Black Political Operatives on ‘Scandal’

Some of the nation's top power brokers tell us what the show gets right and wrong about working in D.C.

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    When ABC’s Scandal returns Oct. 3, political operative and crisis manager Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) will undoubtedly wrestle with a whole new slate of clients and political controversies. But this season she will do it while at the center of her very own scandal. Her ongoing affair with the president has been exposed. The Root reached out to some of the country’s most interesting and influential black political operatives to find out just how much the show gets right and what it gets wrong about politicos living and working in Washington, D.C. 

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    The White House

    David Johns

    Johns, 31, is the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. His mission: Ensure that African Americans receive a complete and competitive education that prepares them for college, a satisfying career and productive citizenship. When it comes to ABC’s Scandal, Johns sees it as one of several shows that attempt to depict life in Washington, D.C. “But there is nothing like being on the ground and influencing the policy that will affect so many American families,” Johns said. “I think we should keep in mind that television often glamorizes the incredibly hard work that so many public servants conduct daily.”

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    The White House

    Heather Foster

    Foster, 32, serves as the associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. She plays a role in everything from planning the administration’s involvement in the recent March on Washington 50th anniversary events to helping the public understand the Affordable Care Act. One thing that Foster confesses that Scandal gets right: depicting a young African-American woman in a position to make decisions and trust her instincts. “I love that this show is a platform for showing leadership among African-American women. Life at the White House is never dull, and we have extremely demanding hours.”

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    White House Office of Legislative Affairs

    Nicole Isaac

    Isaac, 34, is a special assistant to President Barack Obama for Legislative Affairs. She serves as the administration’s liaison to almost 100 members of Congress as well as the Congressional Black Caucus. She works to advance the president’s priorities on Capitol Hill on issues ranging from immigration, gun control and voting rights to financial services and housing. The minds behind Scandal “seem to get the pace of a political operative’s job right — we are always on and anything can happen at any time that would require coordination, collaboration, team-work and implementation,” Isaac said. 

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    Politics 365

    Lauren Victoria Burke

    Burke, 43, is managing editor of Politics 365, a blog focused on black and Latino politics. Burke, a seasoned reporter who previously worked as a freelance photojournalist for the Associated Press, said she rarely watches Scandal or other television shows. But she said what the show gets wrong is the notion that, in the era of cellphone cameras, a 24-hour news cycle and Twitter, anyone could have a private affair with the president. “And here’s the other kicker: The idea that a woman can maintain credibility with people who are primarily either co-workers, sources, clients or so forth, that is impossible. Under those conditions you will not be taken seriously.”

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    Lawyer’s Committee

    Marcia Johnson-Blanco

    At the Lawyer’s Committee, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, Johnson-Blanco, 44, co-directs the Voting Rights Project. The project’s staff works with organizations around the country to identify policies and changes that will limit or reduce voting, bring litigation to enforce the nation’s voting laws and push for reforms that will improve and expand access to the ballot. Johnson-Blanco said she “binge-watched” Scandal this summer after hearing so much about the show. “I found out I really like Olivia Pope as a role model, the relationship with the president aside. The problem-solving and the thinking outside the box and being really strategic — that’s certainly a big part of working in this town.”

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    Aspen Institute

    Eric Motley

    Motley, 40, is the vice president and managing director of the Henry Crown Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. The fellowship program Motley oversees provides business leaders under age 45 with an opportunity to identify and season skills they might use as they transition into work that involves public service. Motley hasn’t seen Scandal but says one of the things that irks him about popular depictions of people working in D.C. are portrayals of them as being ambitious in a negative way. “I am not convinced that everyone who comes to Washington comes to get to the top. I think there are a lot of people who find something they really enjoy and really commit to that work.”

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    National Urban League

    Chanelle Hardy

    Hardy, 36, serves as the Urban League’s senior vice president for policy and executive director of the National Urban League’s Washington, D.C., bureau. Hardy falls into the camp of political operatives who have only had time to watch a few episodes of Scandal. “The thing that is realistic about Scandal is this field attracts people who are really good at multitasking, thinking strategically and thinking quickly,” she said. “They skip the nitty-gritty and get to the life-or-death situation every week.”

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     Office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi

    Ashley Etienne

    As the deputy communications director for House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Etienne, 35, works near the center of all congressional action. She helps develop a strategic communications plan for Pelosi and the entire Democratic Caucus and serves as the California congresswoman’s lead issue expert on a few key topics. With that résumé, some may be surprised by the way Etienne describes her work. “When people ask, ‘What do you do?’ now I say, ‘Do you watch Scandal? Well, that’s what I do, minus the affair with the president.’ “

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    The Raben Group

    Jamal Simmons

    Simmons, 42, is a principal at the Raben Group, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, where he provides communications and strategic counsel to corporate and nonprofit leaders. Simmons is a fan of, Scandal. “I love Scandal, and working in politics I have gotten to know Kerry Washington a bit,” Simmons said. “She’s a smart woman who believes deeply in making the world a better place. The show really nails the feeling of camaraderie that can exist amongst people who go through fires together.”

