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Q&A: Former Duke basketball player and Obama aide Reggie Love on the campaign trail, racial justice and 'the Coach K model'

<p>Reggie Love,&nbsp;a former Duke men’s basketball player and Trinity '05, previously served as&nbsp;special assistant and personal aide for President Barack Obama.</p>

Reggie Love, a former Duke men’s basketball player and Trinity '05, previously served as special assistant and personal aide for President Barack Obama.

Reggie Love, Trinity ‘05 and a former personal aide to President Barack Obama, is now on the virtual campaign trail speaking to voters on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris. Love is also a former Duke men’s basketball and football player and was a co-captain of the basketball team. 

He sat down with The Chronicle last Friday to talk about his role in this year’s presidential election, his path after Duke and advice for college students to have their voices heard. 

The Chronicle: I have a few questions later on about college students’ role in the election, but to start off I just wanted to ask what your current role in politics with the Biden/Harris campaign is. 

Reggie Love: I’m just a supporter/surrogate. I don’t work for the campaign in any official capacity, but obviously I worked with Vice President Biden for years and you know, many of the people that are running the campaign now are really close friends and in some cases almost like family. So I’m very close to it, but I work for Apollo Global Management and for Josh Harris, they’re a private equity shop based out of New York. 

TC: I wanted to talk about that a little bit. So you've had a fascinating career, from playing basketball here at Duke then eventually to the Obama White House. So could you walk me through your path to where you are now a little bit since it's taken so many turns, for anybody who doesn't know the details of it? 

RL: I grew up in Charlotte and went to Providence Day. I came to Duke, I studied football—I’m sorry, played football and basketball, studied political science and public policy. That’s kind of funny that I said that. 

I got hurt my junior year, so I did not play basketball my junior year or my senior year because I tore my ACL and PCL. And that I went out to [the Green Bay Packers] in the spring/summer of '04 and got cut. I was playing wide receiver there. Brett Farve was the quarterback, [Mike] Sherman was the coach and the team was really good. They had a few great receivers, Javon Walker and Donald Driver and Robert Ferguson. And then I came back to Duke to play a fifth year of basketball. 

Three days after I got cut, Johnny Dawkins, who was a coach, called me and was like, “Hey, saw you got released, it’s not too late. You could enroll and finish up your second degree in public policy and play basketball. They had lost Luol Deng who went to the NBA and Shaun Livingston, a recruit, had opted out of coming to Duke to go to the NBA. So I went back and played in the ‘05 season. I was a captain with J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing. We won the ACC tournament and we lost to Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen. And then I went to the Cowboys to play outside linebacker there for a year. 

And then I realized that football economically didn’t make sense with the pounding you took playing defense. Didn’t really make a lot of sense, given that at that point in time in the investment banking world, people were making in base salary what I was making in base salary and they were going to do it for 30 years and football’s like three. 

This and that doesn’t make a lot of sense, so I was going to go work at Goldman Sachs, but before I got there to do the training program, I stumbled across a guy—Sean Richardson—who was the chief of staff for Patrick Kennedy, who was a Congressman from Rhode Island. He was friendly with Pete Rouse, who was chief of staff for Obama. So I went to D.C., Pete brought me in as a staff assistant and I worked with the staff there for a year. 

TC: So this was ‘07 or so? 

RL: ‘06. So all of ‘06 I worked for Obama in the Senate and did stuff for his PAC and for his Senate campaign reelection office. And then in ‘07 he decided to run for president. At the beginning of ‘07 I didn’t know anything about politics or about a presidential election. 

So I went to Pete and said, “Pete, look, I’m super excited and I think this is great. You tell me what you think I should do and I’ll go do it. And if I’m not good at it, don’t fire me, just move me.”

TC: That’s funny. 

RL: Pete said, “Look, why don’t you go on the road and take care of stuff?” I didn’t really know what a body guy was, so I just showed up at the plane one day with Sharpies and trail mix and a schedule. I kind of stumbled my way through it. 

But all that being said, I thought it was a good opportunity to do whatever I thought was necessary to work for a guy who I really believe in to try to be the leader of the free world. 

TC: So a lot of it was just kind of rolling with what came along? 

