Connect with us

Commentary

What I Learned from Joe Biden 45 (Gulp!) Years Ago

Why The Lessons Give Me Hope for 2022

Published

on

Evan Wolfson & then-Senator Biden, Yale Political Union, February 10, 1976 — with permission, Yale Daily News Publishing Company

By Evan Wolfson | NEW YORK – The twin threats that still loom over us — the anti-democratic radicalization of the Republican Party and the persistence of the pandemic — are making this a tough time to appreciate the many first-year successes of the Biden Administration.

We are in an undeniable moment of peril and there is every reason for alarm, but also for hope. I will continue beating the drum on the urgency of passing measures such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the Freedom to Vote Act, the Protecting Democracy Act, and the Judiciary Act, as well as holding those attacking our democracy accountable.

And in this end-of-year piece, I reflect on how what I learned from President Biden so many years ago gives me hope that in 2022 we can turn a corner. We can prevail in the work of defending and righting our democracy.

**********************

It was the summer of the Bicentennial. The summer I first saw a fax machine (which, during several minutes of noise, laboriously spooled out, on a curl of smelly, waxy paper, documents arriving from Wilmington to Washington). The summer after my sophomore year in college. The summer of 1976, when I interned for a then-wunderkind senator named Joe Biden.

Even as a kid, I was into history and politics. I knew that Biden, at the age of 29 — still too young to serve — had defeated a seemingly unbeatable incumbent. I was aware of the horrible car accident following his election, and how he rode back and forth by train to be there with his two little boys at bedtime. I watched Biden become “a liberal who breaks ranks” (as I described him in my diary), a gregarious, energetic, precocious, ambitious young senator.

My diary from 1976 shows me also to have been energetic, precocious, and — sometimes cringe-worthily — ambitious. I had a diverse network of friends and roommates. Despite a cascade of plays, movies, lectures, pleasure reading, and other distractions catalogued in my diary, I was excelling academically. I had succeeded in winning election as Speaker of the Yale Political Union, climbing to the top of the greasy pole among the other greasy pols at a school full of wannabes. And as my diary recounts, in blow by blows, 1976, as it happened was also the year I first had sex. With a woman.

When I reread the diary now, I am struck by how much this 19-year-old kid was doing, how well he was doing, how insightful and passionate he was about so much. And that, indeed, is how I’ve long remembered that year — a time of growth, accomplishment, and adventure.

But the diary also records what I had forgotten: so much second-guessing and self-doubt, a sense of losing ground and erratic confidence, critiques of my friends and myself… so much yearning outpacing my undeniable striving. I had forgotten how much perspective I did not have then on what really mattered, even as I was doing stuff that mattered and wrote endlessly in the diary about wanting to matter.

One of the things I wanted back then was to land a job in Washington. And so I was thrilled when the hotshot young Senator Biden agreed to come speak to the Political Union. After presiding, as Speaker, over his appearance, I wrote in my diary:

February 10: Senator Biden was impressive tonight. Young, energetic, warm, and intelligent. Egotistical to some extent…. I want to work for him…. I want a summer job in DC. This is important, unlike the Speakership. It’ll show that my credentials stand up in the ‘real world’ and will be that critical initial involvement leading to other jobs.

Over the next couple months — while juggling impressive courses and activities, and wrapping up the Speakership — I wrote letters, made calls, and even traveled to DC in hopes of securing an internship. My diary displays the determination and idealism with which, in the midst of my studies and activities, I pursued that ambition. For instance:March 8: A day of firsts and things that would have been orgasmic at one point in my life. Lunch with a congressman (we talked politics and then job), going on the floor of the House, sitting in the Speaker’s chair and standing at the podium where Truman gave the Truman Doctrine speech, where State of the Union speeches are given. Riding in Members Only elevators, hobnobbing with Senator Biden like a friend [but] no definite job…. Biden and I are becoming real chummy. His AA asked me back tomorrow, as the Senator and I kibitzed our time away. Good luck. I want a job so badly….

Senate Intern Pass, Summer 1976

Then, on April 20, I got the call.

For the next several months, my diary contains voluminous descriptions of an exciting, busy Bicentennial Summer in DC, and my thrills, frustrations, and aspirations as a witness to, and sometime participant in, the activities of an office of a Senator on the go. The numerous entries tended to go like these:

May 25: Attended my first Foreign Relations Committee hearing…. I sat on the stage behind the Senators and entered through the private doors. Funny how when I see the sign STAFF on the elevator, I almost turn away until I realize and then get a kick out of it…. Am going to slowly widen my activities until they see I’m reliable and capable. Did some press work (phoning in ‘actualities,’ quotations on tape from Biden…to radio stations in Delaware). I used a computer research machine, ‘Scorpio,’ to read a report on Rhodesia and took such stuff out on own initiative this evening, having ordered it from the Library of Congress. Tomorrow — sale of nuclear reactors. Must remember that my goal this year should be to know how an office and Congress run…not to make policy. I have eleven years (at least) to go on that….

