NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL: Jamie Raskin Swaps Ivory Tower for Capitol Hill
December 13, 2016
BY KAREN SLOAN
Jamie Raskin will administer his last Constitutional Law final exam on Wednesday at American University Washington College of Law after 26 years of teaching. Raskin won't be retiring down to Florida or hitting the bingo circuit, however. He's trading the Ivory Tower for the halls of Capitol Hill, having won a seat to represent Maryland's 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives after a hard-fought primary that was the most expensive in the country this year. He is the sole law professor joining Congress this cycle.
Legislating isn't new to Raskin, who has been a state senator for 10 years, but the left-leaning Democrat will find a host of new challenges in Washington, including a Republican-controlled Congress and the incoming Trump administration.
We caught up with Raskin as he prepares to take office to find out his approach to Trump and what he'll miss about law school. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
How are you feeling about leaving the academy?
It's hard. My professional identity is definitely that of a law professor. There are people who go into politics who are law professors, but some of them did it for 45 minutes, like Bill Clinton en route to running for attorney general of Arkansas. I'm a real law professor. I've got tenure. I've written books and dozens of law review articles that nobody reads. I'm more like Elizabeth Warren, who was a real law professor with a body of work to her name, who made contributions as a legal scholar and intellectual.
What do you anticipate will be the toughest part of your new job?
My operating principle is that we need to make friendships and alliances with people across the aisle to get basic things done, like investment in infrastructure and transportation. At the same time, we need to stand like a rock on basic principles and values that we have been sent to Washington to defend. That's the line we have to walk in this tough new period.
How are you preparing to take office?
I've been immersed in my orientation trainings over the last two weeks with the other freshmen. I'm reading a lot of stuff. I'm studying the parliamentary procedure of the House of the Representatives. Of course every legislative body has its own rules and precedents. It's different from the Maryland Senate. But I pride myself on learning the rules backwards and forward.
What else are you doing to get up to speed?
I found a very interesting book called "Underdog Politics," which is a study of parties in the congressional minority. It discusses the panoply of options available to the legislative minority to advance legislative priorities through cooperation, and also mechanisms of resistance to untoward agendas by those majorities. I'm also spending a lot of time getting to know my new colleagues.
The freshman Democrats—there are 27 of us—elected me to be their representative on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which distributes committee assignments and also sets the policy direction for the Democratic caucus. I've been spending time on that too.
When you decided to run for office, did you ever imagine you would be working with a Trump administration?
No, this is not exactly the context I had imagined for an arrival in Congress. But the great thing about politics is you never know what will happen. Things that feel permanent are not. Dramatic things happen. No one would have ever dreamed 12 years ago that Barack Obama would be our president. Certainly no one dreamed two years ago that Donald Trump would be our president. That, for me, is grounds for hope.
You recently held a so-called "revival meeting" for Democrats in your district. What's your message to despondent Democrats?
Everybody is looking for hope. I tell them, "You are the hope." We cannot surrender to depression. The Civil Rights movement, the women's movement, the labor movement, the environmental movement, the LGBT movement, the climate-change movement. All of these movements have changed America for the better. There's simply no going back.
I've read that you're interested in an appointment to the House Judiciary Committee. Why?
I've been a constitutional law professor for more than a quarter-century. I've served on the Maryland Senate's judiciary committee for a decade. I think this is where I could render the most value.
Donald Trump has obviously not been a professor or student of the Constitution. Sometimes it seems as if he collides directly with basic constitutional values. I'm hoping to be a champion of the separation of powers, the primacy of Congress as the lawmaking branch, and the Bill of Rights as the essential guardian of the people. There's a difference between constitutional democracy and authoritarian rule. We have to reinforce that. I want America to be the champion of human rights and democracy all over the world, and not partners with all the despots and banana republics.
How did your students react to you winning the election?
They gave me a standing ovation on the day after the election. That was very nice. Ever since I got into politics, I think my students have a little more respect for me now that I do more than just write law review articles.