RL: Yeah, people have problems that they need to be solved and trying to solve them the best that you can no matter how big or small the task is. That’s kind of the Coach K model. Where the little plays matter. Not only is it important who makes the jump shot, it’s also important who sets the screen, who passes the ball or is going to rebound and get back on defense. Without all those pieces you don’t have an effective outcome, even if you make or miss the jump shot. 

TC: Yeah, totally makes sense, that’s fascinating. Just want to pivot a little bit to talk about what you’re doing right now. It’s a fairly unusual time to be a surrogate on the campaign trail, so what do your days look like? 

RL: In terms of helping out with the campaign, everything’s a little different, right? There’s not a lot of stuff happening in person, and a lot of it is phone calls. Typically for me, I’ll probably do a couple of different radio stations in the morning and then do some volunteer activities in the evening, speak to an undecided population of people. 

They’re hosting these things called the “barbershop talks” where they’re bringing together folks from the African American community to talk about Black issues. So I’m doing a lot of those events. People are asking great questions, people are dialed in, and it’s a lot of people trying to figure out why this election matters and why it’s important to them. 

Maybe you’ve voted one time or maybe this might be your first time voting. A lot of the time, especially younger voters don’t have a true appreciation of the sacrifices that have been made for all people to have access to the capability to vote and have our voices heard in the democratic process. So that’s a lot of what we talk about, and I talk about a lot of lessons learned in working for Barack Obama and in the Obama administration with Joe Biden. And how it is important for leaders to want to be not only leaders of the country but also to be public servants and to have the good of the country in front of the interests of your own or of your own people. 

Those are the main topics that we talk about to try to convince people that their vote matters. You know, like in 2007, a lot of people couldn’t pronounce Barack Obama or identify him in a lineup. And so it wasn’t the political establishment that elected Barack Obama to the presidency—it was a lot of people who had been disengaged with the political process that came in to believe that they could make a difference and have an impact on the country through participating. Those are the messages that we are usually trying to get people to really understand and to buy into when we’re doing this kind of campaign virtual event. 

TC: Going off of that, I know you’ve been particularly involved in talking about the Biden/Harris campaign plan for Black voters nationally and in North Carolina. Could you tell me a little bit more about that? 

RL: I think there’s a couple of things. When you really zoom out to a 5,000-foot view, a lot of where we are today is a function of a lot of history that’s really hard to unravel. But when you really dig into it through the lens of COVID, you have this virus that’s the most contagious virus that we’ve probably seen in modern history, where you’ve got almost 270,000 cases in North Carolina and almost 4,200 cases where people have died from it. 

And then when you think about it, Black North Carolinians represent 23% of the total cases, right? When you peel the onion back from that it’s steeped in this idea that there are a lot of inequities that COVID has just shined a light on, like transportation: “How am I effectively and safely getting to work?” 

And then you pull back from there and think, “What kind of job do I have? Can I work remotely or not? Am I an essential worker or not? Am I an hourly worker or a salaried worker? Do I have the option to take the right precautions to protect a vulnerable household that I may live in because I live with an elderly person that I’m also a caregiver for?” And people are having to make the hard choice of “Do I go out and run the risk of making an already vulnerable household even more vulnerable? Or do I run the risk of not being able to pay enough money to keep the lights on?”

TC: Those are just impossible choices. 

RL: They’re impossible choices. And that’s even more heightened for African Americans. When you look at the wage gap, when you look at the wealth gap between white and Black and you say, “Okay, this is really hard.” African Americans have been significantly more impacted and damaged by this virus. It simply puts even more pressure on the already sensitive pain points that we’ve been trying to compact for years.  

So for Joe and for Kamala, they understand this. They understand that this divide is real and they understand these challenges are real for families. So when you think about the idea of building back and coming back, bringing the economy back post-coronavirus, it’s thinking about equitable ways to do it and understanding that systemic racism and discrimination are real. 

And so you have to tackle these issues around affordable healthcare, affordable college education and student debt, job retraining and job access and transportation. These are issues that governments have been stood up to solve, and we’ve got to do a better job solving these issues. We can’t say that the virus isn’t real or that this thing isn’t having an impact, because it is.

