By Sheeva Azma
This blog is part six 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: “The past few years have tested my assumptions about the world and myself. Through it all, my goal has been to apply my skills to help humanity…”Tweet
When I got back from working on Capitol Hill, I now had another problem: the debt I had incurred working there, which forced me to ramp up my freelancing endeavors again. At $13,000, it was a lot, but I viewed it as an investment. In exchange for fulfilling a lifelong dream, I would go into a small amount of debt. Had I not had the ability to take on that debt, I would not be able to work there at all, I reasoned. That’s the way I justified the expense.
Oh yeah, and the government shut down a few months after I worked there. It was a tough time for me, especially since there would be no NASA TV for a while.
I was an established freelance science writer by now, so I could work more to pay the bills. So, I ramped up my freelancing again and started doing legislative analysis in addition to my normal science, technology, and health content writing. I monitored US-China legislation during the trade wars for a small Washington, DC think tank. I kept up to date on Congressional legislation, interviewed experts, and provided timely updates on the US-China trade relationship. It taught me a lot about explaining complicated issues to people who might not have any experience in them.
The next few years were a great time to deepen my love of science policy. I followed the administration closely and grew to idolize Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to ever lead a winning political campaign. I love her data-driven approach to polling and her direct communications style. Even though I am Democrat, I find some of her talking points very convincing. If you’re interested in political communications and what it’s like to be a woman in the sexist world of political strategy, I recommend reading her memoir, Here’s the Deal. My mind is boggled by the fact that she worked to elect a candidate that her husband worked to unseat. Doesn’t that seem so incredibly sexist?!
My political experiences have run the gamut of political spectrum. I always joke that my political views “are the worst ever” because nobody seems to agree with them all. I have seen both Democrats and Republicans cringe at my views. I like to think it’s because I am attuned to the political world and have extremely informed political views that are solutions-oriented and don’t discount good ideas due to partisanship. Oh well, the best part of US politics is that we can make our own decisions about political issues, and vote based on our own conscience.
Still, being a red state Democrat is tough. It means facing endless rejection and political losses as an idealist member of the political minority. It can also sometimes be awesome, because you can find yourself finding common ground with Republicans, which I appreciate, because we all live together and do have shared underlying values, like democracy, or liberty. Being a moderate is a very strange place to be, but it can also be very powerful: just look at Joe Manchin’s influence in Congress in 2022. He’s been the deciding vote on several pieces of legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act.
Oklahoma politics took a turn in spring 2018, the entire education system in Oklahoma shut down due to a lack of funding. Education advocates spent days advocating at the state capitol and many people shoe polished their cars with pro-education messages. Once, when I was out getting cupcakes, I overheard a woman who had been at the State Capitol for the whole event. I offered some political advocacy advice based on my time on the Hill.
At that time, I was working to land a job with one of my favorite moderates. She’s a woman who I will not mention here by name, but who I am sure you have heard of. In 2018, I applied to work in the Democratic Leader’s office, and secured a job in the Democratic Cloakroom, where my job would entail running things behind the scenes for House Democrats. If you don’t know who the Democratic Leader was in 2018, maybe this will help: she became the Speaker of the House for the second time in 2019. Since then, her office has been ransacked and her husband almost died thanks to someone who tried to kill her. With that level of political polarization, and my already tenuous mental health, sadly, interning for this person was not possible. But, hey, at least I tried.
Though I had already done an unpaid internship in the House, and this would be my second, I felt like this could be my big break in politics. I spent months trying to memorize every Democratic member of the House, as is required of Democratic Cloakroom volunteers. Finally, in September, I drove to Washington from Oklahoma again. In a hotel in Arkansas, I watched an attack ad bash my future boss. Weird, I thought, but I tried to put it out of my mind. I arrived at my AirBnB (where I planned to stay for the next month) and took an Uber to Cannon House Office Building, and walked into the Democratic Leader’s office. It was large and spacious. I noticed some Wonderful Pistachios near the entrance. I still regret not picking up a bag of pistachios, but maybe that’s my inner scavenging grad student mind talking.
I had been hired as an intern along a small staff of college-age students to support the House Democrats. Our internship coordinator shuttled us off through security into the House chamber, and we spent some time going over expectations. In case you don’t know what the Democratic Cloakroom is, it’s a little office to the left of the House chamber with the job of supporting the House Democrats. The Republicans have their own cloakroom on the right side of the House Chamber which is run by Republican House leadership.
