Tamera Luzzatto, former chief of staff to Senator Hillary Clinton, spoke Monday at an event hosted by Duke's Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service (POLIS). Luzzatto sat down with The Chronicle's Abby Kingsley and discussed her career, the current political scene and gave advice to young people aspiring to be in politics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: How have you seen the political landscape of the country change over the course of your career, in general in the electorate and particularly in the Senate?
Tamera Luzzatto: I think like everyone that would span that period of time we’ve seen increasing level of polarization and therefore in effect in Congress a version of paralysis where it’s been very difficult or very rare for elected officials on both sides of the aisle—whether it’s the House, the Senate or the entire Congress to work together on addressing big problems or big issues.
TC: What advice would you give to Duke students who want to go into policy or work on the Hill?
TL: My advice to young people is this: The sooner and earlier for any kind of career that you can by volunteering, heading up a committee, getting involved in an extracurricular. The sooner and the better and the faster you get at speaking and presenting an argument and at making a case to persuade people of something, running meetings, managing budgets, making decisions, leading others. All of that adds up to a probably winning formula. I think if one is involved and interested in public service or even running for office or any form of politics or government, just volunteer, sign up, get into a campaign, do anything you can which will in turn.
One, develop those skills and create a network. Two, generally my motto is treat others like you want to be treated. In the end whatever you do and the earlier you do it, you are presenting yourself as a person and whatever you are good at and you want a reputation as somebody who is admired and somebody who is effective and persuasive.
TC: What do you think the 2016 election said about this country?
TL: That there were an awful lot of people who had built up a resentment and felt that they wanted a channel. I think I can be pretty objective about Hillary and the campaign, and even she has noted that she missed some of those signals, but I also think that campaign had an awful lot of sexism and bias against her and a fascination with him, Donald Trump, who really understood how to play the media and get non-stop coverage of his temper and temperament.
I do think in more seriousness, Democrats have been reflecting on this for the past two years. They have been trying to understand those people who were already Trump supporters, hardcore Trump supporters and remain in his base, as well as those people who changed their mind at the last minute and decided to vote or switched their decision from voting for Hillary to voting for Donald Trump. I would say there has been a lot of reflecting and listening as well as trying to figure out how to talk about those concerns and address their resentment or anxiety or criticisms through dialogue, through leadership and through policy positions.
TC: What do you think was the public perception of Hillary Clinton was during the campaign and why do you think the public perceived her in that way?
TL: We certainly know by her actually getting 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, there is no single view. She did have the majority of the votes. Our Electoral College determined who our president right now is.
I think people genuinely recognized her passion for public service, her work ethic—being a workhorse not a show horse—and therefore her sincerity and her intellect. Others, not all the others, chose to see her as someone who wasn’t those things and certainly the Trump campaign, and Trump himself, and Fox and sort of his allies portrayed her as someone who couldn’t be trusted and used the email problem as a way to undermine any kind of respect for her.
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Certainly, FBI Director James Comey twice surfaced a major question about her which would be called her October Surprise that caused an even greater anxiety and probably triggered an enormous amount of people to believe some of the most caricatured things that they maybe had heard on Fox or maybe on some of the websites that they follow, like that maybe she was physically not up to the job or a version of seeing horns on her. But let’s face it. 3 million more votes means that there was not a single point of view.
TC: How have you seen the Democratic Party change in recent years?
TL: Not a whole lot. I have always as a student and in my professional life have always tried t make the point that no Party is perfect. I’ve chosen to be a Democrat around how I associate the party around my values and my policy preferences. But no candidate, no party embodies everything I believe in. There are always going to be things I disagree with. I don’t think either party is particularly monolithic. But I don’t think the Democratic party has changed that much.
I do think the Democratic Party has been forced to reflect on what caused a version of the anger vote that helped Trump become president. That resentment that I spoke about is kind of refining the policy agenda for these midterms. So for example, it has reinforced a commitment to decent affordable health coverage. It has reinforced a commitment to insisting on wage growth and job growth. It has caused a little more courage to talk about the need for certain gun restrictions, a bigger commitment to background checks. It's reinforced the possibility of emphasizing the need for curbing climate change through policies.
But I think that some version of the tension between the far left and the less left has been exaggerated. I don’t think that's a trend. I think we are seeing in the kind of candidates that have won in these off election periods in Virginia and in Alabama have reflected that they chose to stick to basic household bread and butter issues. That’s been a winning formula.
TC: We live in an era where many people struggle to find truth in what their politicians or the news media are saying. How do you think we regain a sense of fact and truth in our public discourse?
TL: Well I think it needs to be encouraged. I think our political leaders and all forms of our leaders need to kind of do the “stick to the facts ma’am.” As one TV show once had an FBI agent always when somebody was exaggerating when they were describing a crime scene, his answer was always, “would you please stick to the facts ma’am?” I am very proud that the Pew Charitable Trust sponsors the Pew Research Center which is the gold standard source of objective studies and polls and research products. You are in an institution that any academic institution can present well thought through research and analysis based on facts and data and analysis and thats in Pew’s own creed. We compose policy solutions after we analyze and research policy problems.
A classic example is criminal justice reform. We look at the impact of this rising level of imprisoning people of all kinds—including non-violent offenders—and the effect that mandatory minimum long sentences have on them. [It’s[ basically teaching them crime within the walls of the prisons and then we have proposed policy solutions that pick up on those facts. It is a multi-pronged challenge. I mean, everyone has to commit to being interested in the facts.
If you really think about it, it takes a lot of effort on behalf of almost everybody. You as a student have really no choice. You can have your basic philosophical or emotional reactions to things, but when you're writing your papers or taking your tests you are probably required to, “stick to the facts ma’am,” so to speak. I think the more recent events, particularly the most recent massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue I was hearing even this morning in talking to students there has been even a little bit more self reflection on even on Fox News about being aware of the dangers in very hateful rhetoric and exaggerations of who are the enemies from the caravan that is now front-page news. It's gradual, but everyone has their part.
TC: A fair amount of rhetoric about critiquing the news media is coming from the White House. Do you think that if Donald Trump is not president in two or six years, do you think the country will begin to regain a sense of trust or do you think it is a sort of generational process?
TL: It is an incremental process which is by definition there is no magic wand. There is no single moment. There is no silver bullet. It will be the result of reflection which I think is already occurring on more kind of hot rhetoric. Word is even White House staff are reflecting on this and advising President Trump to dial it down as they say. I do think that it will unfold more awareness. In general, demonizing anyone and anything is not constructive and is a distraction and therefore confuses people.
TC: What do you think the effect of the most recent shooting and the bombings will have on the midterm elections?
TL: It appears from what I can tell it appears that it has been sobering to Americans in that this is a period of a lot of reflection and common dialogue about maybe lines are being crossed in terms of demonizing. The anti-Semitism, the racism, the sexism, the kind of things have seemingly been more front and center and certainly a reflection about President Trump’s own rhetoric and demonization of the press and a version of acceptance of violent behavior like that congressman who punched a reporter. It does appear we will see who votes and who votes for whom that this has contributed to energizing more of our young people and more of our minority populations to want to do something about it that elections matter. So we will soon tell.
TC: On Friday, Secretary Clinton told Kara Swisher of Recode Decode that she didn't want to run for President again, but after being pressed said, “I’d like to be President.” Do you think she will run again?
TL: I don’t, but I do know she’d be a great president. Of course she would like to be president. She ran twice. I would be shocked if she ran again.