Obama Alumni Jump Into Congressional Races Across the Country

 By Eric Garcia | ericgarcia@rollcall.com | Roll Call

Alumni of the Obama administration are heeding their former boss’ call to get in the game themselves and run for office in response the election of President Donald Trump and to continue what the former president started.

Sam Jammal, an Obama appointee in the Commerce Department who is running in California’s 39th District against Republican Rep. Ed Royce, said he was heeding those words.

“The president’s message was to get into the arena,” Jammal said.

For Jammal, the son of a Jordanian father and a Colombian mother, President Barack Obama’s personal story hit home.

“He’s always been an inspiring figure for me as someone with a biracial background,” he said. “I think Obama represents a brand of the Democratic Party about hope.”

Jammal met Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, where Obama, then a Senate candidate from Illinois, gave the keynote address that catapulted him to stardom and Jammal was a recent college graduate and convention delegate.

Coincidentally, also at that same 2004 convention was Raja Krishnamoorthi, then a policy adviser for Obama’s Senate campaign. He’s now a member of Congress, representing Illinois’ 8th District.

“I can honestly say that President Obama wrote most of that speech on his own with little editing from others,” the freshman congressman said.

Krishnamoorthi said he has known the former president since 1999. He worked on Obama’s unsuccessful first run for Congress against against Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby L. Rush in 2000.

“In 2002, he told me he thought he had one more campaign in him and, I have to admit, my jaw dropped when he told me it was for U.S. Senate, but I was onboard,” Krishnamoorthi said.

Working for Obama, he said, motivated him to jump into electoral politics.

Krishnamoorthi first ran for Congress in 2012, losing in the Democratic primary to Tammy Duckworth, then an assistant secretary in Obama’s Veterans Affairs Department. He won the seat last year after Duckworth vacated it for a successful Senate bid.

Losing a race before winning a House seat is something California Rep. Ro Khanna of California is also familiar with. Khanna unsuccessfully challenged former Rep. Michael M. Honda in 2014 in the 17th District but won a rematch in 2016. (He also lost a 2004 Democratic primary race to Rep. Tom Lantos.)

Khanna, a deputy assistant secretary in the Obama Commerce Department, advised fellow Obama alumni who want to run for office to abide by the old aphorism that “all politics is local.”

“They really need to spend a vast, vast majority of time doing coffees in their districts,” he said. “Going to all the veterans organizations. Going to local Democratic clubs and going to all the high schools.”

For Colin Allred, who worked as a special assistant in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, running against GOP Rep. Pete Sessions in Texas’ 32nd District is about giving back to the community.

“For me, this is really my home,” said Allred, who played in the NFL and was a civil rights lawyer before working in the Obama administration. He described the North Dallas region which is part of the district as “the area that gave me the chance to do all of these things.”

In Michigan’s 11th District, Haley Stevens compared her decision to run against Republican Rep. Dave Trott to one she made during Great Recession to work as chief of staff for the Treasury Department’s Auto Task Forceduring the bailout of her home state’s auto industry.

“I felt the same fire in my belly about making a difference for my family and friends,” she said. “It struck me as like maybe I can make a difference in advancing manufacturing and bring some of that fresh thinking to the capital.” 

Jammal compared the experience of the 2016 election to the feeling he had as an Arab-American after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and wanting to get into public service.

“After President Trump got elected, it was how can I best serve,” he said.

Similarly, in New Jersey, Andy Kim, who was the National Security Council’s director for Iraq during the Obama administration, decided to challenge Rep. Tom MacArthur in the 3rd District after the Republican lawmaker wrote a crucial amendment to the House GOP health care bill that would have repealed Obama’s signature health care law.

Kim said he was concerned MacArthur “was taking a leading role in authoring a bill that would gut pre-existing conditions.”

“What I think frustrated me with MacArthur and the Trump administration, it’s that continuation of Congress … becoming politicized,” he said.

Brian Forde, who is running to challenge Republican Rep. Mimi Walters in California’s 45th District, said he felt responsible to get involved in a district that could be flipped.

“Everything we worked so hard for in the Obama administration is being torn to shreds,” said Forde, who was Obama’s senior adviser for technology. “Our representative is fighting for Trump’s values.”

Some of the candidates said they not only want to work to advance the progress made by Obama but also build on things that weren’t possible at the time.

“What we didn’t learn was we need to get back to the basics on kitchen-table issues as Democrats,” Jammal said, adding that while the economy recovered under Obama, “now we need to help get back to basic issues” such as helping people who lost their homes.

Khanna also said he thinks the former president, who celebrated his 56th birthday Friday, would want alumni of his administration to build on the work of their onetime boss.

“He did an incredible amount in his time but there’s tremendous work to do,” Khanna said.

Lynda Tran, chief public affairs and communications strategist at 270 Strategies, a firm founded by Obama campaign officials, said there are many common threads that tie together people who worked in Obama’s administration or on campaigns. Her group is helping Allred’s campaign in Texas.

“Part of what makes the Obama network strong is this commitment to a shared way of running campaigns,” Tran said. “Based on data, and driven by people.”

Khanna, for his part, said he looks forward to welcoming more people who worked for Obama into the halls of Congress.

“I’m excited about forming an Obama alum caucus in Congress in 2019 once it’s more than just Tammy and me,” he said.