Wake Up To Politics - Political People, Vol. 3 - Immigration activist Todd Schulte
Friday, February 3, 2017
Good morning! Reporting from WUTP world HQ (in my bedroom), I'm Gabe Fleisher: this is your wake up call.
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To make up for the lack of a newsletter today, I'm sending the third installment of the WUTP "Political People" interview series, following former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont governor Howard Dean and Republican strategist Rory Cooper. Today’s Political Person is Todd Schulte, president of immigration lobbying group FWD.us. Enjoy, and continue to send me recommendations for people on both sides of the aisle that you know or want to hear from in this series!
Political People, Vol. 3: Todd Schulte
- “I’ve always been really interested in politics and public policy,” Todd Schulte told Wake Up To Politics, “with the belief that you have so much ability for good public policy to be leveraged to improve people’s lives.” However, he never saw politics as a career - until joining a campaign after college as an advance man. “I traveled around the country, three to five days ahead of whenever the candidate was coming into town, to set up big events,” Schulte explained. “It was, in some ways, the hardest and most interesting, in terms of learning on the fly, I've ever had. I enjoy jobs where you have a steep learning curve and you can learn a lot of stuff and I think that was a really good first job.”
- He went on to work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles (both successful for the party), before working as deputy campaign manager for Scott Murphy’s 2009 congressional campaign in a New York special election. Murphy won by under 400 votes, and Schulte served as the congressman’s Chief of Staff until Murphy lost a re-election bid in 2010. Regardless, Schulte calls the re-election campaign the best campaign he’s ever worked on. “One of the things you learn in life: some things are in your control and some things are outside of your control,” he reflected. “We're a pretty partisan country, and when the winds blow with you or against you, that makes a big difference. We were able to win in one district, and then 18 months later, we lost.”
- Schulte then became Chief of Staff of Priorities USA, one of the first Democratic super PACs, which produced a number of ads credited with helping former President Barack Obama winning re-election in 2012. He has worked at FWD.us since it was founded in 2013 by a group of technology figures including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Now, he uses many of the skills he accrued working a variety of political jobs. “I started out doing advance work, I did field work, I did fundraising,” he said. Now his job encompasses all of those skills, and more.
- FWD.us works to pass an immigration reform package in Congress, focusing on three main principles: creation of a modern immigration system, strengthening border security, and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. Schulte compared the need to modernize the system to a business regularly updating its procedures: “You would never say to a company, ‘you can't update your HR and your recruitment procedures for 50 years,’ but that's what we've done as a country here,” he pointed out. Schulte said that the current system “is totally designed for a world from 50, or 60, or 70 years ago,” adding that “fixing our legal immigration system is what makes sense for today's economy and families today.”
- Doing work on immigration, Schulte said that he thinks a lot about “why my family came to this country” and about America’s history of “being a country that has welcomed and accepted immigrants, albeit very imperfectly, and being a country that is bound together by an idea that we can be a stronger nation and always searching for a more perfect union.” He also spoke about his inspiration, “having been on the Hill and having seen from a policy perspective that there was this bipartisan consensus but there was a real political lack of will to get it done.” Schulte calls immigration reform “biggest single change that can be done in one policy swoop… the one thing that we can do that if we get right in one iteration, it can so dramatically improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans.”
- How does FWD.us attempt to achieve that goal? “We run campaigns that really focus not on D.C., but outside of D.C., and we're really focused on what we can do out in the districts for key members of Congress to make this more popular for them and make them vote with us,” he explained. Schulte laid out the three-pronged approach FWD.us uses. First, the policy argument: persuading lawmakers “it’s the right thing to do.” Second, “you want to make it a little bit easier for them,” helping them with constituencies that they’ll need for re-election. Third, convincing them of the importance of immigration reform, “connect[ing] with people at a personal level.”
- The second part of that strategy, a way of giving cover to lawmakers to support the group’s priorities, has come under fire. Tesla founder Elon Musk and other key members withdrew support from FWD.us in the group’s first days, after spending millions on advertisements praising Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Mark Begich (D-AK) for their support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. “It happened the third day we existed...it was a long time ago,” Schulte said. But he still views the mechanism as a “strong strategy” he “would continue to do.” All three of the lawmakers were proponents of immigration reform, but couldn’t campaign at the issue back home - so FWD.us helped them get re-elected using an issue that their constituents would be more likely to back. Still, the move cost FWD key financial backing, and support of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, and MoveOn.
- And where does President Trump fall into that strategy? Schulte decried candidate Trump’s immigration proposals as “incoherent anti-immigrant demagoguery” during the campaign. In another brush with the new Administration, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), now Trump’s nominee to be Attorney General, blasted FWD.us and “young Mr. Zuckerberg” in 2014. Days before the Inauguration, Schulte told Wake Up To Politics that the strategy President Trump would take on immigration “an open question.” Asked if he would work with Trump and Sessions, he said: “We are an organization that goes down the middle but passionately fights for our values every single day. Our job is to work with anyone we can and to push really hard to get to these policy outcomes, so that's kind of where we’re going to be.”
- Schulte does “not pretend to know all the answers of all the things that are to come,” but he remains optimistic, and pointed to statistics that keep his hopes high: “support for a pathway to citizenship as opposed to rounding up as many undocumented immigrants as possible is not only at an all-time high, it continued to rise over the last two years during the presidential campaign.”
- He said FWD would continue to run the same campaigns ahead of the 2018 elections, bombarding congressional districts with phone calls, letters to the editor, and television, radio, and digital advertising. “Obviously, during the presidential campaign, immigration was a hot topic, and it will continue to be,” Schulte said. “But I think there's a ton of uncertainty in the world we're moving in to.”
For more on Wake Up To Politics, listen to Gabe on NPR's "Talk of the Nation", St. Louis Public Radio, the Political Junkie podcast, and on StoryCorps; watch Gabe on MSNBC's "Up with Steve Kornacki"; and read about Gabe in Politico, the Washington Post, Independent Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Salon, the Globe, and the St. Louis Jewish Light.