TC: Since we’re a student newspaper, I was wondering if you have any advice for students who want to make an impact on issues like racial justice? 

RL: It all starts with voting, electing people who understand that these systematic things exist and are working to solve them, and holding them accountable. Then I think, look, I remember college and I know what it’s like to feel like, “You know what, what I do doesn’t matter. These problems are too large, and I’ll never get to solve them.” 

But then it really comes down to, they say, charity starts at home. So looking at the places where we live, work and play and making sure that those places are doing everything that they can do to be equitable and inclusive. 

You can go back, you saw the email that President [Vincent] Price sent out a couple weeks ago. I think that’s a good start to it. But I think that ultimately, if you don’t demand transparency, you don’t understand the impact that these different structures have on communities. It’s hard to articulate a way to solve it, but I will give you a pretty basic example for me. 

I work in financial services and I look at the financial services industry and it’s not very diverse. So it’s about having hard conversations about what we want to do to change it. And you look at some of these endowments at universities, are the managers fairly representative? Are the investment teams representative of the university and the university’s mission? Does the leadership and the teacher workforce—or specific majors—have adequate and fair representation? 

And once you get to the question of representation then it’s real equity, which is “Are the benefits and salaries on par?” So it takes a lot of time and energy to understand what the thing is, and a lot of conflict people don’t talk about. It’s in the shadows, people don’t necessarily report them and they’re not required to report them. But I think ultimately if you were tracking and measuring the change and getting people to be transparent about tracking and measuring, then you can figure out how to fix them. And I think that’s a good starting point. 

You can look at the student population at Duke. Every year it’s been almost 8.5% or 9% African American. Now we argue that we’re very diverse and that we’re very inclusive. And when you think about it, yeah, Duke is really, really, really diverse. You have 40-something or 45% of the population that comes from a diverse background. But then if you really dig in and peel back the layers on that onion and you look at Black diversity, it’s not that high. 

So those are conversations that should be had. The students are the buyers, you guys have all the power. Students should never feel powerless because ultimately without the youth you don’t have people to pay tuition, to do the work and to help support all these industries and companies. None of these things happen, right? 

So I would say that to all the readers of The Chronicle, know your power and don’t be timid in exercising it. Hold your local organizations and communities accountable to the things that are important to you. A few years ago, the Duke student population convinced the Duke endowment to offset their investments and fossil fuels with renewable power. 

TC: Yeah, sustainability has been an ongoing push. There’s been more on that this year

RL: Yeah, before people started having that conversation, normally talking about it, it wasn’t even a thing. And now people are like—you know what we need to do, we need to take this into consideration because it’s important. 

TC: Since you mentioned the President Price email, do I take it that you keep up pretty closely with goings-on at Duke? 

RL: I do, I do. I’m a Duke football season-ticket-holder. so I’m very sad that there are no games happening in person. My dad and I basically go to every home game—before COVID—and we really enjoy it. 

Duke has been great for me, and I would not have had many of the opportunities that I’ve had if it had not been for this great institution. 

TC: That’s most of what I have. You’ve been incredibly thorough. Is there anything else that you want to touch on? Anything around politics, thoughts on the upcoming basketball season or the football team? 

RL: I think the University has done a great job trying to get people back into the swing of being educated. I think the teams are doing the best that they can do with the challenges that they’re facing. Obviously, I think the most important thing in the world right now is next Tuesday, and in North Carolina, we don’t have to wait until next Tuesday. 

TC: Early voting has been incredible on campus. There’s been a huge turnout at the on-campus early voting place. 

RL: Everyone go down to the Karsh [Alumni and Visitors] Center if they haven’t already and make sure that they have their voices heard. I hope people who are reading this feel empowered and feel inspired to want to continue to be a part of the process. Our country is a great country, and people are at Duke because they know how to be leaders and we can’t be afraid to lead. 

Sometimes that comes with friction and taking a point of view that might not be the same view that everyone else has, which is okay. But you know, you need to not shy away from it, to have courage to forge on through such tough times. 

For more election coverage from across North Carolina, visit One Vote N.C., a collaborative between The Chronicle and six other student newspapers that aims to help college students across the state navigate the November election.

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