By David Wu
APIA’s constitute 5.6% of the American population and are the fastest growing minority on a percentage basis. However, we continue to be underrepresented in public life, whether in appointive or elective office. In the coming months, there is an opportunity to address this problem: the Trump administration will be making over 4000 appointments to the executive branch.
The timing is almost perfect: the selection of candidates for political appointments has barely begun. Some cabinet secretaries have not yet been confirmed by the Senate, and others only recently approved. The selection of political appointees to serve under the cabinet secretaries hasn’t really started, and in many instances, the officials who will be responsible for appointments have not yet taken office. The new administration will be looking for candidates for the next six months or more.
Americans may know who is Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State. However, there are thousands of other political appointees. These are the deputy assistant secretaries, special assistants, and other federal officeholders who are crucial to implementing policy, but unknown to the general public. Their roles are important for their own sake, but the offices they hold also can be launching pads for future success in public life. Ro Khanna, recently elected to Congress, was a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of Commerce. Neil Gorsuch, the President’s nominee to the Supreme Court, was a Deputy Associate Attorney General at the Department of Justice. A few years ago, they were part of the faceless federal bureaucracy. Today, they are well-known participants in public life. The greatest challenge to getting people appointed is finding strong nominees. Immediate subject matter expertise is necessary in some cases, but not others. For example, a nominee for the Department of Justice should be an attorney. However, a nominee for the Department of Commerce might come from virtually any background. Factors that may help are success in the private sector or academic life, or prior experience in government. Participation in political campaigns can be helpful, but only if it is for the party of the current administration—after all, these are political appointments.
The next step is to bring candidates to the attention of the administration. If you know who is responsible for the selection process, pick up the telephone (the hierarchy of effective communication is 1) face to face conversation—by far the best 2) talking by telephone, and a very distant third, email). Ask to speak with the decision maker’s scheduler or personal assistant. Ask that person for 15 minutes with the decision maker, or failing that, with the Chief of Staff or whoever runs the operations of the office. Every office has a Chief of Staff or an equivalent person—someone who “makes the trains run on time.”
If you really care about success, go to Washington and meet in person. A round trip air ticket from the West Coast costs $550 or less. You can depart on the Sunday night redeye and return on Monday night. You’ll miss only one day of work, and won’t need a hotel. If you cannot get a face-to-face appointment or can’t afford the time or money to fly coast-to-coast, ask for 15 minutes by telephone. If the office relegates you to email, send the email and then follow up with a telephone call. Persistence pays. Be aggressive, not passive. Whether in your email, by telephone, or in person, have a clear and succinct explanation of your reasons for making contact (see below).
People usually don’t know who makes the appointments, but this adds only another step or two. Call the main number for the Department and ask for the Community Relations or Public Affairs Office—every
Department has one. When you reach that office, explain clearly and succinctly why you are calling (again, see below). You will have to make the same explanation if you are referred from office to office, which is highly likely. Stick with the process, and eventually, you will wind up in the right place. Then follow the steps above.
It is always helpful to contact the Congressman or Senator who represents you. The process is the same. Ask to speak with the Scheduler in the office and ask the Scheduler for 15 minutes with the Congressman or Senator, and failing that, 15 minutes with the Chief of Staff. Be ready with the same clear and concise explanation of why you are calling. Ask for their help in identifying who is responsible for political appointments in the administration, and for their help in the nomination process. And of course, ask them whether they have any appropriate positions in their own office for well-qualified candidates.
The format and content of a good meeting are relatively constant, regardless of the subject matter. Start by thanking whomever you’re meeting with for taking time from their busy schedule to meet with you. Tell them if you are affiliated with an APIA organization. At this point, it is appropriate to mention relevant friendships, or that you are constituent. Be very careful about mentioning political connections. “I was privileged to help on the Presidents/Senators/Congressman’s campaign,” and leave it at that. They will ask if they want to know more.
Now it’s time to go into the substance of the meeting. My suggestion is 1) APIAs are 5.6% of the American population and the fastest growing minority in percentage terms, yet vastly underrepresented in public life 2) the administration will make up to 4000 political appointments, and this is an opportunity to address the problem 3) describe the person you have in mind and their qualifications 4) how can you contact the person in the administration who makes appointments 5) with whom should you you stay in contact in their office. If you are at a congressional office, does Representative or Senator have a position on their personal staff, or on committee staff?
By this time, you should have exchanged business cards. Ask if you may stay in contact with them. Answer any questions. Be clear and concise. A long, wandering, or unclear presentation or answer to a question will lose their attention. They are busy. Resist the temptation to ask for anything other than help with political appointments. A fundamental rule is to ask for only one thing in any one meeting. Stay focused. Make it easy for them to say yes. America is a better country when all of its people are represented in public life. Every four years, there Is a major opportunity toaddress the underrepresentation of APIA’s, and you can play an important role by reaching out to the new administration and your representatives in Congress. Be a part of the solution.