“Go big, go bold, but also have the political sense, and emotional wherewithal to know when to compromise and when to stand your ground.”
Former APAICS Fellow Monica Pham talks about her role as Acting Director of Federal Affairs in New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s DC office, her time on Capitol Hill, and hoping to meet Bruce Springsteen.
APAICS asked Monica 13 questions about her life and career.
APAICS: Tell us about your role as Acting Director of Federal Affairs in the Governor’s office
MP: I enjoy working for Gov. Phil Murphy, who is an amazing public servant and just an overall good human being. When it comes to diversity and equal representation he gets it- he assembled the first majority-female cabinet in NJ’s 240-year history. That says a lot and I am proud to work for him.
My primary function is to serve as a liaison for the State of NJ to Congress, the White House, all federal agencies, and fight for NJ interests and all New Jerseyans. For example, during approps I help ensure that NJ receives the federal funding necessary to execute state programs. This may take the form of letter writing from a coalition of governors to influence federal policy or helping craft legislation that Sen. Booker is drafting making sure that the federal law can be implemented on the state level.
There is a lot of coordination among our state agencies and Capitol Hill, as well as federal agencies and the rulemaking process that comes out of those federal agencies. I also prepare the NJ Commissioners and all state cabinet officials every time they come to testify before a congressional committee on the Hill. It’s fascinating being on the other side of the dais. I used to prep the hearing questions and QFRs for the Senators and MOC, and now I’m helping answer those questions.
Because I used to be the one advising the people asking the questions, I know how they need to be answered. As with all things, perspective and relationships are important and I count on my network to get intel necessary to find out about hearing opportunities, Bill opportunities, briefings to inject NJ priorities whenever possible. But also a lot of my job is what I prevent from happening- not just what I make happen- if there is a rule or bill being proposed that is counter to NJ’s interests then it’s my job to make sure it doesn’t go through or at least it is amended to the point where it does not run afoul to our state’s interests. It’s been a lot of fun to work with the NJ delegation and I really am thankful to be working for my home state, using all the knowledge I gained from my years on Capitol Hill, and working with other great Governors DC directors, like Katie Wheeler Mathews (CA), Tiffany Waddell (MD), Patty Readinger (MI), Courtney Kerster (NM), Kate Bukowski (WI) and Stacey Brayboy (VA). There are some really great women to learn from at the Hall of States and I’m thankful for their friendship and guidance.
APAICS: Your personal hero/who inspired you to work as a public servant?
MP: My grandfather, Lt. Colonel Luan V. Pham. He fought with the Americans in the Vietnam War and serves as a daily inspiration. He waited for the helicopters to come during a firefight, but no reinforcements ever came. He died trying to preserve a free and democratic Vietnam. I think about him a lot and what he was willing to sacrifice for what he believed, and I think about my Vietnamese heritage often and it influences how I view things.
It was what led me to work for Sen. Jack Reed, the Ranking Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was what inspired me to write the Toxic Exposure Act when I worked for Rep. Mike Honda to help veterans exposed to Agent Orange, and Operation Iraqi Freedom Vets exposed to toxins from the burn pits. It was what led me to draft the Environmental Justice Right to Know Bill for Sen. Kamala Harris to protect nail salon workers, and African American women exposed to toxic chemicals (re: blowouts and hair presses). But also, it’s what inspired me to work for Rep. Barbara Lee, who was the lone “NO” vote against the authorization of military force (AUMF) for the invasion of Iraq. She had courage, just like my grandfather had courage, to stand up for what they believed in. We don’t see political courage like that much these days, and my hat’s off to her. Barbara Lee is a baller and I’m grateful that I got to be her staffer for a time.
APAICS: You started as an APAICS Legislative Fellow in then Rep. Mike Honda’s office. How has that shaped your career in public service?
MP: It was a turning point for me. I was a mid-career professional, I hated being a lawyer, and I wanted a change. I wanted to be able to enact change on a larger and more impactful scale. So on a whim, I applied to APAICS, then Floyd Mori and Jennifer VanderHeide were nice enough to hire me. That really was the beginning of my political learning process and where I cut my teeth on major federal policy.