June 3: To my great joy, I was assigned as the Intern for Foreign Relations. I’ve handled some relatively thorny constituent requests…. I also decided that the only way I would advance from office work (not exactly crap, but not policy-making either) would be to take initiative and show them what I can do. I figured that the one thing I know I’ve gotten from a Yale education that I would not have gotten on my own is the ability to write quickly and well. So, I made impressive inquiries at the Congressional Research Service, including a jaunt to the Library of Congress (where my researcher was shocked and probably a little annoyed to discover that I was younger than he, and not a Legislative Assistant) …. I submitted it to my L.A. [legislative assistant], a former C.I.A. guy who knows everyone in the foreign relations business (!); he seemed pleasantly surprised. I hope he’ll consider it good and timely enough to: A) submit it to Biden, and B) warrant including me, at least as an observer, in the substantive areas of senatoring.

June 9: Started work at Roy Rogers [where I moonlit nights to make some money during that unpaid summer internship].

July 21Was walking down the hall to the Foreign Relations Committee when [Vice Presidential nominee Walter] Mondale popped out (he has the office right across from us). He began walking right in front of me, and the TV people ran backwards ahead of us with bright lights and cameras. I was flanked with Secret Service — and hadn’t even tried to get into the picture! Couldn’t have done better if I’d tried. Had a low today, too: had to go pick up the Senator’s lunch. Although LA’s do it (and in other offices, it’s one of the high points of an intern’s day), it still rankled.

Even during that long-ago summer, I noted firsthand how much Biden cared about policy and government across a broad range of areas, tapping many sources of expertise and input, putting in the work. I wrote on June 16 that the Senator “does look at every single letter that goes out with his signature. He also rejects drafts and demands a lot — rightfully so.” I saw how engaged he was, and what a people person.

One diary entry, for instance, gives the flavor, recounting an outing at the beach with the Senator and the woman he was then dating whom I was introduced to as Jill — now our First Lady Dr. Jill Biden — whom I liked right off the bat and every time I was with her.

August 1: Yesterday…I went to Delaware to spend time at the Biden picnic for volunteers and supporters…. What a folksy state. The Senator running around clowning and taking pictures in his bathing suit, splashing with his kids in the water. The Governor [Sherman Tribbitt]– ‘howaya, Sherm’ — in loafers and short sleeves walking on the sand. Me playing ‘football’ with Beau and Hunt Biden (7, 6), then taking them in the cold ocean, counting continually to make sure — like a camp counselor — that there were 5 kids all the time, heads above the water and all….The kids gave me something to do other than fawn on the Senator, as I knew very few of the people there. At one point the Senator grabbed me and made a joke about Yale; I had walked in front of someone taking a picture with him — boy, was I embarrassed. He and I bantered a little, in and out of the water — but I still am not sure he knows my name… I still don’t know where I stand. I so want to be a part of things…

Back at school in the fall, I stayed in touch with the Senator’s office, and occasionally heard from him as well — treasuring every contact.

September 27: Got a nice note from Biden…. He says that he is glad I took him up on the suggestion that I keep in touch with ideas for legislation. He said, ‘You have always been a reservoir of ideas. [!] … In light of all your outside interests, I trust your studies are not suffering. Keep in touch… Joe.’

Soon, though, my diary reveals that I was busier than ever — juggling highs and lows of friendships, teaching Sunday School, and diving into a new role as Yale campus co-coordinator for the Carter-Mondale campaign, all while shouldering another challenging course load (my favorite semester at college, it turned out). And throughout, figuring out for myself what it was going to mean to be gay.

Of course, 1976 was a long time ago, and very early in my life. Still ahead of me lay graduating college and law school; the Peace Corps; decades of lawyering and activism; founding and leading the successful and transformative campaign to win the freedom to marry; teaching at Georgetown and Yale; close circles of friends (including, still, the college roommates I had written and worried about, and now, our respective spouses and partners); uncle-hood; travels; and a happy marriage to the man I love. In 1976, I had no way of knowing that this was what life held in store for me — but as I reread the diary, I can see now that the 19-year-old me was finding his way to at least two major lessons that have shaped my life (and been hallmarks of my work) ever since.

First, I learned that year that greatness as in “I want to be great” comes, if at all, from actual service, making a difference for others, rather than from the credentials and things I’d begun the year by pursuing — to be Speaker of the Political Union, or to be in politics for the sake of glory or even attention. I discovered that after striving to get elected Speaker, the actual position didn’t feel as worthwhile as I had thought it would, whereas engaging in debates (and meeting visitors like Biden), my grunt work organizing the campus and helping deliver a Connecticut win for Jimmy Carter, teaching students at Sunday School, and digging as an intern into substantive research — not to mention my actual studies — felt gratifying and proved meaningful.

I was learning for myself the lesson best conveyed in my favorite speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, the one I hang on the wall of every office I’ve had. When they give my eulogy, Dr. King said, “tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards — that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school…. I’d like somebody to mention that [he] tried to give his life serving others… tried to love somebody. [All] of the other shallow things will not matter…. I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

My diary shows me learning another lesson, too: the power and affirmation that come from not wallowing in the negative, from being hopeful, from focusing on the pathway not the problem, from being kind — to others, and to myself.

While I wince at the young me’s sometimes shallow ambition and excessive judgment (“fancied greatness,” as another hero, Abraham Lincoln, described his youthful sense of self), I am simultaneously proud of what the young me was actually doing — even as he wrestled with what it meant and where he wanted to go. As the young me learned that year to pursue a committed life in a meaningful way, and to be charitable toward others, so older me is again reminded to be kind to my young self, too.

Then-Vice President Biden & Wolfson, Freedom to Marry Victory Celebration, July 9, 2015

I last spent real time with Joe Biden when the then-Vice President spoke to the more than 1000 advocates and celebrants at Freedom to Marry’s Victory Celebration on July 9, 2015.

