Adam Briskin-Limehouse is a second year student in the Master of Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins University. He has a great deal of experience with campaigns, including helping to run the Question 6 Campaign in Maryland for marriage equality. He has also volunteered with the Peace Corps, done work with the AFL-CIO in Washington, DC, and hopes to one day run for office. The Penn Political Review talked with Adam about his interest in politics and his advice to undergraduates.
Conducted and transcribed by TRUDEL PARE
PPR: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about how you became interested in politics and what led you to choose that as a career.
Adam: Sure! So, it’s funny, I wrote down a response, and it sounds a little campy now that I want to say it, but it’s true, you know, politics is kind of a family business, specifically politics and advocacy. My grandfather is a lifelong member of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and was an elected county Tax Assessor in the 70s, and in fact, helped to professionalize that system so that it would be a little bit less bad. So around that same time, in the 70s and 80s, my mom and dad were taking part in the anti-proliferation (nuclear proliferation) protest movement in New England, and helped found New Haven’s War Tax protest. And they have always taught me – both my grandfather and my parents–that if you believe in something, then go out and do something about it. Don’t complain and hope that it magically changes, make the change happen. So, that led to my own involvement. My grandfather sort of dragooned me into working on Election Day. I was 16 maybe, maybe younger than that, and doing that I just really caught the bug of working in global politics rather than just issue advocacy, even though I ended up working a lot in issue advocacy. Having caught the bug and graduated from high school, my grandfather set me up with his protégé, a guy named Lachlan McIntosh, who is still doing campaign consulting in the Southeast. And Lachlan hired me the year before I went to college to work on my first campaign. I’ve been doing it ever since.
PPR: Maybe a better question would be, did you ever think about doing anything else?
Adam: I will say that working in politics and campaigns is a lot like being in priesthood. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else, you should do that because it is not for the faint of heart.
PPR: I know you worked in the Peace Corps for a while– why did you decide to do that? How did that connect back into your interest in politics?
Adam: Well, to me, politics is about public service. It’s about looking out for the good of the Commonwealth and the Republic. Although that’s super abstract, in a lot of ways I have found that working on campaigns and wanting to do public service are intimately connected. And after college, and after having done some social work, I found that I really needed to broaden my horizons, both personally and professionally, and I had already decided to do the Peace Corps a few years before that, and it just felt like the right time to execute. And so, I did and went out to be a community health educator.
PPR: How did you like it? What were your experiences?
Adam: You will never talk to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who doesn’t have some variation of the, “I have mixed feelings on Peace Corps.” And that’s because Peace Corps is hard– it’s a twoyear long commitment. In fact, about a third of the people can’t do it, and these are successful applicants who go through what used to be an even more grueling application process, and is now, still, a grueling application process. For me, it meant being cut off and away from home for the first time, because I didn’t go away for college. I stayed in my hometown. So that was hard, and then add that you are thrown into a situation without a whole lot of preparation. You know, you do three months of programmatic and language training before you start, and then – you start. They drop you off in the jungle and go, “Cool. Get started!” Especially for a smaller post like mine, the sense of isolation was intensified because there were so few of us in the country. I worked with some great counterparts and some great NGOs. I had the opportunity see that maybe the UN system of organizations isn’t fantastic. I worked with national organizations who were doing some really hard work on limited budgets, and got to be a part of that–bringing those resources to bear, and improving community health in a way that, if you live in the metropolitan areas of the world, you just don’t ever do. You don’t ever see what goes on. It’s something that other people do. This was being one of those other people. It really clarified for me my personal political personality.
PPR: So, changing topics a little bit, how did that affect the way that you chose to join campaigns, and how did you get involved with campaigns? Was it sort of something where people would pull you in, or were you really connected to the issues?
Adam: It’s really a combination. I’ve worked and done work with some really fantastic folks who have done good by me and I have tried to do well by the ones who are coming up behind me. The opportunity to work on each of the campaigns I staffed was a combination of being in the right place at the right time and thinking critically about whether or not to hit the ‘Go’ button. In the questions you sent me you mentioned specifically what got me in with the Question 6 campaign, and that was a combination of having a heart and soul dedicated to preventing the passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina, and having that dedication rewarded by Marty Rouse, the Human Rights Campaign, and the manager on Question 6, Josh Levin. They were impressed by the work I did, they were impressed by the leadership I showed, and they asked me to move up to Maryland to take a more senior role on that campaign. I got into LGBT politics because of my best friend in college. She is a lesbian who had grown up being bullied by some of the same people that I thought were friends and that wasn’t ok. It wasn’t ok with me, it was unfair. The work I did for the LGBT civil rights movement was a contribution into a real political struggle that could actually change society.
PPR: A lot of the people reading the magazine are thinking about decisions about where to go to grad school, and how to take the next step– can you talk a little bit about how you transitioned out of campaigns and into graduate school and why you made that shift?