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    Angela Rye

    Rye, 33, is a principal at IMPACT Strategies, a government relations and political consulting firm. She also provides on-air political commentary. Rye describes herself as “serious” about Scandal. “I will be live-tweeting every show and promptly logging off Twitter when I have to DVR a show.” But, she says, the show is “very unrealistic. Olivia Pope’s tail would be under the jail if she was a real-life ‘operative.’ They regularly cross all kinds of legal and ethical boundaries. As a black woman in this town who has also worked for the CBC [Congressional Black Caucus], I know firsthand that we are often held to an even higher standard.”  

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    Office of Rep Cedric Richmond

    Virgil Miller

    As chief of staff to Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Miller describes himself as a man whose overall goal is to “keep the trains running efficiently.” In reality, he supervises legislative, communications, district and support staff in the congressman’s four congressional offices. When it comes to Scandal, the very busy Miller’s take is simple. “Our work is rarely that dramatic,” Miller said. “However, it does a good job of illustrating the power of having the right connections.”

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    Center for American Progress

    Aisha Moodie-Mills

    Moodie-Mills, 35, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and chief catalyst for Moodie-Mills Inc., which produces the weekly politics and pop-culture talk show, Politini, which Mills co-hosts with her wife, Danielle Moodie-Mills. Moodie-Mills is a huge Scandal fan, and she is planning a watch party. “What I love about Olivia is that she wears the white hat and tries to do what’s best on principle, but she is grounded in the reality that some problems can’t be solved simply by calling who’s right or wrong. Sometimes it’s about minimizing harms that are ultimately unavoidable. Finding that balance is the constant work of a politico.”

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    Nate Jenkins 

    Jenkins, 31, works as the White House liaison to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is primarily responsible for identifying and managing the agency’s political appointees. His exposure to Scandal has been intentionally limited, he said. “I am getting my MBA from Wharton, so I don’t currently have as much time for TV and haven’t watched Scandal yet. My wife watches it, and from what I can tell, that show is over the top. However, I do watch Game of Thrones. While the setting is fictional, it’s all about how people use politics to attain power in ways that are not necessarily that different from reality.”

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    Department of Justice

    Adora Andy Jenkins

    Jenkins, 32, is the press secretary for Attorney General Eric Holder. She serves as spokeswoman and adviser to the attorney general and Justice Department leadership. Jenkins also develops media strategy, messaging, rapid response and crisis communications for the department’s senior leaders. Jenkins ranks among Scandal’s top fans. “What’s true about the show is that some days, it can feel like there is news breaking every minute in D.C. But overall, while the public relations advice Olivia Pope gives her clients is real, the scenarios the show’s characters find themselves in are quite extreme.” 

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    Office of Sen. Dick Durbin

    Albert Sanders

    Sanders, 32, serves as general counsel to Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), the Senate’s majority whip. He also works as counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Even with all his work, Sanders has a few thoughts on Scandal. “In every episode of Scandal, Olivia Pope reminds us that your reputation and your relationships matter,” Sanders said. “It’s an important lesson for anyone working in Washington, D.C., because no one accomplishes anything in this city by themselves. On the other hand, Scandal often gives the impression that major policy issues and personal scandal can be resolved in an hour — plus or minus 15 minutes for commercial breaks. Obviously, that is not the case in reality.”

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    Office of Rep. Maxine Waters

    Mikael Moore 

    Moore, 35, works as Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-Calif.) chief of staff. He is responsible for the overall management of the legislative, advocacy and communication strategies for Waters. He credits another show with helping him to recognize that one can have a career as a political operative: HBO’s Game of Thrones. He also said there are some things that Scandal does get right. “I think the thing that is most realistic about Scandal is the way that they solve problems behind the scenes through leveraging relationships,” he said. “Much of the work that is done in Washington is done behind closed doors and though unique channels.”

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    Rep. Hoyer's Staff Communications

    Stephanie Young

    Young, 29, is the national press secretary for House minority whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). She helps Hoyer manage national issues ranging from the day-to-day operations of the House floor to voting rights and the budget. Young describes herself as “a huge fan” of Scandal. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t get a lot right in my opinion. The tinge of reality would have to be Olivia Pope’s work-life balance.”

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    The White House

    Kevin Lewis

    Lewis, 30, is spokesman and director of African-American Media in the White House Office of Communications. He is a liaison between the black media at the White House and is also responsible for strategic communications, planning and messaging. On the topic of Scandal, Lewis said, “Kerry Washington is a talented, hardworking actress who also uses her voice and influence to help others,” he said. “There are several shows and movies — from The Butler to Scandal, House of Cards and The West Wing — that portray political life in D.C. However, there is no substitute for directly participating.”

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