On Jan. 16, the Voice sat down with the spring 2020 class of GU Politics fellows to capture their thoughts, on the record. The class includes: Lily Adams, a Democratic communications director; Joe Crowley, a former Democratic congressman; Kate Nocera, DC Bureau Chief of Buzzfeed News; John Rogers, former executive director of the NRCC; and Robert Traynham, Head of Public Policy Affairs at Facebook.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity
The Voice: What got you into politics and when were you first interested in it?
Nocera: Someone in politics should start with that one.
Rogers: I was four or five years old and a friend of the family was running for office, from an apolitical family, and we went knocking on doors and I just loved it. I think that, from an incredibly young age, I just fell in love with politics and I had always wanted to get into it. In college, I started to study politics but wasn’t in love with the major, so I switched over to business management and after got into politics. So, I’ve always wanted to be on campaigns and to do this work. I find it to be really exciting working for something you believe in. You’re putting incredible amounts of hours into something but you leave feeling like you haven’t worked at all.
Adams: I was really looking for a career where I could get underpaid, have a lack of sleep, not eat well, not exercise, where all of my belongings would fit in my car, and where I would live in six states in the ten years since college—and so I found it! But really, my family was involved in politics when I was a kid and so naturally, like any normal college student, I thought I would want to do something different. So I thought about being a journalist for a while and toyed around with some other things, but as I graduated from school like any other college student, I had to get a job. There was a governor’s race going on in Virginia so I applied to be the press assistant, and the rest is history. We got whooped but I moved on and thought that if I was still excited about campaigns after losing so badly that there might be a future in this. There’s nothing like doing something that you like and there’s a lot of people in this country who do not get to do professions that they feel personally fulfilled by. So I do feel really privileged that whatever you do, whether being a journalist or a member of Congress or working on campaigns or working in the media and for companies in the digital space, we’re all really lucky to do something that fulfills us every day. And once you get that bug it’s hard to go back or do something else.
Crowley: I had a similar experience in that at a very early age, I was also exposed through family. I had an uncle who was involved in politics when I was a little boy. I remember seeing my last name on a bumper sticker, I thought “that’s kind of cool!” and stuck it in my backpack. I was involved in student government during high school, ran for student president and got involved in politics during college. I was very socially aware of what was going on because of that connectivity—I had campaigned when I was 14 for Mario Cuomo for mayor and later on was involved in the Cuomo campaigns in Queen’s County, then interning with him and later working for him. There were familial connections between the Cuomo’s and Crowley’s because both were in Queens and my uncle had gone to law school with Mario. My kids today are heavier in the social sciences because they are aware of what’s going on because of my job and I was aware because of the family that I grew up in. I had the greatest job in the world for 20 years in the big white building up on the Hill over there and saying “that’s where I get to work every day”—that was kind of cool.
Rogers: But now you’re faculty here!
Crowley: Now I’m faculty here at Georgetown and that’s much cooler.
Nocera: I had no interest in government or politics but I was working for New York Daily News working a midnight to 8am shift covering cops and crime, and so that was not a long-term solution for me. There was a job opening at Politico in 2011 when the job market still wasn’t great but there were a lot more jobs for journalists in DC than there were in New York, so I was like “I guess I’ll go to DC for a year and see how that works out!” I somehow talked the editor into letting me cover healthcare policy, which I didn’t know anything about, but I loved the constant drama on the Hill. I was planning on being here for exactly one year and moving back to New York City, but I stayed. And I think that’s because covering politics really is the best job in journalism, especially on the Hill, because you get access to members of Congress and can go up to them and ask any question you want. I was really drawn to being “in the mix” all the time and it’s so fun, though I don’t get to do it as much anymore and have to sit at a desk.
Traynham: My parents were not political at all and I actually was a pre-med major in college and wanted to be a doctor. Then I got my first internship at the Clinton White House working in the medical office in 1993. I was in the White House for a month before the Medical Doctor said “Robert, I don’t think this is working out and you’re not a good fit.” I was 18 years old in college and obviously got fired. But then she said, “I’d actually like you to chat with my colleague because I think you’d be a better fit in the press office.” So I went to [the Press Secretary’s] office, sweating bullets, and she said “I’ve heard nothing but good things about you, and apparently you’re really good on your feet and a really good speaker. Do you know anything about press?” And I said no, because I knew a lot about medicine, but I didn’t know anything about press. She then said she’d love me to come and do clips tomorrow, even though I didn’t know what clips were. So I did that and loved every minute of it, all the drama, how stories were shaped, public affairs, and I enjoyed all the meetings and overhearing thoughts about policy and changing people’s lives. So I went back to school after my internship and changed my major to political science and fell in love with politics ever since.
TV: What would you tell yourselves earlier in your career, and how would you translate that over to students today?
