The bureaucratic class can make an easy political punching bag. But for Scott Traum, 25, civil service is not a dirty word.
Last year, the New Jersey native and George Washington University graduate made a major change, leaving the private sector — where he worked in executive compensation — for the federal government. As he put it, his old job just didn’t “pass the pillow test.”
Today, he works for the Federal Election Commission, helping congressional candidates file their campaign finance reports as they gear up for the 2018 races.
Can you take us behind the curtain at the FEC a bit? What’s it like?
It’s always interesting dealing with candidates and seeing the motivations for why they’re running. People don’t have a ton of access to politicians, and that can bring a certain cynicism. But dealing with them on a professional level is pretty optimistic because a lot of them really do have a higher purpose. Even if you don’t agree with their ideology, they want to do good.
Did that surprise you?
It did. People see politicians as power hungry or greedy, but you forget that these aren’t the most lucrative jobs that they’re seeking out. You’re not the most famous person in the world if you’re a congressman. And at least it starts out optimistic. You can say what you want about once they’re in office for a while, maybe the power corrupts. But at the beginning of their campaigns most really want to do some good. It really is very “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
What’s the state of campaign finance enforcement these days?
Politics aside, I think that everyone can say that there are a lot of flaws. The fact that super PACs are able to use dark money with no disclosure about where it comes from — a lot of it comes from corporations, a lot of it comes from just a few rich dudes. And the court said money is speech. Money literally talks.
So the FEC has been kind of hamstrung, most recently in Citizens United. McCain-Feingold is often thought of as the high-water mark for campaign finance laws because there was so much disclosure that had to happen.
In 2016 you left a job in executive compensation to work for the government. I’m assuming that meant a pay cut. Why’d you do it?
I came to D.C. with an interest in government and over time I kind of forgot that part of why I originally came. I had the ears of these big, hotshot executives and that’s cool. But after a while, it’s very cheesy but, even though I was doing well, I wasn’t doing good. And I remembered why I wanted to be in this city.
It doesn’t matter how much money you’re making if you aren’t happy. It didn’t pass the pillow test, I didn’t go to bed every night feeling good and the change has been worth it. I make less, but I can still live a comfortable life, and most of all live a happier life.
What about the volunteer work you’ve been doing?
I’ve been working with this really great organization, it’s called Brain Food. They engage with youth and give them a background in nutrition. They have a farmers market that employs the students but I work in the cooks-in-training class with D.C. public school students.
Every class has a lesson focusing on something like obesity, nutrition, food deserts. And then the second part is, how do we combat that? By learning to cook healthy, learning about nutrition. So the second half is a cooking lesson — you work with the kids, you teach them to chop an onion and by the end of the year making these incredible dishes. They’re making beef empanadas and stuff that most adults don’t know how to make.
Do you think there’s something about your Jewish upbringing that makes you want to make an impact?
One thing I’ve always loved is the culture of Judaism. There’s so much togetherness that’s deeply rooted in Judaism. A lot of that culture comes with me, with my value of food. Maybe it’s a Passover seder, maybe it’s a simple Shabbat dinner. When you come together with your family, food is always there and brings you together, and that’s also something Brain Food does really well and one of the reasons I wanted to be a part of it. n
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