“Let me begin by saying I take full credit for Evan” were Biden’s opening words (greeted by laughter). He then shared lessons he’d learned from his father about love, his evolution in understanding gay people, and how he came to support the freedom to marry — even getting out in front a bit to help nudge the Administration along. He recalled his pivotal Senate role in defeating the anti-gay Robert Bork, nominated by Reagan to the Supreme Court. That, in turn, led to the appointment of Justice Anthony Kennedy instead, who went on to write the marriage victory we had worked for and were celebrating.

“In 1983, there was a Harvard Law essay making the constitutional case for marriage equality written by a young man,” Vice President Biden told the audience. “He said, ‘Human rights illuminate and radiate from the Constitution, shedding light on the central human values of freedom and equality.’…. That was the basis upon which I took on Judge Bork.”

“These were not words from an illustrious Supreme Court Chief Justice,” Biden concluded. “These are the words written by Evan Wolfson when he was in law school. Pretty courageous for a 26-year-old kid at Harvard Law School when the future looked so dark and lonely.”

Whether or not his former intern’s law school thesis on marriage, written just a few years after my internship, really had been top of mind in Biden’s thinking as he took on Bork and continued his Senate career, I still appreciated his generosity. It was yet another example of what I know I really learned from him.

When I endorsed him for president, I wrote that “Biden [sometimes] got things I cared about wrong — even, initially, my own work to win the freedom to marry. But, crucially, he has also always shown a willingness to listen and learn, an eagerness to explore new approaches and syntheses, a capacity to empathize and evolve.”

“I have seen firsthand,” I added, “how, unlike Trump, Joe Biden cares about governing, knows how the government works, and will work through it, not war on it…. Biden’s concern for people and deep knowledge and experience give him the ability to bring people together” and to deliver on good ideas to restore our democratic possibilities.

From a wunderkind senator, the embodiment of ambition, Joe Biden came to embody virtues of empathy, faith in government, and hope as a politician, candidate, and now, our president. On him now — and on us — literally rests the future of America as a democracy.

I can’t claim to know President Biden well enough to know every bit of his inner thinking, but from what I’ve experienced in interacting with him , it’s clear that in his own way, too, Joe Biden learned what I began learning under his tutelage: A committed life is found not in just the ambition to be great, but the ambition to “do great” — to do for others. To persevere and put in the work. To listen and to grow. To be kind. To be hopeful, and to convey hope. And, too, and always, the personal matters.

Now, heading into 2022, we must redouble our efforts to help (and push) President Biden and all true democrats. Together we must rally enough Americans to defend liberal democracy, reach for justice, combat inequality, and build America back better. We have to persuade, organize, hang in, maneuver, mobilize, and vote. What I learned as a college kid, and since, sustains my belief that we Americans can, yet again, meet the call to action and rise to the great work this moment and history require.

Vice President’s Remarks, Freedom to Marry Victory Celebration, July 9, 2015

*********************

Evan Wolfson led the campaign to win the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. Since victory in 2015, he advises and assists diverse movements in the US on “how to win,” as well as activists seeking to win marriage in other countries worldwide.

*********************

The preceding piece was previously published on Medium and is republished with permission.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

Commentary

Library board chair publicly bullies librarian over LGBTQ books

What’s it like to live in a place where librarians say they feel terrified? I reached out to residents of a South Carolina town to find out

Published

on

Greenville County SC Library Board of Trustees Chair Allan Hill (R) confronts and intimidates Nathan Schmaltz, manager of the Travelers Rest library branch. Images are screenshots from WHNS video coverage.

By James Finn | DETROIT – Travelers Rest, South Carolina is a lovely little stop on the drive from the sea to the mountains, Katie Chaney tells me, “a wonderful place to raise a family.” She grew up there and moved back from Portland, Oregon with her wife Leah to raise their daughter Neba, now 2 years old. Katie runs a bakery called Hester General Store that she says has become something of local center of LGBTQ community life.

Katie, Leah, and Neba are caught up, however, in an anti-LGBTQ backlash roiling much of red-state America. Katie told me yesterday she worries Travelers Rest might not be healthy for her daughter:

Diverse books were important to me a child. Books are mirrors into people’s experiences, and when you take away the mirror, you silence them. I want my child to have mirrors into Leah’s and my experience. These decisions [to restrict access to books] take away her ability to walk into the library and learn about that, and I don’t think that’s okay.

I spoke to Leah after talking to Miles Dame, who called me on behalf of the Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Groupa coalition of former Greenville County librarians and other residents concerned that their region is marching to a censorship drum that Pen America and the American Library Association have been warning about for months. Both organizations have released data showing that book bans and restrictions soared to unprecedented levels this year in school and public libraries.

Censorship often happens in an atmosphere of violent threats, as Brody Levesque reported yesterday in the Los Angeles Blade.

Miles and Katie became especially concerned about censorship two weeks ago when the Greenville County Republican Party officially asked the county council to ban all LGBTQ-themed books from young adult (YA) library sections. Katie attended a council meeting to speak out against the proposal:

“The council people told us to calm down, that nothing had been decided, but we made our voice heard and it was very impactful.”