Traynham: If I could tell Robert Traynham at anything at 20, I would tell him to slow down and listen more. I thought at the time that I was the smartest guy in the room and certainly aren’t now and certainly wasn’t then. So I would tell myself then and tell students now that it’s okay to be idealistic and you should have thoughts or opinions, but there’s a benefit of wisdom and experience that tempers you over time. So just be patient but still have that idealistic, thoughtful, go-get it, “I can change the world” attitude. But to listen more is what I would have told myself years ago.
Rogers: I would have forced myself to read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People earlier than I did, because I didn’t know what I was doing when I started out. I just figured that I would outwork everyone, but had I encountered that book and it’s takeaways at a younger age it would have helped me out quite a bit. Once you get down the concept of not spending any time on anything not urgent or not important, it would have saved me a lot of time in my career.
Nocera: In college I would have told myself that everything’s going to be fine. You can change your major, you can change your college, and it’s going to be okay. I was very attached to the idea that I had to do “x-y-z” in order, and when that didn’t happen I was totally devastated, but it ended up working out exactly as it was supposed to. I think I also would have told myself to ask for more help when I first got to DC because I thought I had a lot to prove and that asking for help was a sign of weakness in the cutthroat world of DC, though everyone was actually really nice. I was starving on the Hill for the first three weeks I was there because I didn’t ask where the food was!
Adams: My senior year of college was the 2008 election and I was going to school in Massachusetts. I got to go to New Hampshire a bunch to volunteer, but I should have just taken off the year to work on that race. The second thing that I have told myself earlier in my career, which I tell to mostly women when they come see me for advice, is to negotiate your salary and ask for more money.
Nocera: That’s the other thing I was going to say!
Adams: There’s no reason not to! I think that sometimes, particularly women, but a lot of young people are just grateful to be hired to that first job, because they’re so excited that someone’s going to pay them to write articles or to work on a campaign, that they don’t do that.
Crowley: I would have told myself, “Joe, learn how to type.” I’m challenged when it comes to technology these days looking at how much the world has changed. My kids are on top of it and I marvel at how they can do all these things. I think that’s how our parents used to look at us and they’d marvel at what we could do. But I think things will work out for you, because in college you’re worried about whether or not you’ll get a job or be successful or be even remotely like how you dreamt you’d be, and things really do work out for the better. As much as we think we’re living in the worst times, and we’re living in very challenging times, there’s been difficult times in the past as well and we’ve gotten through it. I still have faith in this country and in young people in that we’ll be okay.
TV: What are you looking forward to exploring in your discussion groups and what do you think a student’s perspective brings to those groups?
Traynham: What I’m looking to explore this year is how resilient we are. The beauty of a rubber band is that it’s flexible, but at some point it does snap. I do want to have faith that the rubber band won’t snap and I’m also very curious to learn from Georgetown students about what their tolerance is for this. I’m also a little afraid and curious to see if this new normal is okay for them or not, and if it’s not okay then what is their breaking point? I want them to help me understand: what is that for you that’s not okay? And what I mean by that is this new normal that we’re in, and it’s not supposed to be this way. As I understand it, there should be consequences for not telling the truth and there should be consequences for breaking the law.
Rogers: I’m excited about the range of ideas and opinions and for a fresh perspective.
Nocera: I think something we’ve all talked about is getting out of our own bubbles and seeing what people like you are talking about and thinking about day-to-day.
Adams: There’s a reason it’s called a “discussion group” and not a class or a lecture, so the goal is to hear just as much from Georgetown students. The one thing we’ve seen being on campus all of yesterday is that Georgetown students have a lot of opinions; they’re extremely engaged and they’re not shy about sharing them, and that’s great. I don’t think that we’ll see a shortage of ideas or perspectives but I hope that people come to it with an open mind, for a s long or as little as they like, and we’ll all be better for it.
Crowley: I agree, for me it’s getting as much as I can out of the student experience—maybe more than they’re getting out of me—and we learn from each other.
TV: What political trend are you looking to examine in the future?
Traynham: For me, it’s civic engagement in general, and where that trend is going. I hope it will go up, and want to see what that looks like. And who is that person or thing to inspire people? We saw after JFK and Ronald Reagan a huge increase in civic engagement. So what is that in 2020, or 2030, that’s going to inspire people to build up their government again, and also inspire them to roll up their sleeves and do the work?
Rogers: Mine are two very tactical points. One is the social media in ground game and volunteer voter contact. I’m really curious to see how that develops over the next ten years as I think it’s largely underutilized right now. The other is polling because ten years from now nobody is going to have a landline, and both parties need to figure out how to crack that code. They’re making a lot of headway in texting for survey work but seeing how that develops is interesting for me.