Adam: So, for me, it was a matter of upgrading my skills. As an undergrad, I mixed a bit of philosophy, with a little bit- well, a fair amount- of political science coursework, and psychology coursework. And campaign life is those skills that you learn: critical thinking, and basic statistical analysis, and even just basic writing, over and over againthose are fundamental to campaigns. But to really move up, you need to have more concrete training. And after two years in Peace Corps and five years working on campaigns, I needed better hard skills. That was my interest in coming to Johns hopkin-policy analysis and economics. It has really allowed me to focus on where I want to work in policy and politics beyond working in advocacy. Because unfortunately advocacy is a funnel, and you can work on it your entire career if you make that choice, but that involves being a nomad–going from campaign to campaign to campaign. There’s a great joke on a Tumblr called Campaignsick– which is supposed to be homesick, not like you’ve got the flu– “it’s campaign o’clock somewhere, it’s always campaign o’clock somewhere”. And it’s true! There’s always a campaign happening, and the skill set of running a campaign, either as a field organizer or doing the fundraising, or doing the communications- are always required somewhere. But there’s a ceiling. There’s a personal financial ceiling, and there’s a professional ceiling. And that financial ceiling is about $60,000 a year. That’s fine if you’re single, and you live in the Midwest, and you want to make doing politics your career, but if you want to come back and get into politics in terms of running for politics, it’s a little harder. And if you want to stick to a single state it’s much harder. The professional ceiling is, unless you’re Robby Mook, you’re not going to run national campaigns. Unless this is the calling of your life and you happen to be one of the great talents, and you happen to get connected with a winning presidential campaign, you’re not ever going to make a lot of money, and you’re not going to be at the very top professionally. Going forward, I expect I will have to work in the private sector for a while, to repay the Hopkins, and that will put me on the path to running for office.
PPR: You mentioned this a little bit when you were talking about your campaign work, but I was wondering what your experience has been with getting support from your family, and from mentors, and other people in your life, and how that affected your career decisions?
Adam: As I mentioned before, my grandfather got me started in politics with his protégé, and Lachlan really showed me the ropes on Democratic politics in South Carolina and what could and could not be accomplished, which he still struggles with. Those first few campaigns in Charleston taught me that I really needed to broaden my experience, and that led to my college mentors suggesting the Peace Corps as a viable path of public service. In that way, mentors have shown me when it was the right time to make those jumps. They’ve both guided me and when I asked, “is this the right campaign for me to be on right now?” they’ve either said, “ehh, maybe not,” or they’ve been able to say, “yea, you just need to go.” At the same time, my family–my parents, my wife– they’ve all been extraordinarily supportive. There’s a great joke my wife tells, which maybe is not a joke, that I’m her contribution to the progressive movement. She is as dedicated to politics and to the same issue set that I believe is really important in this country, but the sort of everyday, nitty-gritty fighting between conflicting interests is just not for her. She doesn’t want anything to do with it. It makes her crazy. And so instead, she says, she sends me. And I think that is a way to contribute.
PPR: How would you say you go about cultivating those relationships? I mean, family I suppose comes a bit naturally, but what about mentors, and other people in the field?
Adam: Do the work. It seems simple, but do the work, keep your nose to the grindstone, stay in your lane, and when you get the opportunity to sit down and have a drink, or grab a cup of coffee with a supervisor, or a campaign manager, do it. And ask the questions, “How am I doing?”, “What could I be doing better?”, “How can I make a better contribution to this campaign?” And then later on, after the campaign, after you’re finished with whatever project you’re working on, sit down and do it again. I have had that coffee and have had that drink with campaign managers that I’ve worked for, that I’ve wanted to work for, with staff at the Human Rights Campaign and the DNC, and said that. It’s led me in some ways to focus my skill set, and it finally led me to realize that I either need to go to grad school or accept that I was going to be a nomad.
PPR: I was wondering if you had any advice for undergraduate students who are really interested in getting into politics or campaigns maybe, and are trying to figure out how to get involved.
Adam: Secondly, campaign work is the sine que non of experiencing the connection between local political personality and national politics, or even state politics. And the way to get into a campaign is to find one, apply for it, get hired, and do the work. Because there is nothing that’s going to teach you, in a visceral way, better than working on a campaign, either a legislative or a referendum, or a candidate campaign. Any of them will do that for you, but that needs to be tempered with the understanding that you don’t do it because you want a job in somebody’s office, you do it because you want to do the work. And if a job happens to be available, you apply for it, but maybe it’s not.
PPR: So then my last question would be, what do you see in your future? I know you talked about going into the private sector after graduating from Hopkins; what are you sort of aiming for in your career?
Adam: So, in the longest term, I hope to run for Congress. I think that for me, campaigns and policy are part of a long journeymanship towards becoming a master legislator. I think we need those. I think we need master legislators who care about the crunchiness of policy, who care about the Republic in a real way, who are concerned not so much with where they are on that day, but on where their work as legislators and governors of the Republic is taking the country. And I think there isn’t enough of that right now. I’m a realist- there will always be times when politics and the negative connotations of that trumps good sense. But I really want to be the kind of master legislator that understands when that is unnecessary and can push back on it. And you know, I think people like Lyndon Johnson are a great example of that- somebody who had a solid vision of the country, for the Republic, and executed on it, and made it perfectly clear to his caucus, and to his political allies, that there were places and times for compromise, and others that weren’t. So that’s where I ultimately see myself going. I’d like, in the interim, to work in the private sector to get a better sense of how the market and especially business at the Fortune 500 or Fortune 1000 level operates, because I don’t think it’s fair to say, I’m going to regulate you, if I haven’t ever actually worked there.