Katie says that since politicians ordered library Pride book displays removed in June, “People who are LGBTQ in the community or the library are being berated, publicly humiliated for standing up for diversity. These employees are trying to do their job and not be biased. Librarians hold that sacred. As a queer business owner who has an all queer team, it bothers me that this is the experience of people trying to do nothing more than their job.”

This past Monday offers a vivid example of the berating Katie spoke to me about. Some of it happened on camera, broadcast to the public.

Travelers Rest librarian reporting intimidation is openly bullied at library board meeting

On Monday, the Greenville County Library Board of Trustees spent a majority of its meeting addressing book-banning concerns. Six of eight people who participated in public comments spoke in favor of preserving access to LGBTQ-related books. Two spoke in opposition.

During the board meeting, Chairman Allan Hill denied accusations that he “threatened and intimidated” librarians during a visit to the Travelers Rest library branch last Wednesday.

Former library employee Stephen Shelato says he attended the meeting as a spokesperson for current employees, who reportedly fear retaliation. Shelato testified that Hill bullied and intimidated librarians during the Wednesday visit. “For 20 minutes, in front of everyone there, [Hill] berated staff about a book display, pointing to LGBT titles and demanding over and over, ‘Do you see why people don’t like this? Do you see? Do you see?’ And, they said ‘no.’”

Shelato added, “One staff member said that being bullied by Mr. Hill was the worst moment of their life. Had any other patron violated the code of conduct the way that he did, they would have been asked to leave.”

That sounded over the top to me until I watched video of Chairman Hill at the board meeting. He can be seen on camera bullying Travelers Rest Library Branch Manager Nathan Schmaltz, who did not speak until Hill insisted.

The chairman asks about Wednesday’s branch visit: “Nathan, did I threaten anybody?”

Schmaltz swallows and looks reluctant to speak. Haltingly, he replies, “Mr. Hill, your presence at our branch Wednesday night…”

Schmaltz takes a deep breath and lets out a long sigh. He starts to speak again but Hill cuts him off. “I’ve been told by my daughters that I’ve intimidated them when they would have their friends over, so if, um …”

Schmaltz tries again, speaking very slowly and sounding very reluctant. “Your position on this board, and your actions and your words towards our staff was interpreted and felt as threatening and intimidating.” He swallows hard and sits.

“But just to be clear,” presses Hill pointedly, as if demanding a different answer, “Did I threaten or did I bully anybody?”

Shelato speaks up. “He just said that they felt threatened.”

A look of anger crosses Hill’s face. He makes an intimidating arm gesture toward Shelato and barks, “I don’t need you, buddy. Just let him talk.”

Shelato replies, “That seems pretty threatening.”

Branch Manager Schmaltz stands and speaks after a significant pause, again sounding very reluctant. “Your presence with your actions, your behaviors, and your words were threatening and intimidating.”

(To view the portion of the board meeting transcribed above, see WHNS video coverage or to see Hill bullying and intimidating other people he disagrees with, watch the full meeting in video that Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group posted to YouTube.)

Then the police got involved

The day after the board meeting, Travelers Rest Police received a complaint that the Travelers Rest library branch was spreading obscene material by promoting books with sexually explicit material.

Katie tells me she was shocked when she got fearful calls about law enforcement involvement. “Travelers Rest is a choice place to move right now. Friendly, wonderful bike trial. Best farmers market. So to hear this happened, that the police were called…”

Her voice trails off, like she’s having an internal debate about her decision to move back to Greenville County. Miles tells me a police officer showed up at the branch, gathered up an armload of books and took them into a conference room.

Travelers Rest Police chief Ben Ford later said in a statement that his department investigated the obscenity complaint but that it was unfounded.

“I am Jazz” picture book cover via Goodreads.

Libraries are supposed to be about free access to books, not about restricting or banning books.

Miles, speaking for Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group, told me yesterday that Greenville County librarians have resigned for standing up for access to books that are unobjectionable except that they’re about LGBTQ people. He tells me branch managers have been fired for allowing tax-paying citizens equal access to library rooms for drag queen story hour. He tells me librarians have been forced not to create displays of books that would be of interest to LGBTQ people.

He tells me none of the pressure comes from other librarians.

He tells me he resigned his position as a librarian because he wasn’t being allowed to do his job — to provide equal access to books. He tells me librarians feel pressured to restrict LGBTQ-themed books for “sexualized content” when the books do not contain inappropriate sexual content.

As one example, he cites I am Jazz, a picture book featuring the real-life story of a transgender child. The book helps small children understand that trans kid exist and deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. Nothing in the book is remotely sexualized, but librarians have been forced to place it in “restricted access” sections reserved for books with sexual content.

Miles says he doesn’t understand all the hoopla and pressure to restrict/ban books, since parents already have total control of what their kids see/ borrow at the library. “Parents can already opt their kids out of adult books, and library policy already requires children not be unaccompanied in the library.”

He says librarians feel under siege and unable to carry out the professional responsibilities they trained for. “The library board and the director are not doing anything to support the staff. They are calling for LGBTQ content removal. Who is doing it exactly is opaque.”

Describing an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, he points out that library Executive Director Beverly James sat silent as Hill bullied Schmaltz at Monday’s meeting, saying she didn’t speak up once to defend librarians or free access to books.

Katie puts it more bluntly, telling me, “The librarians are terrified. We get messages asking for help but requesting anonymity, for fear of retribution.”

Allan Hill says since he knows what books young people “should not be reading,” objecting to this flyer.

Terrified librarians? Seriously? Did I really just write this story?

