Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An IMteresting Conversation With: Alicia Menendez, Democratic Strategist

This week's IMteresting conversation is with Alicia Menendez. In this photo, she's with her father, Senator Bob Menendez. Just so you don't think she's a old man who just stands behind a podium for fun sometimes. Read on for backstage drama with Anne Coulter, what Obama has fumbled, and wild nights with Sudoku.

EA Hanks: What is your name, and what do you do?

Alicia Menendez: Alicia Menendez. Communication Consulting.

EA: What does that mean?

AM: Good question. The "consulting" element is rather new (for me). I do a variety of things: build press plans, write online content, and handle incoming media requests.
I think about how the different mediums: radio, television, print, online can all be best integrated to convey a cohesive message.But the consulting part means that I don't have to work for just one person/group/organization.

EA: In politics.

AM: Mostly. But even within politics, there are campaigns, and non-profits, and specific issue based campaigns. So there is variety under the politics umbrella.

EA: How did you get into this line of work?

AM: Quite by accident I suppose. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. Well -- no -- that's not true. I always thought getting a JD and becoming a lawyer would be a very sensible thing to do before running for office. Running for office was the real goal.
But in 2006, I worked as a paralegal (which will make you not want to go to law school).

EA: I'm quoting someone, but being a lawyer seems like a lifetime of doing homework.

AM: And I also began to question whether or not I wanted all of the limitations that come with public life.So I found myself 22 and never having thought about what my plan B would be. And staring at computer and boxes full of files.I had underestimated how important it was to me to have creativity in my work. Once I realized that I'd like to have a creative component to my work, law school was out. And after working on my father's 2006 campaign I was tired of being poked and prodder. So I worked at a small television station thinking that poking and prodding would be more fun than being poked. It wasn't.

EA: Ain't that the truth. Your father is Bob Menendez, the Democratic senator from New Jersey. Was politics dinner table talk, or was it left at the office?

AM: He always wanted to leave it at the office, but even as a kid I loved talking about politics -- it felt very grown-up. And if you're a curious kid, then you pick up everything - even things that aren't meant for you: one side of telephone conversations, the front page of local papers -- y' know.

EA: Do you believe in the phrase "the personal is political"? Does that phrase have meaning for you? And is it different than "Politics is personal"?

AM: The personal is, of course, political for those who view the world in a political light. But I think that is one of those points of differentiation =- people who see problems, challenges, limits and think "Politics/policy/good government could change that!" -- even if there notion of changing that problem/challenge/limit might be making the government "smaller." And then people who are rather apolitical -- whose brains don't synapse that way. I think there is great limitation to anyone whose politics rely solely on the personal.

There needs to be a certain respect for empirical data, and an intellectual ability to grapple with conflicting ideas -- even if they are outside one's own realm of "personal" understanding. Likewise, the idea that politics is personal depends upon the individual -- which perhaps makes it undeniably personal. But they are different ideas to me -- in that the former indicates a causal relationship and the latter is more relational.

EA: Is being apolitical the same as being apathetic?

AM: In some cases they are exactly the same. But in others, someone can care deeply about an issue or cause but not identify the solution with one political ideology or party.

EA: You've recently started to be featured on news programs as a talking head, if you will. What on earth is that like?

AM: It's a lot of make up.

EA: You're introduced as a Democratic Consultant? What's the title?

AM: Democratic Strategist. It's a very generic title that has little meaning to most people (including anyone in politics). The idea of a "strategist" is pretty much a television creation -- even when you're talking about people who have been working in politics for 20 years. They do something much more concrete than "strategy." If you watch some of the cable stations you'll see them trending away from the generic chyron and towards more specific resume points.

EA: When you go on these shows, are you offering a personal opinion or an opinion that pushes an organized message, or agenda?

Alicia: It depends on the show! On the questions! Hannity's show, for example, on Fox News Channel, is much more about the individual expressing their views with the understanding that the producers have specifically crafted the group to feature a political range.

EA: Right.

AM: But there are certainly occasions on which it's a role-play of sorts.

EA: When it becomes a role play, does anyone win? Besides the host?

AM: If there are two good role players and a good host absolutely! At a minimum, it can be a controlled point/counter-point. At best, it can be a really enlightening exchange over when the ideologies overlap and where the diverge. And a clarifying glimpse at why each side believes their way is the right way. And I think that helps people who don't have an opinion to form one.

EA: Don't people who watch CNN or MSNBC or FOX already have an opinion?

AM: On Fox in particular, I feel my role is to give the audience -- the majority of which one imagines leans Conservative (whatever that means these days) a reason to question their views -- or at least the absolutism of their views. I think CNN ends up having quite a few people who tune in to watch news and stay for the political shows. So who knows?!

EA: Is it fun? Doing these shows?

AM: I think it's such fun. I get a rush right before and then the feeling once it's all done (minus the hate mail) is great. I worry sometimes that it's all an exercise in vanity -- but I think at its core, there is value.

EA: What is the hate mail like?

AM: Well that depends on the show I've just been on. I went on O'Reilly maybe more than a month ago and I am still getting mail about "going to Mexico and fighting for my country," "being a stupid greaser," "killing my anchor babies." I mean tons of hateful stuff. The Hannity hate mail is more crass: "Stupid bitch," "You good use a good..."

You get the idea.

EA: What were you talking about on O'Reilly?

AM: Immigration. And the best part is that my blog allows me to see the Google search terms that bring someone to my site. I have learned that it is very difficult for people to spell my name. And many searchers would like to know if I have a boyfriend, am married or engage or am a lesbian.

