By Sheeva Azma
This blog is part five of “A Scientist in Politics,” a seven-part series about how I got into the policy world as a scientist.
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.@SheevaAzma: “I had previously imagined members of Congress to be cold, soulless people who never listen to the people who voted for them, but my experience working on Capitol Hill invalidated my assumption.”Tweet
These days, I do it all in the communications world, including write political talking points for candidates and write white papers to be read by Congress…but it wasn’t always this way.
Leaving graduate school forced me to reevaluate what I was doing with my life. It was too expensive to stay in DC without a full-time job, so I moved back home to Oklahoma. I spent a couple of years doing random stuff. I volunteered remotely in a research lab, watched C-SPAN and The Smithsonian Channel, went sale shopping, ran a marathon, and blogged about fashion.
In 2016, I worked on a presidential campaign for a Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. A former Republican, Johnson ran for president alongside former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld as vice president. Unlike the other two candidates, engaged in a race to the bottom of attacks, Johnson seemed down-to-earth and relatable, and was kind of doing his own thing out there in the political world. Granted, he was not as skilled on foreign policy as Secretary of State Clinton. He also not as media-savvy as the real estate and reality TV mogul Donald Trump. “What is Aleppo?” Johnson asked a CNN reporter when probed on the town at the epicenter of Syria’s refugee crisis.
I went door-to-door for Gary Johnson in the rich suburbs of Oklahoma City, talking mostly to Republicans, including some who were not thrilled about electing Donald Trump. Thanks to our efforts, Gary Johnson netted 5.75% of the vote in Oklahoma, well above the national vote of 3.3%. The strong turnout for our candidate ensured ballot access for the Oklahoma Libertarian party for the next few years, so that they could run as a third candidate and have an assured spot on the ballot.
Thanks to the efforts of volunteers like me, the Johnson/Weld duo had the best turnout of any Libertarian presidential ticket in history, according to Wikipedia. (Incidentally, the Oklahoma Libertarian Party recently netted a similarly high turnout in the 2022 midterm elections, guaranteeing them several more years of ballot access.)
I find third party involvement really fascinating in politics. Remember when Ross Perot practically handed the presidency to Bill Clinton by taking votes away from George H. W. Bush? While Gary Johnson and I didn’t share all the same views, we were on the same page with immigration reform and protecting the environment, two issues that are important to me. Sometimes, I feel like important issues that don’t make it to the national stage are discussed by third party candidates, which elevates those issues all the more. The topics that attract media attention and those that are important to our society don’t always overlap when presidential election season rolls around…
The negativity of the 2016 presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton took a toll on my mental health. It was tough to watch, and I can say that, as a Democrat, I was not exactly thrilled about the outcome, though it seemed inevitable to me from the beginning. I viewed working on a Libertarian campaign as a way to “opt out” of the negativity while still embracing my love of the political process. I met some Libertarians who, like me, had voted for Obama, and had some similar viewpoints as me. I learned that third party canvassing can be much more chill and fun than Democrat or Republican canvassing. Third party candidates can still make a huge impact despite the much lower vote numbers they typically get.
Getting back to my political roots, I decided I wanted to apply to jobs in Congress. I had always wanted to work in Congress but it had never seemed possible. I didn’t really have a route to work there from my home state. All of my members of Congress were Republican, and, as I have said many times in this blog, I am Democrat. So, because I had lived in Massachusetts for almost a decade, I contacted Elizabeth Warren’s office and told them I was interested in being an intern in Congress. A staffer from her office wrote back to me and we talked about things I could do to improve my application. She was all about science communication and had even worked on something related to space. I don’t think I could have gotten a job in Congress without her.
I applied for months and months and got interviews, but no offers. I’ve heard that’s pretty normal for the Congressional internship applications cycle. Finally, one day I interviewed with a right-wing Congressman’s office. He was an environmentalist and conservationist, so from a science perspective, it was up my alley. I got the job, and wanted to work in Congress, but I didn’t have the money. So, I politely declined.
A few months later, I decided I would pursue my dream even if it would be expensive. So I put myself on the intern market again, and received another job offer, this time from a Democrat who had worked with my local member of Congress on an infrastructure bill. The best part was that I would be a legislative intern, meaning that I would get to cover actual policies. I was beyond excited. I would have to find an apartment at some point, but I booked a space in the Bethesda Doubletree Hotel for what I assumed would be just the first few days of my internship. I rented a car, packed up all my belongings, and drove to Washington, DC from Oklahoma.
My internship started on January 4, 2017, just a couple of weeks before the Trump inauguration. I was surprised by how nice everyone in Congress was. I always heard about “partisan gridlock” on the news but in the halls of Longworth House Office building, I got lost and asked someone in an office with the GOP logo for directions. They were really nice and actually helped me find my way to my Democratic office.