I have to ask myself what’s happened to my nation. When I was a conservative Southern Baptist boy in Gadsden, Alabama — not all that far from Travelers Rest in a cultural sense — I internalized values that books and learning are sacred, that banning books is un-American and even “communist.”

We sure have come a long way from those ideals!

Banning books is all the rage right now, especially books about LGBTQ and Black Americans. As I reported earlier this week, The Republican activist group Moms for Liberty are even fighting to ban ‘Girls Who Code,’ a series of middle-grade books designed to get little girls excited about careers in computer programing and data science.

Somebody somewhere decided girls should not be reading books like that.

Chairman Allan Hill made clear in Monday’s board meeting that he knows what books young people should not be reading: “It’s not our job to provide where a child could get books that they shouldn’t be reading,” he said, objecting to a library flyer letting patrons know the Brooklyn Public Library offers cost-free digital library cards to youth aged 13 to 21.

I guess that’s the nation I live in now, a nation where politicians and community leaders object to free library cards. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live like that. I don’t want to live in the kind of authoritarian state Allan Hill apparently values.

Will you join me at the polls in November to send a clear message? In the meantime, how about dropping by Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group with encouragement and support? And, if you’re passing through the Greenville area, I hear the baked goods at Hester General Store are worth stopping for!

************************

James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

********************

The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

Continue Reading

Commentary

Virginia is for Lovers, not political agendas

Did a politician leverage state’s brand for his personal agenda? Looking at ethics of politicians promoting state tourism during elections

Published

on

Photograph courtesy of the Virginia Tourism Corporation

By Rachel Scott Everett | RICHMOND – As a Virginian, I’ve always been proud of my state’s motto: “Virginia is for Lovers.”

The iconic slogan first appeared in a 1969 ad campaign for what is now Virginia Tourism Corporation. It was created by Martin and Woltz Inc., which later evolved into The Martin Agency, and has been in use ever since. 

Initially positioning the state as a destination for romance, “Virginia is for Lovers” soon gave way to various interpretations. With so much to experience, Virginia has become a welcoming place for history lovers, food lovers, nature lovers—all kinds of lovers. That’s the premise behind a new national campaign, “Virginia is for…”, developed by The Martin Agency, that launched this spring.

“Virginia is for Lovers” resonates deeply with many—myself included. It’s an example of the power that emotionally driven branding can have on our psyche. In an interview earlier this year, Virginia Tourism brand director Lindsey Norment said the slogan’s popularity remains because “it allows Virginians to make it their own and feel prideful of that.” 

Indeed, love is a powerful driver when it comes to persuading people. Love is inherently welcoming, positive and inclusive.

Love is also apolitical, which is why I was disheartened to see a new Virginia Tourism video prominently featuring Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin.

The stand-alone 60-second promotional piece, titled “Welcome to Virginia,” seems to take cues from The Martin Agency’s flagship campaign, but the format and overall tone are entirely different. More anthemic in feel, it highlights different people speaking directly to camera. The sole elected official, Gov. Youngkin, is a central figure in the video and its primary narrator.

Not long after it begins, Youngkin makes his appearance on camera. Dressed in a crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled up and navy slacks, he walks with a confident stride along the track of the Richmond Raceway. Looking directly at camera, he smiles as he introduces himself.

“In Virginia, there’s a million different ways to say welcome,” he declares. “I’m Governor Glenn Youngkin, and I want to be one of the first.” The words “Governor Glenn Youngkin” accompany him on screen.

Welcome to Virginia:

The video continues as Youngkin provides the voiceover for a series of lifestyle shots featuring an impressively diverse cast of characters. We’re welcomed by different types of Virginians: a long-haired surfer dude with his pals, an edgy millennial bartender serving up a cocktail, and a varied group of barbecue lovers, all ages and races, sitting at the same table. “Bievenido!” a Latino boy exclaims.

Youngkin appears on camera again—this time in the driver’s seat of a race car, looking cool and confident. He offers one last welcome before the video ends, signed off by “Welcome to Virginia” and the “Virginia is for Lovers” logo.

On initial glance, the video might not seem like anything out of the ordinary. To many, it will come across as a fun, upbeat tourism piece for Virginia. 

But is it just a feel-good piece promoting Virginia Tourism? Or did a politician leverage my beloved state’s brand for his own personal agenda?

Certainly it’s not a novel idea that a governor might be in a video to promote state tourism. Last year, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy of Alaska was featured in his state’s tourism marketing campaign. He touted Alaska as a Covid-safe state that was “leading the nation in all the important health metrics,” as an incentive for people to travel there. Later, though, it was revealed that when the ad ran, Alaska actually ranked 30th in the country for vaccination rates.

In 2020, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota appeared in, and narrated, a state tourism ad airing on Fox News. The 30-second ad, which ran for two weeks, cost taxpayers over $800,000. Noem received national publicity upwards of 85 million views, but it’s debatable if state tourism increased. AP News reported that while Google searches for “Kristi Noem” peaked, terms like “South Dakota tourism” and “visit South Dakota” remained stagnant.

But it’s a tourism campaign involving Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey that’s particularly noteworthy. 

In 2013, coming out of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie got star billing in his state’s tourism ads. The “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign ran leading up to the gubernatorial election in New Jersey. The campaign itself, along with where it aired and the timing of its release, gave Christie an unexpected platform to hone his brand image and gain greater exposure across key Northeast states.