Nocera: This is going to be obvious, but seeing where people are getting their news and what kind of news they are consuming. How long or short is that piece of news, and what is the trustworthiness of it?
Adams: One is also a tactical thing, which is that the electoral map that we’ve operated with at the presidential level for the last ten or 15 years is going to shift pretty dramatically in the next two elections. I think we’ll see a shift of Democrats focusing on the south and Republicans focusing on the Midwest due to demographic changes happening in the country. It will shift pretty rapidly once it does, and it will scramble the calculus on what is the regular way for winning elections for both Republicans and Democrats pretty significantly. The second thing is more amorphous, as there’s a lot of norms that have been broken by this president and the American people have been accommodationist because it’s in our human nature. I’m curious to see and hopefully will be a part of how, or do, we bounce back after? Is there some course correction after he is gone—hopefully soon—or is it broken forever? I don’t think it’s going to be put together exactly as it was before, nor should it be, but there’s going to be something that happens after he leaves for the Republican party, the Democratic party, and government in general.
Crowley: The crises that young people view the world is in right now: global warming, [and] the level of intolerance that, in my lifetime, is at breaking levels. Members coming to Congress with absolutism, either Republicans or Democrats, who think they are 100% right and that nobody else can challenge that. Responsible governing and knowing that the best things that get done, typically over the long run, are things that are done in a bipartisan way—that has been lost. Absolutism doesn’t work in Washington. I want to hear from folks about their thoughts and what they have to say about that.
TV: What piece of advice would you give to students who want to read the news in a more informed way?
Nocera: Well there’s this website called BuzzFeedNews.com! But I also think it’s about identifying the reporters, as you have such individual access to reporters and editors, that you trust and there are a lot of reporters on Twitter who walk through their process and report on Twitter all day long.
Adams: Read more than one outlet. You don’t have to read every single article on the New York Times or the Washington Post or whatever, but I think one of the rules of this environment is to try to diversify what you read. If you’re reading an outlet and you agree with every single thing that you’re reading, you’re probably not doing right by yourself. So try to mix it up a little bit and read things that are going to challenge your perspective, but also look for people who are tethered to fact and reality. If someone is saying the sky is yellow, don’t read or promote those people. Even if they’re saying things that are incendiary or dramatic or fun to promote, no one’s helping anyone by promoting that stuff.
TV: Do you have a ‘hot take’ or prediction for 2020?
Adams: All of my good hot takes are about pop culture!
Traynham: I think we’re going to have a more engaged electorate this time—in a good way—than we’ve seen in a long time. I predict that there’s going to be very long lines, and that people are going to get frustrated, but that people are going to stay in line because on both sides they want to make sure their vote is counted and their voices are heard.
Nocera: I don’t make hot takes any more! When Eric Cantor lost, Politico spliced together this piece showing pundits saying that Eric Cantor “couldn’t lose” and there was me on TV saying, “Eric Cantor’s not going to lose!” So I don’t participate in that any more.
Crowley: You’re hitting a little too close to home right now.
Nocera: Well we at Buzzfeed News wrote that you *might* have been in a little bit of trouble…
Rogers: Hot take that Joe Crowley sings on campus.
Crowley: Anyone who knows me knows that’s not a hot take!
Adams: Alright, well I might as well make one and be wrong. I think we will know the democratic nominee certainly by the end of this fellowship.
Nocera: That’s not a hot take!
Adams: There are people who think it’s going to a contested convention!
Crowley: I think we’ll know who the vice presidential candidate will be by the end of this fellowship.
Adams: Joe Crowley!
Crowley: Hot take that there will be a Kennedy in the Senate next year. And I bet Hakeem Jeffries will become a household name.
Adams: Spicy! And that [regarding Jeffries] is a good take.
TV: Last question: More than anything, there’s one issue that is dividing this nation. So what are your opinions on The Rise of Skywalker?
Rogers: Good. My expectations were in exactly the right spot following The Last Jedi to thoroughly enjoy that movie.
Traynham: 100%. Although the editing was really shoddy. Still enjoyed —we could have another 45 minutes of conversation on this!
Rogers: Anytime you want to talk about this, invite us over!
Nocera: My husband’s obsessed with Star Wars so he had a lot more opinions. I, as a person who enjoys the Star Wars films, thought it was totally great, and I will also watch anything with Adam Driver.
Adams: I didn’t see it.
Rogers: I don’t even know you anymore!
Crowley: I’d like to go off the record here…
Nocera: Don’t let him get away with that!
Crowley: I’ve never fully seen any of the Star Wars films.
Traynham: What do you mean not fully? Your kids aren’t in to it at all?
Crowley: Back on the record now: (hums Star Wars theme song).
Rogers: That’s one step closer to singing!
Image Credits: Richard Schofield/The Georgetown Voice