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Day 6: That Time I Worked for Rick Santorum: A Political Conversion

The summer after my junior year at the College of William and Mary, I interned for Rick Santorum in his Washington, D.C. legislative offices. I got the internship because my family had been very involved in anti-abortion activism, like Operation Rescue involved. In high school in Philadelphia, I had worked for a local anti-abortion activist organization and the director, William Devlin, knew Santorum’s Chief of Staff, Mark Rodgers. So he hooked me up. I think I interned for 10 weeks, but maybe it was 8. When I graduated from college, I went to work for Brabender Cox, Santorum’s political consultants who continue to advise Santorum in his presidential campaign.

After eight months with Brabender Cox—through one election cycle—I took a job as a legislative correspondent with U.S. Representative Gary Miller (R-CA), who represented Diamond Bar and vicinity. He was a builder and basically a lobbyist within Congress for builders. He was also socially conservative, but I always had the feeling that he was socially conservative for the votes, but his heart wasn’t really in it. Good Reagan Republican, really. He used to workout for two hours a day when Congress was in session, but we weren’t supposed to mention that in the office. We developed a code where we would say he was out working when we meant working out. My officemate began to describe himself as overhung along the same lines. In my first interview for a job on the Hill after spending some time with the consultants, the chief of staff who interviewed me told me after the interview that I didn’t need to pontificate so much. I try to heed his advice even now. By the time I left Miller’s office, I had been promoted to legislative assistant.

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I found the work in Miller’s office frustrating, not just because of that office in particular, but because it felt like we weren’t doing anything. Most of our work was spin—writing letters to constituents who contacted their legislator thinking they had a voice to let them know how the position the congressman was going to vote for was really in their best interests anyway. Decisions about how to vote were based on which lobby would be least pissed off or most happy with us and how it would play in the re-election. That on its surface is not bad because it could point to a desire to be answerable to one’s constituency, but it wasn’t that. It was about getting re-elected. Miller thought of himself as the king of the 600,000 people in his district and was upset when he wasn’t treated by them as such.

 

So in 2000, I decided to leave D.C. and move back to my hometown of Philadelphia to try to get a job with the Republican Convention that was to be held there that year.   When I first got back, I had a brief gig working in the office of Tenth Presbyterian Church, which is where I heard the senior pastor, Phil Ryken, now the president of Wheaton College, who just fired Larycia Hawkins for being too unqualifiedly supportive of Muslims and Jews, tell a homeless guy who came in looking for food to go to Saint Mark’s Church on Locust, where I ended up going for eight years while I was in graduate school at Villanova University. Then Mike Mihalke, who had become a partner of then Brabender Cox Mihalke, reached out to the human resources people at the Republican Convention and got me a job.

 

My position was the special assistant to the general counsel. When I was interviewed for the job, my future boss, John Kelliher, who went on to become counsel for Ways and Means after working at the Convention, asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I was interested in going to graduate school in philosophy. He asked me who I cared about in philosophy. I told him Foucault and Derrida. He asked me if I was sure I was a Republican. I think I pontificated in response. I was standing with him in some room at what was then called the Comcast Center when Bush announced that Cheney would be his vice-president and we were both pissed. It didn’t make any sense. I became the notary public who notarized all the nominating forms that Dennis Hastert signed as the highest ranking elected Republican at the time.

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After the Convention, I was looking around for campaigns to work for and spoke to some of my friends in Santorum’s office. I met with the guy who was running Santorum’s re-election campaign on the ground and he hired me to be the Field Director of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Field Office, which was in Norristown. I had applied to graduate school and heard in late summer that a spot had opened up at Villanova where I wanted to go to study with Jack Caputo. But by that time, I had already taken the job with Santorum’s campaign, so I asked if I just take one class that first semester, and they said that was fine. So I took Being and Time with Caputo while working on the campaign. While working on the campaign, I was also involved in running events for the Bush campaign in the five-county area around Philadelphia. I was onstage setting people up to be behind Bush when he spoke. One time, I had to go basically kiss the ring of the head of the Republican party in Philadelphia, Vito something, to get help putting people at the polls for Santorum in the city.

