A conversation with Danny Hosein
by Benjamin Collinger
Danny Hosein is a 2016 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Before law school, he served as a political appointee in the Obama Administration at the U.S. General Services Administration as Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff and the U.S. Department of the Interior as Program Coordinator for America’s Great Outdoors. He worked as field organizer in the 2008 Obama-Biden campaign, a Non-profit relations coordinator at Greater D.C. Cares and as a Scoville Fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. He spoke to Benjamin Collinger about his career and a variety of public affairs topics.
After graduating from Trinity, you worked for the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCML). How would you describe its advocacy in the context of other lobbying efforts in Washington?
To put it in a bit of context, FCML is a Quaker public interest lobby non-profit driven by its grassroots members. These are people in all 50 states and outside the country that are volunteers. We lobbied on an array of issues ranging from domestic policy and healthcare to foreign policy, and I worked primarily on nuclear non-proliferation. This was a very traditional style of lobbying, when congress still functioned. Committees were having hearings, marking bills and the appropriations process was moving along. We could identify specific objectives that we wanted to achieve in the appropriations process and meet with staff and members of congress to talk to them about how people in their district perceived what we were for and what we were against. The power we had was that our members were local that with leaders were in particular swing districts. The organizations founded by Quakers work with a network of interfaith organizations, whether that’s Methodists or Mennonites or Catholics or any other faith group that has a social justice and legislative arm in Washington. We banded together in strength and numbers. We identified leadership that would amplify our message and targeting. These people are active in with members of Congress that they personally knew or their staff knew of from their campaign work. It added credibility to what we were doing. It wasn’t just blind money flying at them, which happens to a lot of our Super PACs. They are real people who one can talk to. We didn’t have any expectations for them as leaders, but we really had a lot of depth talking with them about issues we cared about.
Do you think it makes a difference that the organizations you were working with are faith-based? Does that change the way that they go about political issues and decision-making?
We typically have a lot of overlap with those organizations. I think, in general, that faith-based organizations would have a kind of social justice or legislative mission in D.C. They are looking to strength the social safety nets or have more people in foreign policy. I think we were very protective in identifying the overlap. Every organization employs talented and experienced lobbyists, ours was no exception. People knew the process as well as anyone in Washington. We hired a lot of former hill staffers and have stronger relationships with people in congress.
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The effective part was when five or six organizations came together and identified who were the leaders of the community that they worked in. We would get letters signed by groups and leaders in the communities. People who were head of churches, faith, or nonprofit organizations in their communities and these people were the one that held congressmen accountable to when they went back to their district. It was important for us to have that local and personal touch, but it didn’t change the way that we lobbied as much. It was more effective to be together than individual.
Was there a moment that you noticed congress becoming less functional?
When I was there, I would say that it functioned relatively well. When I left for the Obama campaign, he took office and had big majorities in both houses. It was still passing a lot of legislation. I think that there was a little bit of a mix of things that happened. One was the divided government after the 2010 midterm, which made working to together harder. But I don’t think it’s possible. I think, even with the divided government, Republicans and Democrats were able to pass budgets to do the basic job requirements of members of Congress. I think the secondary were the grassroots organizations, such as the Tea Party, that co-sided with divided ruling. They were able to get organized really quickly, got a lot of money behind their movement, and were aggressive about primaries. They cutout a huge percentage of Democrats and Republicans across party lines around 2010, 2012, 2014, and all midterm elections. Partisanship rose in party caucuses and there was no incentive to break down party lines. I think campaign finanance reform would be a way to take the pressure off of lawmakers to be fundraisers or pander to the voices from their state or district to be heard. This has to happen before Congress can get back to its regular business.
What would be your number one recommendation for reforming Campaign finance?
Overturning Citizens United, which I think the door is open for that with the Supreme Court vacancy and the potential of more vacancies. Beyond that, there are definitely organizations that are kind of becoming wise to what is happening and have tried to engage by the rules of the game. Besides living inside the law of the land, organizations like every town or even FENL organizations that do public interest work are best to educate people about issues in regard to advertising and field campaigns. They kind of engage in the same ways that we do with other super PACs.
What did you learn about the lobby environment’s impact on American Politics that most people aren’t aware of at all?
