May 11, 2018

Congressman Connolly Discusses Technology, Immigration, Privacy and Other Issues With UVA Students

All politics is local, the old saying goes. But for Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), whose district begins just a few miles from Washington, D.C., congressional politics is extremely international, as well.

More than one-fourth of Connolly’s constituents were born outside of the United States. Entrepreneurial and established technology businesses with global interests dot the Northern Virginia region, sometimes dubbed the “Silicon Valley of the East.”

Connolly spoke recently to Batten students and others, discussing a wide range of domestic and global issues that he and his staff confront and seek to resolve in the modern congressional climate.

“Technology is going to allow us to do things that no other generation ever has been able to do,” Connolly told more than 200 students in “Public Policy Challenges of the 21st Century,” taught by Gerald Warburg, Professor of Practice of Public Policy at Batten.

Congressman Gerry Connolly, right, and Gerald Warburg (photos by Carl Briggs)

In an interview after his talk, Connolly discussed the need for future debates over privacy.

“I absolutely favor privacy protection. I think Facebook made a catastrophic decision in allowing the profiles of 87 million Americans to be available to Cambridge Analytica and other companies of its ilk without permission, or even knowledge.

“I think that is an abuse of your access to private data, and underscores why new standards need to be developed to protect people’s privacy.”

Connolly also discussed how technology has changed his public work as a congressman, as he seeks to be visible to constituents in an information age when “it doesn’t really matter whether a story is on the front page of the newspaper anymore. The Internet has made that irrelevant.

“It’s more important than ever, as a political figure, that you get on cable news periodically to make sure that people are aware of the fact that you are there doing your job, and that you are capable of addressing the issues of the day.”

Underscoring that point are his recent comments in a distinctly congressional dust-up, the temporary removal of a Catholic clergyman from the position of House of Representatives chaplain, which happened a few days after Connolly spoke at UVA on April 23. (The chaplain later was reinstated.)

Though he was quoted in The Washington Post, Connolly, who is Catholic, also appeared on CNN for an interview that he later re-tweeted.

Rep. Connolly, interviewed on CNN

Connolly finds that today’s congressional staffers need a high degree of fluency in digital communications.

“Not being digitally savvy probably is a disqualifier” to being hired to work on a congressional staff, Connolly said. “That’s the world we now have to operate in.

“All of my communications in the House are by e-mail” or similar technology, he said.

“If I want to know what’s going to happen on the floor, it’s not by paper. It’s all electronic. And so I have to be adept” with digital communications, he said.

“So technology can be a friend, but it can also be a challenge, because we also have to worry about protecting communications from those who might not wish us well. I don’t mean politically. I’m talking about Russia, China, others who may want to try to hack in or listen in or even worse, distort.”

Two of Connolly’s staff members, both UVA graduates, accompanied him to UVA. 

Collin Davenport, a 2008 graduate who majored in Foreign Affairs and Economics, has worked for Connolly for ten years, and now is legislative director.

“At UVA I had professors and friends who were constantly challenging me—my values, my intellectual positions—and that happens constantly on Capitol Hill, where you walk into a meeting and you’ve got to be able to win the day with your argument. If you don’t win the day, you don’t serve your principal well,” Davenport said.

“There are 534 more (congressional) offices, and a (presidential) administration, that might have different opinions from you, and you can be swayed from time to time, but most of the time you’re trying to, as I said, win the day.”

Molly Claire Cole (formerly Schmalzbach), legislative assistant for foreign affairs, said she and Davenport discuss their points of view “in the intellectual space of our office, where we’ll test out” arguments while working in nearby cubicles.

“We agree on most things; obviously, we chose to work for the same member of Congress. But we have different perspectives and we bring our own life experiences, and we try to challenge each other.

“I think we make each other better that way. We make the work of the Congressman better that way, and we’re able to bring that work into” the public sphere.

Cole, a 2011 Batten graduate with a Master’s degree in Public Policy, said that Batten’s distinctive “48 hour project” helped prepare her to work on Connolly’s staff, which she joined in October 2016. 

The Batten assignment begins with a random topic in which students seek to outline the history of the issue, understand the political stakeholders and policy options, and make a recommendation and support it with evidence.

“That exercise at Batten is probably the most useful assignment I had during my entire two years in the program,” Cole said, “because we do that on a daily basis: if we get a new hearing topic, if there’s a breaking news story, if the Congressman wants to move on something that I don’t have any prior experience with.

Cole said she needs “to be able to ask the right questions and really get to the substance of the matter, so I can then make informed recommendations to the Congressman.”

Congressman Gerry Connolly, third from left, with, left to right: Maggie Gratz, Professor Gerald Warburg, Colin Davenport, Molly Claire Cole, and West Connors. Grantz and Connors are 2018 Batten Master’s degree graduates who served as teaching assistants for Warburg.

In his talk, Connolly cited immigration reform as another crucial issue facing not just future graduates, but students today.

“We’ve got 800,000 DREAMers,” Connolly said, using the popular acronym for proposed legislation that would permit U.S. residency for minor children.

“I know we’ve got some DREAMers right here at UVA.”

In the interview following his presentation, Connolly discussed the extraordinary diversity brought by immigration.

“It changes everything in terms of how you provide services. Well over more than 100 languages are spoken in my district,” he said. “Our public school system in Fairfax (County) has to have five official languages. How do you have a level playing field within the public school system?”

One way to approach these issues is by keeping up with other members of the Virginia congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans, who meet once a month. “We’re one of the only delegations in Congress that does that,” Connolly said. “I was somewhat surprised by that.”

The regular luncheon is “the opportunity for all of us to interact and talk about whatever we want to talk about.”

Connolly speaks annually to students in Warburg’s class, where Connolly’s daughter, Caitlin, served as a teaching assistant. She is a 2014 Master’s degree graduate of Batten.

“Technology may help us cure diseases and live longer and have more babies if we want,” Connolly told students. “But the other side of that coin is the challenge…to protect liberty—individual liberty—and to protect us collectively as a society, to re-fashion what privacy means. And your generation is going to redefine privacy.

“There’s no facet of life that will be untouched by that technology. You’re going to be on the forefront of taking that technology, wherever it is, and bringing it to a new threshold, with all of its promise, improving the quality of life everywhere.”

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Professor of Practice of Public Policy
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Garrett 102