It was amazing to work in the House and do meaningful work applying my expertise in freelance writing, which was quickly becoming my new ‘real’ job, as well as science, my lifelong passion. The weirdest part of my job was leaving to get pizza and walking by a TV blaring CNN, which would always have sensationalist headlines that did not match anything that was actually going on in that building. It was bizarre.
Once, I stepped out of our office to get pizza (We The Pizza is amazing, by the way, for any future Capitol Hill politicos reading this). When I got back, I learned that Vice President Mike Pence had dropped by to deliver the tie-breaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Sadly, this news irked the constituents of our Democratic office. People called our office in droves demanding that the Trump administration be stopped.
I ended up getting tickets to Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, again. I worked in a House office that distributed inauguration tickets. In my office, I volunteered to compile the welcome email to Trump supporters (including giving them directions to our office – paying the bipartisanship forward!) who were coming by to pick up inauguration tickets. I was too scared to go outside on Inauguration Day, myself, though. I had heard there might be violence. I watched the event from my hotel room, and indeed, there was.
I also interviewed for other jobs while I was there. In case you didn’t know, networking is key to success in the DC world. On my first day as an intern, I dropped by another member of Congress’s office to interview for a legislative aide position working on healthcare. They needed someone to tackle federal healthcare policy since that would be the Republicans’ main battle in the early years of the Trump administration. I’m glad I didn’t get that job, in retrospect, because the long battle over the Affordable Care Act (maybe it’s still going on; I haven’t been following it) was one of my pet peeves. I am a strong proponent of health care reform, but the way things are right now, I don’t think US healthcare will ever be really affordable. A shift toward value-based care that incentivizes good outcomes would be a great first step to get there.
I attended tons of briefings on various issues and wrote summaries of them within an hour after going to them. It wasn’t the easiest to stay on deadline, but that what was required. Oh, yeah, it didn’t help that the issues were so important and meaningful, I would be moved to tears. Once, I had to cut a visit to a briefing room short to go sob about immigration policy in the bathroom. I never saw anyone else doing that, but maybe they were better than me at hiding their emotions. (If you’ve also cried in the hallowed halls of Congress, I’d love to hear from you…)
In addition to the briefings, I also copyedited press releases and learned about how to do comms strategy for a political office. It was a lot different than I had imagined; a lot more polished and professional. One thing I loved about our office was that we relied on our constituents’ feedback to do social media posts and to issue statements. I had previously imagined members of Congress to be cold, soulless people who never listen to the people who voted for them, but my experience working there invalidated my assumption.
In the early days of the Trump administration, we had hundreds of calls from Democrats who wanted him out of office already. As Trump issued executive order after executive order, our office would be flooded with calls. One woman called and I picked up the phone. She asked if Obamacare (sigh) would go away now that Trump was in office. I provided a thorough policy analysis, and explained to her the reasons why I thought it would not go away. She seemed calm and we hung up. However, after my conversation, my supervisor approached me and was concerned. We were not supposed to give out information like that to our constituents.
I would learn that Congressional offices have really strict communications rules, partly out of a crisis comms type strategy, and partly because there is a dedicated communications director who handles such requests. So, I was called aside and taken off the phones.
This was a blessing in disguise, because I didn’t really like answering the phones. I was an MIT and Georgetown graduate, and the oldest intern in the office. I was ready to do more than just listen to people complaining all day. Instead, I got to put together a training manual for incoming interns for our office and another office. I also attended tons of briefings and performed random tasks for the staffers.
I learned a lot, but after I put together the intern manual, I realized I was running out of money. I had never moved out of my hotel and so I had accumulated about $13,000 in credit card debt. It was becoming unsustainable. So, I quit and moved back in with my parents again. I had had a good, approximately three-month run working in Congress, and I had learned so much about the inner workings of the legislative branch. It was a dream come true that delighted my inner politics wonk.
I wasn’t sure what would be next, but working in Congress, I finally felt that I had “found my people.” I had always watched C-SPAN, even since I was a little kid, and now I finally had the chance to live the C-SPAN life. It was a weird realization that I felt like I belonged in Congress, because nobody serving in Congress actually looked like me. This was before the 2018 “Blue Wave” when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected and firebrand women on both sides of the aisle would start unseating established DC insiders.
2018 was also the year that Stephanie Bice from Oklahoma became the first Persian-American member of Congress. Bice, who cast herself as a “proven conservative” to unseat Democrat Kendra Horn, like me, is a digital marketer, also. Pretty cool!
Do I recommend my circuitous path to Capitol Hill? Not really, but it’s the only path to Capitol Hill that was possible for me, I think.
This post is part five of a seven-part series called “A Scientist in Politics.” Read the other parts:
Part 1: Growing up Democrat in a red state
Part 2: Political organizing as a break from MIT
Part 3: A science PhD student in Washington, DC
Part 4: Leaving academia but not science
Part 5: Running the political gamut and working in Congress!
Part 6: Why can’t I stay away from politics?
Part 7: The 2022 midterm elections
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