I’m not sure that people aren’t aware of it, but the frightening thing for me was the degree at which access is readily available and access is power. I was fresh out of undergrad and moved to Washington. Before I knew it, I’ve learned the ins and outs of the lopsided process. I was meeting with staff on Capitol Hill, members of congress, and people of our organization. It’s amazing how easy it was and how effective it was too. If you are creditable, making strong arguments, and going to these meetings, people will listen to you. And so, I think compared to someone whose only real recourse is to write a letter or make a phone call to their congressional office. People in Washington, even from these nonprofits, not heavily money interested to special interested have millions and millions of dollars. It’s much easier to spend as a member of Congress and Executive branch. Obviously, there are ethics rules in place to register and expose what you are doing and how much time it is. But that doesn’t curtail you from doing it. I think when people see a piece of legislative, maybe the thing that they don’t know if how much input into it from very special and narrow interest who really watching the issue.
What role did you play in implementing that strategy or new methods if there were any as a field organizer in 2008?
Our campaign was technologically advanced, but it was founded on a very basic principle of talking to people. The most effective way to talk to people was through using teams of people who are local and could be seen after an election. We had the most sophisticated data and voter targeting operation at the time that has ever been employed in presidential politics. It wouldn’t have mattered the field program because we recruited volunteers, we made sure that volunteers were trained. What we were attempting to do, which was to use a short hand staff. Something was not real unless it was tracked. And so, every phone call, door knock, and conversation with a registered voter, we ensure that we made that into a tangible piece of data. We could track often we contacted someone and talked to them if they had questions. If they were an undecided voter and leaning a certain way, we could follow-up if they were really passionate about an issue. They could talk someone who could give them more information about their cared issue. I think the way targeted people helped us recruit volunteers and be very efficient in contacting voters. The people were contacted were genuinely people who were undecided or leaning. Voter contact, or the act of voter contact and speaking to a voter actually is valuable of itself. The conversation and its sustenance is even more valuable. If a person is thinking who to vote for and if they have been touched by a campaign and touched by the other one makes a difference. The program was very important to implementing the goals for the targeting program. It was really cool to watch that happen and how the 2012 campaign took its further and the 2016 will take it even further.
Were there any experiences that stood out to you?
There were a lot of congress stations that had voters, where they were undecided or they cared about a particular issue. At the time, Senator Obama didn’t talk about it, but we knew the information and could relay that to them. It really felt like they were more comfortable. I would say that another issue was to humanize the Senator in a particular state or district. I was canvas volunteer before I was on the campaign and canvassed on the campaign too. I think the couple of people that had from it were excited. A lot of people were. African-Americans and young people really wanted a candidate who was different that they could believe in and vote for and that was very cool. Another piece of it was defining that message into the community. If it was helping people in the community, feel more comfortable with him because they didn’t know him really well and his policies. We literally helped people who wouldn’t have gone to vote by getting them a ride, giving them a reminder, or whatever they needed to actually go participate. I thought that was pretty cool.
How have you seen the arc of President Obama’s policy sprang from 2008 translate into things that did or didn’t happen in his two terms?
On domestic policy, he has been one of the most productive domestic policy presidents since Johnson and the Great Society. I think that the form of what he has accomplished is probably radically different from what he imagined because so much of it has been done by executive action. It was also lesson that even with relatively large majorities early in his presidency, he was passing health care. Health care passed with narrow margins. People were disappointed that we didn’t get a public option. It wasn’t republicans that were seeking the boundaries moving outward. If you want to have a party with a big tent, then incorporate more democrats that are moderate and conservative gets difficult. I think that the president did a good job in getting everything that he could politically on health care reform. His climate change policies will be view as both a foreign and domestic policy victory along the road. My disappointments are with the Congress. He’s been able to get as much done due to the circumstances.
Could you reflect on working for Greater D.C. Cares and unifying non-profits while also allowing each to retain its uniqueness?
It’s very challenging. The reason that I say that is because at the time, I was at the height of the economic downturn and all of these non-profits are reliant on foundation funding and different grands that they get. All of this funding got cut at a time when so many people were in need of social services. These people looked to churches, non-profits, and different community organizations to get help. The organization’s capacities were shrinking and what was very rough. At the time, D.C. was weathering the storm very well and there has been explosive growth since then. We have seen inequality in wealth between professionals and other people in D.C. I was surprised to see the sheer number of people who live in the district who are seeking help. But it is also inspiring to see the sheer number of organizations that are participating and trying to help people. It’s a challenge to bring organizations together around common causes because funders don’t try to force synergies together. Funders identify one nonprofit that is working on a certain topic and will fund it instead of identifyig four or five nonprofits that are working on the same issue. One recommendation that I would have is that the funder should force synergies together between organizations. It becomes difficult for organizations to get resources when they are competing with others. That was one thing that we tried to do at D.C. Cares with mixed results. We were a connector organization and worked with corporations and businesses who wanted to provide resources. We would match them to community organizations who were looking to expand their capacities. We could identify opportunities to kind of bridge gaps. Another thing that we did was have a conference of 60 organizations that worked on homelessness in order to move people from emergency housing to transitional housing. At the end of the day, people talked to each other and had a lot of good ideas.
