do you spend your time in a typical day? How do you balance your public responsibilities and private career?

Many people don’t realize—to your point—that being in the legislature isn’t a full-time job; senators earn $13,900 a year. So I also serve of counsel for a Washington-based law firm, Cohen Milstein, that specializes in holding large corporations accountable for egregious wrongdoings.

I don’t have a typical day, which is both exciting and challenging. I might start my morning attending an IT oversight meeting, then hold a press conference, grab coffee with a reporter, participate in a firm conference call, meet with constituents, and then do a town hall meeting in the evening. Every day is essentially different.

It’s a challenge to balance my family life, my senate life, and my firm life. I try to devote certain days of the week to the different hats that I wear, so to speak. For example, I try to do a lot of constituent meetings and other business related to being a senator on Thursdays.

What do you enjoy about your current and previous jobs? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

My children, who are relatively young, possess an innocence and optimism and love of life that is contagious but also reminds me why I am a public servant. Ultimately, those of us who go into public service do so because we want to create a better world and future for our most precious assets.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have had a very meaningful public-service career even before entering the senate. At the attorney general’s office I led a negotiation on behalf of 50 state attorneys general that resulted in a landmark agreement between two social networking sites that better protect children. At the treasurer’s office I helped establish a $230-million innovation fund to better the growth of jobs and attract capital to our state. Even as a state senator I have had the opportunity to bring 2,000 high-paying jobs by recruiting the Indian IT firm Infosys to Wake County, the county that I represent. Through all those experiences I have really had the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

What advice would you give to current SIPA students—those pursuing a career like yours, and in general?

First, I would say that SIPA’s real strength lies with the students and the amazing experiences they bring to the program. I have carried friendships from SIPA that are now more than 20 years old, and a number of classmates supported my campaign, which is quite moving to me.

Being in New York City is another great asset. As a native Southerner, I had never spent much time above the Mason-Dixon line [before enrolling in graduate school], so I loved every day I lived in New York. It’s a city of immigrants, and there’s such rich diversity—there is so much to learn about America and oneself by living there. I wish that I had spent more time outside of the Upper West Side; students should explore all five boroughs.

Lastly, I’d encourage students who are interested in pursuing a public-service career to take courses that focus on accounting, budgeting, and policymaking. It’s hard to write a concise, well-written, and well-researched three-page policy memo. It’s a skill that many people who go into public service lack, and SIPA is an ideal place to hone those skills.

What else is memorable to you about your SIPA experience? Personally, professionally, or both, what did you learn or experience at SIPA that is still with you?

Two specific experiences really stick out. I vividly remember the challenges and frustrations of working on group projects with other SIPA students, the ego and different personalities that come into play. I’ve since come to realize that many people lack what I would call project management experience and skills—experiences that really make you a better manager. Today, my entire career, both as a senator and at the law firm, rests on my ability to literally manage dozens and dozens of projects. And a lot of my confidence and skill set comes from SIPA.

The second experience is from a class on U.S. and Middle Eastern politics. Toward the end of the semester we role-played as members of the National Security Council [reacting to] various foreign policy decisions made by senior U.S. officials. We had read about how these decisions would come about and often, as a student, you’d ask why. And I remember Professor Gary Sick just succinctly saying, “Personalities count.”

I think about that phrase a lot. Whether it’s debating a bill in committee or on the senate floor, or negotiating with corporate lawyers on the other side of a case, personalities really do count.

What do you tell people who have stereotypes about North Carolina and the American South?

If people have preconceived ideas about North Carolina, some of that today might rest on what the Republican-led General Assembly here has pushed through—underfunding public education, relaxing environmental protections, attacking voter rights.

But [it is also] the state that gave my parents, who immigrated from India more than 50 years ago, the opportunity to achieve the American dream. And the great love they have for this state continues to motivate me.

It’s important to remember, and I’m not sure a lot of people realize this, that North Carolina has [historically] been the beacon of progress in the South. The University of North Carolina was the first publicly established university in the country, and Research Triangle Park is home to the most PhDs per square mile than anywhere else in the country.

I represent a district that is incredibly diverse, well-educated, and experiencing high growth. We add 64 people a day. In my district, 15 percent of the population are immigrants. It’s home to universities, to high-tech companies, it has diversity.

I know that a lot of SIPA graduates stay in the New York-Washington nexus if they don’t return to their home country or otherwise work abroad. But I would encourage any student or alum to take a look at North Carolina, to take a look at the Research Triangle Park for the many incredible opportunities it can provide—including opportunities at businesses that do a lot of international work.

This interview, conducted by Neha Sharma MPA ’18, has been condensed and edited for clarity.