“There was no Five Guys in Oxford back in my day.”
– DSPI alumni Representative Derek Kilmer
Graduate students in Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention often look forward to applying their academic learning to real-life policymaking, but few ultimately do so as United States Congressmen. Since 2013, Representative Derek Kilmer has been the exception, serving the state of Washington’s 6th district. At the end of a US-UK relations exchange trip to London, Representative Kilmer took his colleague Representative Ron Kind back to Oxford and into Barnett House for a conversation with students.
Representatives Kilmer and Kind covered plenty of ground in their remarks and responses: the nature of their districts, their paths to politics, advice on running for office, reflections on their graduate degrees, policy work in a partisan context, the issue of representation, the challenges of economic revitalization, evidence and policymaking, and the future of the Democratic Party.
The Representatives brought not only their insights from Congress, but an opportunity to weave together the worlds of politics and policy, of academia and practice. Their remarks remind us graduate students of the department that our learning is as applicable outside of the walls of Oxford as within them.
On Their Paths to Politics
Both Representatives Kilmer and Kind found their way back to their hometowns after obtaining graduate degrees in the United Kingdom. After working through much of his DPhil, Kilmer joined the global consulting firm McKinsey for three years. After wrapping up his dissertation, he returned to Washington State where through a nonprofit he began work on economic revitalization. While in that role, Kilmer says that a friend observed that he “complained about policy a lot” and asked why Kilmer wouldn’t just run for office and “do something about it”. Kilmer then ran for State Senate, and eventually was prompted to run for Congress. Similarly, Representative Kind went to the London School of Economics. While in London, Kind studied International Economics and interned for a Member of Parliament. Like Kilmer, he returned home to Wisconsin where he worked as a special persecutor, then ran for office.
Advice on Running for Office and becoming active in politics
When asked for advice on running for office, Representative Kilmer first suggested “moving home”, a step both Congressmen took early on in their careers. Kilmer recommended building a profile of issues, and focusing on work that one cares about regardless of whether one intends to run for office. Representative Kind added that you need a “really thick skin” to be in politics, and that you have to enjoy other people. He quoted longstanding Congressman John Dingle who reportedly advised newly elected Congressmen that “You have an important job but you’re not an important person”. Ultimately, Kind argues, serving in office entails serving the people.
Lessons Learned from Academia and Practice
One student (yours truly, the author of this post) asked what the Representatives learned in their graduate programs that they would not have learned in politics, and what they learned in politics that they would not have learned in their graduate programs. Representative Kind discussed the fundamental importance of listening and direct engagement with constituents, a critical lesson from politics. He argued listening is essential to gaining an understanding of the “daily struggles of the people” he represents.
Representative Kilmer commented that students would be happy to learn that “theory does apply sometimes”! Specifically, Kilmer reminisced on his Oxford learning about universal versus means-tested benefits, and said that when he was in Congress and observed Republicans making programs means-tested he remembered his supervisor saying “universal benefits equals universal acceptance” and realizing the political intent behind the policy move. Kilmer noted there are ways to help communities that do not require government policy. For instance, “timber collaboratives” are non-government organizations that bring together environmental lobbies, industry, and communities in the same room to solve conflicts over use of land. Kilmer’s initiation of this practice substantially benefitted his community but did not require the passage of a bill.
On the Future of the Democratic Party
Representative Kilmer emphasised how we need to “create more economic opportunity for more people in more places”. Kilmer spoke about how there are constituencies in his state that are in their third decade of near-double-digit unemployment. What are we going to do for these communities that are left behind? The solution, he argues, is becoming the party of change and reform, with the goal of empowering everyday Americans to have a voice in government.
About the Author
Morgan Mohr is a Rhodes Scholar reading for an MSc in Comparative Social Policy. She received her Bachelor's degree from Indiana University, where she majored in Political Science, History, and her own individualised major in Feminist Policy. Morgan has worked in a variety of political and policy-oriented positions, including as a volunteer policy researcher for the U.K. Women's Equality Party, as an intern in the Obama White House, and as a staffer on Hillary Clinton's 2016 Presidential campaign.