What are the Department of the Interior’s most pressing concerns in the area of conservation?
Right now, It’s the Centennial year for the National Park services and there is a lot of attention on the Department of the Interior’s historic conservation efforts. We have to protect these resources against the people who want to exploit or privatize these resources. I think articulating the value of conserving land and keeping it wild and sacred for people to visit. People on both sides of the aisle tend to look at the national parks and say that economic benefits comes from people visiting these parks. But this matrix shouldn’t be the only one used to measurement the good that national parks do. If we starting looking at that these resources as strictly dollar signs, then it leads to looking at others ways to make money off of these natural resources. We need to tell a story in a way that looks at generations and talks about national parks as “America’s best idea”. The greatest challenge and opportunity is expanding ties to get more people into the parks to appreciate their value. The more people we give access to these parks, the better because a lot of my work in the Interior focused on getting kids and people who wouldn’t go into parks. For me, [working at the Department of the Interior] it was a learning experience. I got to go to many different places and understand why this was important. It’s good for mental and physically health and it’s a way to get away from our culture of TV, computers, and phones. Visiting national parks allows us to get in touch with nature.
How does having a business orientated Secretary of the Interior affect Conservation efforts?
I didn’t overlap with Secretary Jewell. I worked also two years under Secretary Salazar and then I was there for the first few months for Secretary Jewell before I left to go to law school. So, I haven’t personally been there to see the ways that her business background has influenced how she has run the department. But, I do know when I was at the department that REI was an important partner. Across the country, REI and other companies were critical in helping us fund projects that we wanted to do and a lot of those projects involved access to the outdoors. Those corporate partner were important as anyone in those communities that we worked in. Engaging partners like REI were important and I can only assume that her perspective in the Interior has helped her to amplify what is already happening in the department.
After working for the Department of the Interior, how did you decide to pursue law school?
Law school was something that I thought about for a very long time. I knew that after undergraduate that I didn’t want to go back to school right away. I wanted to get some experience and I knew that I wanted to do public policy or political work. It was fortunate that I had the opportunity to get a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship and they fund two people per semester to go to a peace or social justice organization. I got to work on Capitol Hill, which opened a door for me to get a job on a campaign. I was fortunate that I was on the side that won and got to go in the administration. All along, I had my eye on doing politics and public policy work in a leadership role with someone who really cares deeply about these issues and can translate what I think into something tangible. I recognized that law school was the way that I could get there. I just waited until I felt that there was an opportunity for me to go back to school. I would say that going to law school was like spending three years becoming fluent in a new language. I focused my efforts in law school on urban law, so I took classes on urban law and local policy and politics. I feel like I understand fairly well the way the law interacts with policy much better now than before. I’m happy that I worked before going law school and going to law school as well. I think that perspective was very important in making me more mature student and have real-life experience while reading law cases.
What do you think is the balance between litigation and education in terms of anti-discrimination?
I think the more direct instrument is litigation and if you see injustice that violates the law, then litigating is the fastest way to rectify. A lobbying program or education program may not be the best way if the people in power are the ones causing the problem. But there is a role for educating. I say this because one thing that we studied in-depth in the urban policy seminar were the new powers that urban America has. San Antonio is one of the leading powers in explosive urban growth. I think that the issues that are popping up are not the traditional ones. Today we are seeing gentrification that is accomplished by raising income inequality and property values coming up. We studied the difference between neighbor change and gentrification. I think that the education piece is really important because the tool box is to kind of find a balance between changing a neighborhood for the better and gentrification. This is relatively new and unsettled. There are different ways that local government can build inclusive communities by using incentives and tax dollars.
What were your most valuable experiences in Trinity?
The most valuable experience was being there, being part of the community, and making friends.
Is there something that you believe in that others don’t?
I think that disagreement is good. Our country was founded on that our leaders would disagree. I think that goes to the most local and interpersonal level. Politics and conversation are good things. Disagreements are healthy and listening to other people and reading pieces that we don’t agree with is good too. Progress comes from disagreements and we lose something valuable when people don’t want to listen to each other.
What books would you recommend for undergraduates to read?
There was a book in undergrad that I thought was life changing and it was called “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families” by Philip Gourevitch. Another book that I think that everyone should read is “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance” by Nouriel Roubini.
This interview has been edited and condensed.