His opponent, Democratic candidate Barbara Buono, said the ads gave him an unfair advantage, calling it both “supremely arrogant and wildly inappropriate.” Buono lost the election. Two years later, Christie announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election.

There are important parallels to draw here. 

Last year, Youngkin became the first Republican to win a statewide election in Virginia in over a decade. The former businessman, who had never held elective office, ran a successful campaign by cultivating his own distinct brand, positioning himself as an enthusiastic, moderate candidate who appealed to both forever Trumpers and never Trumpers.

With his can-do attitude and signature red fleece vest, Youngkin portrayed an affable, everyman image—positive, charismatic and relatable. He kept his messaging simple and concise, advocating for broad issues like safety, education and cost of living.

But many claimed that two faces of Glenn Youngkin emerged once elected. Just 10 days into office, he began receiving blowback over new policies in his conservative agenda which didn’t appear to align with his calls for unity or moving the state forward.

Youngkin immediately signed an executive order to root out critical race theory in Virginia, which isn’t mentioned in the Virginia Department of Education’s curriculum (Politifact). Asserting protection of “parental rights,” he also supported measures to regulate explicit content in schools, force teachers to out their LGBTQ+ students, and most recently, restrict the rights of trans students.

Despite publicly distancing himself from Trump during his campaign, he has since hired many veterans of the Trump administration, including a former Trump EPA head who has repeatedly minimized the threat of climate change. Youngkin also plans to withdraw Virginia from a greenhouse gas initiative established to help fight climate change regionally. 

And when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Youngkin reinforced his stance as a “pro-life” governor by pursuing a 15-week abortion ban in Virginia and headlining a pro-life gala in Washington, D.C., for a prominent anti-abortion group.

None of these policies seem to suggest Virginia is moving forward. 

In fact, an opinion piece in The Washington Post states that Youngkin’s culture wars are good for him but bad for Virginia business, causing the state to be viewed as a less welcoming place—an insight that seems to be the antithesis to the “Virginia is for Lovers” brand.

I reached out to Virginia Tourism to get more information, which left me with more questions than answers.

For starters, the video was not created or produced by The Martin Agency, Virginia Tourism’s current agency of record. According to a spokesperson at Virginia Tourism, the concept for the video was developed by Virginia Tourism and produced by POOLHOUSE, the agency behind Youngkin’s winning brand campaign when he ran for governor.

On its website, POOLHOUSE says it creates “bold campaigns that win elections and move people to action.” A Google search reveals the agency has been referred to as a “GOP-focused political ad firm” and a “scrappy Republican ad agency.” Its Instagram feed includes congratulatory posts for Republican politician wins, a recap of its favorite ads for Youngkin, and a quote that speaks to its desire to be “the best political agency in the business.” This year, POOLHOUSE plans to open a D.C. office to pick up advocacy clients and more congressional business.

Officials at Virginia Tourism did not directly respond when asked if they were aware POOLHOUSE was the political ad agency behind Youngkin’s campaign. Instead, they provided the following statement: “POOLHOUSE was selected because of their outstanding creative work and reputation, not only in Virginia but across the country, for producing beautiful videos.” Yet Virginia Tourism also said that when the project was put out to bid, they only received one offer, which resulted in the contract with POOLHOUSE.

POOLHOUSE did not respond to inquiry by phone or email by the time this article was published.

As for the purpose and timing of the video, Virginia Tourism said it is “an evergreen piece to showcase the beautiful state of Virginia and to welcome travelers to Virginia” and it launched on Labor Day weekend “to coincide with a high-impact travel weekend.”

However, its release also coincides with the lead-up to this year’s midterm elections on Nov. 8. Most of the country is holding state legislative elections and there are 36 gubernatorial seats on the ballot. A week after Youngkin shared the “Welcome to Virginia” video in a retweet, he posted a political ad in which he appears promoting Virginia Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega. According to her website, she is working with POOLHOUSE as well. 

While only in office a few months, Youngkin has been spending a lot of time outside of the state he’s supposed to be governing.

Many news outlets report that he’s actively endorsing Republican politicians running for office in key swing states. So far, he’s expressed support for GOP gubernatorial candidates Paul LePage of Maine, who has an extensive history of racist remarks; Kari Lake of Arizona, who has appeared with Nazi sympathizer and QAnon-linked activists; and Tudor Dixon of Michigan, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape because she believes there’s “healing through the baby.”

These candidates are all part of an alarming trend of election deniers running for governor this year as well.

In preparation to wade into national politics, Youngkin established two political organizations, America’s Spirit and Spirit of Virginia (the latter of which paid for Vega’s ad mentioned above). Both groups can accept contributions of any size to fund Youngkin’s political efforts, which include his campaigning for other GOP candidates, as well as his own self-promotion.

This summer, Youngkin met with Republican megadonors amid hints he’s mulling a White House bid. One of his midterm stops will include Nevada, a 2024 early state for presidential candidate nominations.

After the upset in Virginia, many believe Youngkin’s win gave the GOP a winning blueprint for 2022 and beyond. Part of his strategy included establishing an early media spend to introduce himself and begin building his brand in a campaign as soon as possible.

That campaign, into which Youngkin put $20 million of his own money, was fueled by a robust media buy including 40 TV videos and hundreds of radio, digital and design advertisements, including bumper stickers in multiple languages. Incidentally, Youngkin is considered one of the nation’s richest politicians, with a net worth of $470 million.

