From Capitol Hill to Campaigns: Interview with Rohini Kosoglu

Rohini Kosoglu most recently served as Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign, Kamala Harris for the People. She has extensive experience on Capitol Hill, serving as senior aides to Senator Michael Bennet and Senator Debbie Stabenow. She is an expert on the legislative process, serving as a senior health care advisor during the drafting of the Affordable Care Act. She is currently one of the Spring 2020 Residential Fellows at Harvard. 

Harvard Political Review: You came straight to Harvard from the campaign trail, what was that transition like?

Rohini Kosoglu: The day-to-day routine of campaign life is obviously a 180 from being here at Harvard. But having the time to step back and reflect on the last few years, I think it’s been such a blessing, and I’m so excited to be here this semester around the students. They have such an amazing energy for politics and democracy, and it’s really inspiring to be around them. I feel very fortunate. 

HPR: What is it like for the staff of a campaign when the candidate drops out?

RK: It is sad, but I think that there’s also a huge sense of gratitude to be part of, in our case, a very historic candidacy. There’s a sense of gratitude to get to go around the country to see people engaging in rallies, town hall meetings, knocking on doors, and making phone calls. I feel very blessed to have worked with some of the smartest and most talented people I’ve ever worked with in my life. And to be a part of a mission of trying to elect someone president has certainly been one of the honors of my life.

HPR: Regarding your work in Washington D.C., tell me a little bit more about what you did when you were a senior healthcare advisor during the drafting and passage of the Affordable Care Act.

RK: When President Obama took office in 2009, there was a real energy and excitement around the fact that, for healthcare policy staffers, they were working on an issue that was on the front page of the newspaper every day, and constituents of all states were all talking about their experiences with the healthcare system. Constituents would have stories that seemed incredulous, but at the same time they were the victim of a conflict with an insurance company or a drug company. And we as a government didn’t have answers about why the insurance companies were allowed to do this, why their pharmaceutical company drug prices were so high. And a big part of the Affordable Care Act was asking, “How do we get people ‘rules of the road’ for the healthcare system?” And so staffing for a U.S. senator was so exciting in terms of the day-to-day routine. I worked for Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) at the time, and we’d be in meetings for five to seven hours a day. We were meeting with different parts of the Democratic caucus, negotiating out different provisions of the law with Republicans that were interested in still trying to make something pass in a bipartisan way. But I can’t emphasize enough the energy and the feeling [we had] that this was a historic moment and we c[ould] get something done on health care for the American people. 

HPR: How has the Trump administration affected the work that you did on Capitol Hill?

RK: In 2016, I was interviewing to work in the private sector. At the same time, I was also exploring an opportunity to work for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). As we processed the first month or so of President Trump taking office and getting his transition ready for the new Congress, it became clear to me that it was important to stay in public service during a time when there were so many people that were about to lose some of their civil rights. It was important to me to work for a member that was ready to take on the fight and give a voice to the voiceless. I got more lucrative offers in the private sector, but I wanted to work for somebody who would fight for people in the country that needed help and hold President Trump accountable. That made me stay in public service.

HPR: Moving to more of a personal level, what fueled your passion for politics, and was there ever a moment that you realized you really wanted to get involved and work in public service?

RK: My father is an emergency room doctor. And in the emergency room, you have to treat whoever is in front of you. There’s no Democrat or Republican. It doesn’t matter what race they are [and] it doesn’t matter what gender they are. It’s that sense of fairness that makes me want to keep fighting for a system that’s fair on behalf of other people. So I bring that ethos with me to every job offer that I approach and I think, “Can I do this job bringing that same ethos fighting for people to more families in this country?”

HPR: I know that you also recently spoke at the South Asian Society at Yale, and you’ve been in touch with the South Asian Americans in Public Service here at Harvard. Can you speak more about your culture and how it intersects with your work in public service?

RK: I feel so fortunate to be given this opportunity to take a step back and give back to my culture and to South Asian students that are so passionate about politics, democracy, or policy. I am learning from even my own students how much enthusiasm there is for South Asians in public service across the country. Even the conference at Yale was about bringing other South Asian students together from across the country to talk about different paths and career opportunities and to expose them to different ideas of how to think outside the box for different career roles. I felt very fortunate to be a part of it. I think that there’s a lot more that we as the South Asian community can do to mobilize and engage students. It’s my hope that being a Fellow here and working with these students can help us think of ways to move this forward.

HPR: Many people feel disheartened by politics today. What keeps you motivated?

RK: Certainly being around the students every day has been so great, seeing their passion for politics, democracy, and engaging in public service. But even in the last year, to watch over 20 candidates run for president, and to see how many people in this country were showing up to rallies or town halls and were willing to knock on doors or willing to call people. It was so compelling to see people taking time out of their lives to learn more about what these candidates had to offer in terms of their vision for the country. That does make me heartened. I saw people bringing their children and their grandchildren to these different events, and it showed that people want to see an alternative to President Trump. But people are also interested in how these candidates are going to improve their daily lives. 

HPR: What are some values that you think about every day, or morals that you hold deeply with you?

RK: I constantly think about what I am doing in my role to improve the lives of working people in this country. I think I’ve been blessed to work at some of the highest levels of government and politics, and with that comes a responsibility to use that expertise to help others. Whether it be a woman that’s cleaning a hotel room or a dad that’s an Uber driver and can’t make it to [his] kid’s soccer game, I have a responsibility to use the expertise that I gained over the years to help make their lives better.

HPR: What’s next for you after your time here at Harvard?

RK: I see myself in a role where I’m helping the lives of other people. I don’t think I’ll lose that trajectory. I need to be able to connect the dots on how what I’m doing is going to help the world in some way that resonates with the public servant in me. So I don’t expect to lose that anytime soon.

Image Credit: Harvard Institute of Politics

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