The Democratic Cloakroom staff gave us a tour of the place. I learned that sandwiches are available there, and that members of Congress can grab a packet of peanuts whenever they get hungry for a snack. The Democratic Cloakroom is named after Gabby Giffords and Leo Ryan, who were both victims of gun violence. It’s not the most glamorous place to work, and being a cloakroom intern is one of the more fast-paced jobs in the House. It involves talking to members of Congress, answering their questions, and doing all kinds of complex procedural stuff. Being a cloakroom intern is not for the faint of heart!
The supervisors said we could walk into the House Chamber, so I entered it from the left side and stood there, looking around. I’d been there before, but every time I’d been to the House Chamber, I was awestruck by how much it looked the same as what I’d see on TV when I watched the State of the Union. We had to be careful walking around, or we might be seen on CSPAN. The pressures of this seemingly inconsequential and unpaid job seemed immense.
In the end, I did not pursue this job for more than a few hours that day. I would end up quitting my internship two hours into it, when the bell rang for members of Congress to walk in to start the day’s session. It was too much responsibility, and I didn’t think I could do it. I had planned to freelance in my spare time to pay the bills, but that did not seem possible. It didn’t help that I didn’t really agree with any of the legislative priorities of the Democratic members of Congress that session, either.
I felt sure being unable to complete an internship so important would spell the death of my political aspirations, but working there just was not possible for me at that phase in my life. I walked back to the Democratic Leader’s office and quit in tears. Sadly, this one-day experience led to $4000 in sunk costs, which brought my total amount of credit card debt from interning in the US House to $17,000.
My only real memories of this short-lived internship were being led around the Capitol Hill complex, walking into the House chamber from the Cloakroom, riding on the Senate subway feeling sort of sick, crying in the Democratic Leader’s office, and seeing the Democratic Cloakroom in all of its Democratic glory. Pretty exciting for someone who has only considered herself to be a scientist and now a writer her whole life. I felt like I had gained access to something only very few people experience in their lifetimes.
Weirdly, a few years later, the House floor would literally be under attack on January 6, 2021. I watched these events unfold from my office in Oklahoma. By then, the world was in the throes of a pandemic, and I was primarily working as a science communicator focused on COVID-19 research and messaging. The Democratic Leader, now the Speaker of the House, had moved her office from Cannon to Longworth, where I had worked during my first 2.5-month stint in the House.
I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about those people who tried to break into the Capitol, but I can say that it was a bizarre thing to watch on TV. I held to my belief that difficult times reveal true leadership.
Weirdly, my short-lived Democratic Cloakroom internship did not have the effect I had imagined on my political interests or career. I ended up feeling disconnected from the Democratic party, so much so that I voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 elections. I was the only person I know that did, but my friends and family were supportive of my decision and did not disown me. I had heard horror stories of people losing friends and family because of their political views, but I was not one of those people.
While I had voted for Joe Biden as Vice President twice, I was excited about Donald Trump’s attitude towards science, and I was not convinced Joe Biden would win as a progressive candidate. I also wondered what would happen if our nation underwent a change in leadership amidst a pandemic. Despite my disagreement with Trump on many, many issues, we agreed on a few areas I found important. I loved that he had bankrolled Operation Warp Speed and was a proponent of Right-to-Try, which is a way for patients with rare diseases to gain access to promising therapies in clinical trials. I found this entrepreneurial attitude toward science exciting and a rarity in the DC world. He seemed ready for anything, scientifically speaking, and was one of the earliest proponents of COVID-19 vaccines at a time when nobody knew what they were or if they’d work.
Despite the political identity crisis I seemed to be having, my freelancing was going well. It’s great to be a science writer in a pandemic, because your skills are highly in demand. I worked on a ton of meaningful projects for different important clients.
Because I had gone into so much debt trying to break into the DC political world, I used it as a bargaining chip with my freelance clients. Here’s my introduction video for Upwork where I feature it as a cornerstone of my strengths!
“I see you’ve worked in Congress,” they’d say after reviewing my credentials. That often impressed my clients. Once, when I doubted myself during a discovery call, the prospective client mentioned that I had worked in Congress, and that I could therefore probably do the job he needed.
As a result of marketing myself as someone highly fluent and skilled in the political world, I picked up tons of clients in the political space. I wrote a memo about Trump’s immigration policy, analyzed policy implications of laws, and even wrote talking points for a Democratic city council candidate running for office in a conservative Indiana city. I also wrote white papers which were meant to be read by members of Congress on difficult issues that we grapple with as a society that require bipartisan reforms.
The past few years have tested my assumptions about the world and myself. Through it all, my goal has been to apply my skills to help humanity by finding common ground, building bridges, and empowering people through knowledge and science literacy.
This post is part six 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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