“One thing that Youngkin did very smartly was getting started earlier, particularly with media,” POOLHOUSE CEO Will Ritter said in an interview with Fox Business last year. “That means if you’re running in ’22, you need to be thinking how you’re going to get your message to people as soon as possible.”

Indeed, timing, placement and context are important components to launching a brand.

While the “Welcome to Virginia” video has no associated media buy, it will be seen extensively through state-owned platforms such as Virginia Welcome Centers and the state’s nine commercial airports, including major hubs like Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport, outside Washington, D.C. Combined, the foot traffic in these areas alone translates to millions of impressions, giving Youngkin unprecedented exposure to a broad, diverse audience made up of travelers from all over the country.

Because the video is intended to be an evergreen piece (meaning relevant for long-term purposes), it has the potential to run during the entire term of Youngkin’s office, as well as the time of his campaigning should he throw his hat (or fleece vest) into the ring in pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination. Like Christie’s “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign, the “Welcome to Virginia” video portrays Youngkin in a positive, heroic way that not only gets his name out, but bolsters his brand on the national stage.

Given all these factors, as well as continued press about Youngkin’s potential political aspirations (which are even making international headlines), it’s not implausible to think that the “Welcome to Virginia” video could be playing a role in a much larger agenda: a long game to establish Youngkin as a viable presidential candidate for 2024 or even 2028.

A recent article in Vanity Fair cautions us not to be fooled by the moderate “suburban dad vibe.” From traditional Republican to culture warrior, Youngkin has become a public advocate of Trump-backed election deniers, which not only normalizes extremists as credible representatives of this country but poses a serious threat to our democracy. 

As a creative professional, it’s been horrifying to come to terms with the role branding is playing in our politics. From misleading messaging to polished image-making, the strategies around crafting a politician’s brand are getting less transparent, more insidious, and farther from the truth.

I care deeply about my country, my home state of Virginia, and my local community in Richmond, which is why I felt compelled to dig deeper into the “Welcome to Virginia” video. 

I don’t like feeling that people in the video may not have been aware of Youngkin’s involvement (or his political agency), or worse, were used for ulterior motives. I don’t want my state to be represented by a polarizing political figure whose brand has been referred to as Trump LightTrump in a red vest, and Trumpism Without Trump.

And I don’t think it’s appropriate for what I perceive to be my tax dollars helping a politician to promote himself for his personal ambitions under the guise of a tourism video—particularly a governor actively working to roll back my rights as a woman and instill countless other antiquated policies that seem at odds with the values of many Virginians, as well as the “Virginia is for Lovers” brand.

When Youngkin was elected, the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement that vowed to fight against his regressive agenda: “Glenn Youngkin’s anti-equality, anti-choice, racist tactics sought to sow fear and confusion, turning Virginian against Virginian for political gain,” said interim president Joni Madison. “Anti-equality extremists will continue to use bigotry to score political points. But we know that history has proven hate-filled electoral strategies ultimately stir the conscience of the nation.”

President Joe Biden also had some choice remarks about Youngkin: “Extremism can come in many forms,” he said at a grassroots event. “It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest.” 

Over the years, I’ve written numerous essays about the power of branding. One of the most successful tactics of brand building is to infiltrate platforms that don’t obviously translate as advertising. It’s why brands take advantage of product placement in popular movies and series television. The “soft sell” exposure not only increases awareness of a brand, it enables people to develop a deep connection to it in a much more organic, natural way. 

In my essay “Canceling the Confederacy,” I explain how the United Daughters of the Confederacy found a way to shape the Confederacy brand by promoting the Lost Cause, a biased perspective of U.S. history, through an unassuming medium: school textbooks. It was an attempt at rewriting history, reinforced by the construction of Confederate monuments, and to this day, many still subscribe to its false narrative. 

And therein lies the danger.

Branding, in all its nuance and subtlety, can distort our perception of what’s real. It can skew or stretch the truth and influence our thoughts on a subliminal level. After all, there’s a fine line between the power of persuasion and the art of deception. And when politicians are involved, be assured it’s even more unclear.

To clarify, the issue at hand is not about a governor appearing in a state tourism video. It’s about Governor Youngkin appearing in a state tourism video produced by his own political agency. It’s about the timing of the video’s release during the lead-up to midterm elections in which he’s actively campaigning for other candidates. And it’s about the exposure this video gives Youngkin to millions of people from all over the country amid talks of his own potential presidential run.

Again, is it just a feel-good piece promoting Virginia Tourism? Or did a politician leverage my beloved state’s brand for his own personal agenda?

Everyone will draw their own conclusions, but it’s my hope that by raising awareness on the role branding plays in our politics, we can better understand the impact it has on our elections and the candidates who are running. 

More than anything, I hope this knowledge empowers us all to make informed choices at the ballot box. The preservation of our democracy may very well depend on it.

********************

Rachel Scott Everett is co-founder and creative director at EVERGIB, a nomadic creative studio specializing in strategically led advertising and branding. A champion of big ideas and the power of storytelling, Rachel believes creativity can be used as a force for good to improve the world we live in.

********************

The preceding commentary was originally published at Muse by Clio and is republished by permission.