EA: Any greenroom/make up chair antics you can report on? Your tweets from the green rooms are always hilarious. I feel like I've snuck into a Masonic ceremony -- so secret.

AM : Best run-ins include Mike Huckabee, Ann Coulter and Karl Rove. Ann Coulter was most interesting.

EA: Wow. That is quite the list. Go on.

AM: Because she feels so comfortable extolling her views as though her audience is A. captive and B. in agreement. She was holding court in the Green Room.

EA: With regards to her assumptions, isn't that what Bill O'Reilly as well as Keith Olbermann does?

AM: Right, but the show has [their names] on it. [They have] a network and a platform. Anne Coulter was in a room full of other guests and she just started telling stories like she was the star. On one hand, just hearing her talk is like nails on a chalk board. On another level, I have to admire her bravado. I can't tell if she's incredibly confident or insecure. Or if maybe she's just so completely un-self aware that she is able to talk and talk and talk without checking in on non-verbal cues to see if anyone is listening.

EA: What is the state of the GOP right now?

AM: Disarray! I think there are two separate but related conversations going on simultaneously. There is at once a struggle to define conservatism, and a visible fight for the soul of the GOP. The conservative conversation is much more intellectual - much more academic.

EA: Than before, than the Dem's then.. what?

AM: Than the GOP conversation.(Editor's note: Connoting a difference between the Republican Party as it stands, Base voters and Conservatives who feel left behind.) And [the GOP] is being under minded by folks who are more concerned with better TV ratings than with the actual question of how we define conservatism.

EA: So how do you define the GOP "conversation"?

AM: The GOP conversation is about a few things. First of all, there is a lot of ego.
You can practically see the supposed 2012 front-runners (apparently we didn't learn from 2008 that this speculation is useless) elbowing each other out of the way.Governor Sanford isn't thinking about the people of South Carolina when he turns away stimulus money. He's thinking "this is a major gamble and if I hit this right, I will be President Sanford." I think the alternative budgets we saw from Republicans was a good, tangible example of how they don't know what their minority game plan is.

EA: Which is the same gamble Jindal and Palin are playing.


EA: What about the Dems? Because the Democratic party is not the same thing as the Obama administration, and the party seems to be as lost and incompetent as it ever was, only know it's an incompetent majority rather than minority.

AM: I think at the end of the day there is much more unity than folks realize.
Unity doesn't sell papers (though one has to ask what DOES sell papers these days).
I think folks are just getting accustomed to the idea of being able to get things done. They are also still struggling to figure out how to communicate that we are where we are because of eight years of wreckless Republican spending - and I say that not as a political talking point - seriously - but as a generational perspective on how the GOP has really disappointed millenials.I don't agree with the GOP, but I can respect their basic logic. They spent the last eight years acting out of step with their own credo. And now Democrats need to find a way to explain that they are good mechanics with a hell of a lemon and they're doing the best they can as quickly as they can.

EA: It would seem to me that Obama has literally changed the game. When I see the Dems and GOPers flobbing talking points at each other, (or at the administration) it's like they're trying to get in a gunfight with some dull rapiers...When the GOP attempts to paint the Obama budget plan as "vague"and goes back to grinding on and on about earmarks, which are actually a miniscule part of any budget.

AM: I suppose. [But there are questions that should be asked of Obama.] Like - did Obama make a major mistake by setting standards for his nominees that were unmeetable?
What does bi-partisanship look like? Should Obama have tackled the "how" of bipartisanship sooner?

EA: How would you judge the Obama administration's first 100 days?

AM: Predictably rocky but generally well-executed. The notion of the first 100 days - and I'm sure you'd agree - is rather inorganic.

EA: What do you think will happen with the midterms?

AM: Senate races should be fine - maybe even a few pick up opportunities for Democrats. On the House side, I don't think - pending a major disaster or a major upswing-that we'll see much movement either way. Much like people voted Bush back into office in 2004, I think most people prefer stability at times like this -- especially in light of the recent and dramatic change we made to our elected body.

EA: You live in DC -- what's it like to live there and what's it like to live there as the daughter of a Senator?

AM: Well I am like a little old lady so it's what it's like to live anywhere as a little old lady.

EA: I know what that's like.

Alicia: I wake up, I take the metro to the gym, I go to the gym, I stop at Starbucks, I work, I take the metro home, make dinner and watch The Wire with my boyfriend. On a really crazy night I might do a Sudoko puzzle on the metro home or pick up some ice cream but that's about it.
I do appreciate that my friends here (all two of them) are able to talk politics but also able to shut it off. That's the weird thing about DC. It's politics, politics, politics all the time. Is LA like that with entertainment?

me: FUCK IF I KNOW. We all just sit around talking about GOOP -- Oh wait, that's Brooklyn. So you are outside of the social/power scene.

Alicia: I think the idea that there is a social/power scene is ridiculous. I have dinner with a United States Senator once every two weeks. It's not much of a scene.

EA: In my conversations with Meghan McCain, she's talked a lot about people who come on to her as a way of starting THEIR political career.

AM: I don't think I've ever had that happen. I also have to wonder how much of that is reality and how much is perception. What is that quote?
I think it's Sharon Stone about how you can sleep your way to the middle; you have to work your way to the top. That is what that reminds me of!

EA: Last thing: any comment for those Fox viewers who want to know about your love life?

Alicia: Nah! Let's keep them Googling.


Photo via DayLife