I’m from Philadelphia and I’ve always been invested in the city and the finding ways to push back against the way the city grinds people down and makes it difficult for them to live and flourish. I liked that Santorum was a blue-collar Republican, but I also wanted to find ways to show that Santorum was good for the city, too.   Once Project H.O.M.E. invited all the candidates to speak at a senatorial forum and the campaign wanted to take a pass, but I pushed hard to go and represent him. Everyone thought it was a lose / lose situation, but I thought not showing up was worse. Finally, Mark Rodgers, Santorum’s legislative chief of staff, intervened on my behalf and made it possible for me to go. And once there was an embarrassing forum at Temple where I had no idea what I was talking about re: marginal tax rates to some people who really did know.   So maybe that was a lose-lose.

Santorum won 25% of the vote in Philadelphia. That’s not very good. But Bush only won 9%. So 16% of the voters split their ticket for vote for Rick. I thought I had done my job.

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Then when Bush ran on his “compassionate conservatism,” I thought, finally, here’s a Republican whom I don’t have to be embarrassed about in the city.   I was a Republican who thought that the issues of the city mattered and should be addressed but that Republicans had better solutions. I thought that we did have responsibility to one another, but that we were individuals first and we had a responsibility to become our best individual self ourselves. Also, I was a Calvinist so I agreed with Adam Smith that a system based on greed would likely work because you could always rely on human beings to be greedy and you could never rely on them to be good.

After the campaign, when for weeks we didn’t know who the next president would be, I went to London for Thanksgiving. A guy at a flea market told me a joke: What are the Americans doing for Thanksgiving this year? They’re recounting their blessings. My graduate student classmates were in an uproar about the unconstitutionality of the Supreme Court’s decision. I went to DC for an inauguration reunion with my Republican Convention friends. I spent the rest of the semester reading Heidegger. In the Spring, I was a full-time graduate student. I took a class on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Plato’s Middle Dialogues and something else that I can’t remember. Reading Hegel and Plato I was floored. They seemed pretty convincing about how human beings seem to begin already interconnected with others, becoming who they are out of and within community. This seemed like a game changer to me. I began to wonder. At the same time, I began to wonder whether the Calvinist metaphysics of my youth could hold up.   From all that Foucault in college, I knew that regimes of truth functioned to maintain disciplinary force. I devoured Irigaray on my own. The lines about proper roles that always resulted in hierarchy didn’t seem to hold any water. I realized why evangelicals could be anti-intellectual. Once you knew the historical provenance of certain ideas you could see how they came about as answers to specific problems in specific times and places. The center did not hold.

Also, I had never met people who were obviously smarter than me who disagreed with me. Ok, I probably had. But I did not recognize them as such. They didn’t have answers to my questions. They didn’t have the questions that uprooted my answers. They had Nietzsche and Marx and Hegel and Plato. More than anything else, the interaction with people who appeared to share my fundamental concerns, who didn’t think faith as such was silly, who recognized that the question of the limit of reason was central to reasoning, made me rethink my commitments. On top of that, they were proof against Dostoyevesky—they wanted to be good and just; they wanted a better world; they did not believe in God. They were anti-moralists to be sure, but they cared about the good. Then September 11 came. Then Cheney seemed to take over.  I lost faith.

These photographs were are official photographs taken by the Capitol photographer with Trent Lott and Santorum interns 1997, Dick Armey 1997, Jesse Helms 1997.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. ex-neo-con #

    Wow: this tracks with my own political conversion story–from Von Mises and Hayek and Calvinism at Tenth right down to the Bush-Cheney administration pushing me over the edge, along with healthy dose of continental philosophy (especially Gadamer and Adorno) and Radical Orthodoxy to help me along the way.

    January 7, 2016
  2. I identify with so much of this. I wish I could invite you out for coffee.

    January 7, 2016
  3. I so enjoyed reading this part of your story. From a fellow Philadelphia who knows your family, and never jumped on the neocon wagon, as I was pretty frustrated with it when it was just con.

    July 22, 2016
  4. Laurie Rettig #

    It is an enjoyment to read your thoughts, niece Adriel. I have been proud of you from afar. I have been unable to understand much of your scholarly lingo. And I have been encouraged to think harder and to try harder, because of your writings. Keep on you go girl!

    January 14, 2017
    • Thanks for reading Laurie! I’m working on making the language less academic. I appreciate the encouragement.

      January 14, 2017

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  2. Day 20: On Running and Being a Runner, Pt. 1 | The Trott Line
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  4. To my Evangelical Friends from a former Republican staffer | The Trott Line

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