Continue Reading

Commentary

‘Moms for Liberty’ succeed in banning ‘Girls Who Code’ in schools

The GOP has clearly decided that sexism, homophobia, and extremist Christianity will win for them at the polls

Published

on

Reshma Saujani (Screenshot/YouTube Oxford Debate 2021)

By James Finn | DETROIT – My women friends in the tech industry tell me they’re under-represented and sometimes feel disrespected or overlooked at work. They say women make excellent programmers and data scientists, but girls often internalize the opposite message while they’re still very small.

My women friends say empowering girls is critical to countering pressure girls feel not to study math and science. 

That pressure continues this morning in a shocking way, led by a group of Republican/Christian activists infamous for trying to ban books by and about LGBTQ and Black people. 

Sometimes conservatives tell you loudly who they are and what they stand for. This is one of those times. Every person of good will in the United States, regardless of party affiliation, needs to listen carefully. Is their vision for the U.S. one you’re truly okay with? 

‘Moms for Liberty’ attack Reshma Saujani and her books for girls 

Reshma Saujani is a woman who saw a problem and met it head on. In 2012, she began publishing a series of light-hearted, playful books called Girls Who Code, featuring tween girls

who form a school coding club. The books are cute, positive, and empowering. They show girls that programming is cool and fun—for everyone, not just for boys. 

The books also teach little kids basic programming concepts in a fun way kids praise as simple to grasp. 

The books zoomed to instant popularity and today can be found in virtually every elementary and middle school library in the U.S. Many teachers keep copies in their classrooms. 

Reviewers have compared the books’ style to The Baby Sitters Club. Tween girls (and boys too!) say they love them. Parents, like this mom on Goodreads, say they do too: 

4.5 stars. I enjoyed this more than the first book. I liked how it put story and character development first but still managed to include tips about coding. Also, the message about responsibility, grit, and empowerment while not quite subtle, was cutely and cleverly handled. I can see middle-graders loving this series. 

The idea the books should be controversial never occurred to anyone until this summer, when the anti-LGBTQ, Republican-activists Moms For Liberty starting urging school boards to ban them. 

Reshma Saujani reacts to her books being banned in a Pennsylvania school district Yesterday, Reshma Saujani learned a Pennsylvania school district banned her books 

I’m having a hard time believing that news reports about this book ban aren’t satire, but they’re all too real. Click here for details in Business Insider, and click to read Saujani’s Linkedin announcement, which includes the following paragraph: 

I woke up this morning to a news alert that our Girls Who Code middle-grade book series was banned by some school districts as part of the Moms for Liberty effort to ban books. To be honest, I am so angry I cannot breathe. This series was our labor of love, our commitment to our community to make sure that girls—all girls—see themselves as coders. — 

Business Insider and the tech journal The Register reached out to Moms for Liberty yesterday for comment but have not yet published a response. I emailed the group this morning to ask them why they want Girls Who Code banned. I did not receive an immediate reply. 

Moms for Liberty fight against freedom, not for it. 

MFL cofounder Tina Descovich claims the group focuses on “pornography in school,” telling Fox News as recently as last weekend that they limit calls for banning to books that give children “access to pornography and sexually explicit material.” She added, “I haven’t seen any of our chapters that want to get rid of any books that help children find characters they identify with.”

Did somebody forget to tell Descovich about her group’s drive to ban Girls Who Code? 

Anyone closely following Moms for Liberty activism already knows Descovich is lying. Many of the LGBTQ-themed books they target are not pornographic by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, MFL has targeted books for high school students that include sexual themes, but the book-advocacy group Pen America reports that claims of obscenity are “spurious.” 

Pen notes that some banned books aimed at older teens discuss sexuality but not in a manner that approaches any reasonable definition of obscenity or pornography. Pen says book banners seem to focus exclusively on books by or about LGBTQ people, ignoring books about straight sexuality that are more detailed. 

As to books about racism and the U.S. history of slavery? MFL doesn’t even pretend they want to ban those books because of sexual content. They just want them out of your children’s hands. 

Because they know better than you about how to raise your children. 

Moms for Liberty want to snatch your liberty and your child’s liberty by limiting reading choices based on their hyper-conservative Christian values. They’re working as hard as they can to force their beliefs and practices on you. 

Sometimes GOP activists tell you EXACTLY who they are. Please hear them. 

Despite appearances, Moms for Liberty are not a grassroots group of parents. They’re a national organization funded and supported by deep-pocketed Republican donors. Pen America CEO Suzanne Nossel calls them a “sophisticated, ideological and well-resourced advocacy organization.” 

Their ideology is clear, and it’s the opposite of liberty. 

They want to erase gay people, trans people, and the honest history of American chattel slavery and segregation. And now, they make clear they’re pushing Evangelical Christian notions about women being subordinate to men. 

Girl data scientists are apparently threats to the Evangelical aspiration of a world where women who don’t work, where they limit their lives to caring for husbands and children instead. 

Moms for Liberty have convinced one school board in Pennsylvania to endorse their vision by pulling empowering books for girls out of school libraries. They’re telling you loudly and clearly who they are. 

Will you listen? Will you hear? 

They ARE Republican activism today. The GOP has clearly decided that sexism, homophobia, and extremist Christianity will win for them at the polls.

Will you help me talk to them? 

No matter what party you normally support, please vote Democratic this November to send the GOP a message: 

We’re not buying the reactionary nightmare you’re selling. Girls can code!

************************

James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

********************

The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Advertisement

Follow Us @LosAngelesBlade

Advertisement

Popular