I learned from JVH, Mike Honda, CAPAC ED Krystal Kaai, but also my fellow staffers and APAICS cohort. I learned from Mike Honda how not to negotiate with myself- you ask for what you want, and you let the opposing side push back and then during negotiations you come to terms with what you can all live with – never sell yourself short or have your starting offer be less than what you really want, because going in already making concessions means you’re dead in the water. Go big, go bold, but also have the political sense, and emotional wherewithal to know when to compromise and when to stand your ground.
APAICS: Favorite vacation spot
MP: Jersey Shore – Belmar Beach, for boardwalk cheese fries, and splashing in the waves. After the beach, I always go to Asbury Park and the Stone Pony, hoping Bruce Springsteen will show up. It hasn’t happened yet, but I know someday it will!
APAICS: How has working in the Governor’s office different from working on the Hill?
MP: What’s interesting to me is how similar it is, and in fact, complimentary. First, you must understand the political landscape, gather intel and be situationally aware of the political landmines that lie ahead before making any decision. You have to build support for your agenda by building a coalition of partners willing to lock arms and fight side by side with no daylight between you.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s slogan is “I got your back” and that really resonated with me. You always need someone to watch your 6 and that’s how great public servants roll. They think of their constituents first and their desire to run comes from a place of service and a desire to help. A lot of the issues and methodologies are the same working for a Governor as a Senator, chief among them being the thorough and careful preparation time you spend prior to briefing others and your boss. When it comes to interacting with other staff it’s all about “ kindness and no surprises” which is Jack Reed’s motto – try to be an honest broker, be good about calling others back, when dealing with difficult people try to show them kindness and generosity.
The desire to enact good policy is the same when working for a governor versus a senator or MOC, but on the state level, all press and communications are hyper-local. This can be interesting because whether you’re thinking local or national news markets, the bottom line is that influencers can move a lot forward- you just need to know who the influencers and decision-makers are – and many times those spheres of influence overlap like a weird Venn diagram. Everything is connected, it is a small universe of people that play in this political space and it would be wise to remember that – what goes around, comes around, so try to comport yourself with dignity as best you can and treat people with kindness.
Also I will mention that all politics is local, and that’s what makes New Jersey’s blue wave from 2018 so fascinating. I spent a long time in the CA and RI delegations, two very Democratic delegations but on either end of the spectrum size-wise: CA has 55 members (53 MOC, 2 Senators), RI has 4 (2 MOC, 2 Senators.) NJ has 14 members, I think it’s a happy medium in size and manageable. Plus, I must say, I’m so glad now to have the chance to finally work from my home state using the tools I learned from the Hill.
APAICS: What is your morning routine to get your ready for the day?
MP: Usually, meditate for 10 minutes. My parents are hardcore meditators, and I was raised Buddhist, so it’s important to clear my mind before the daily onslaught of media. After, I usually make green tea (iced with Splenda) and then listen to the news, while making breakfast. This is when my kitties Buttons and Mittens beg for a treat and I usually comply, give them chin scratches before heading out the door to the office for my first meeting.
APAICS: Favorite book or podcast?
MP: My fave podcast is “Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend” – it’s poignant and hilarious. And right now I’m reading Jim Mattis’ book “Call Sign: Chaos. Learning to Lead.” It’s an incredible book on being strategic, military structure, decision-making and executive leadership.
APAICS: Message for someone seeking to work in public service?
MP: Think about what you’re most passionate about, start from there and work it out. Ask yourself: What do you care most about? Who do you know that does that? Then ask that person to coffee!
APAICS: Favorite boba flavor (or favorite drink!)
MP: Oh hands down, Mango Smoothie with bubbles from the Eden Center (in Northern Virginia). All day long. I love boba.
APAICS: What is it like being an AAPI woman in politics?
MP: Amazing, but also sometimes very lonely. I have had many conversations with my fellow AAPI women leaders about this dynamic of being a “cultural ambassador” in spaces where I am the only person who looks like me. When I worked for Kamala Harris, she used to say, “When you walk into those spaces, all of us are with you.” I think of that often, and when I’m anxious, nervous, or afraid I imagine Mike Honda, Norman Mineta, Juliet Choi, and Madelene Mielke standing beside me, and it gives me strength. Because they are always with me in spirit and inspire me daily. It’s not easy, but speak up, and echo what other women say in meetings in order to make sure that the idea is attributed to your sister. When WOC support one another, we are able to do great things together.
APAICS: More and more AAPIs are becoming more politically involved, what would be a good first step?
MP: “Always look on the bright side of life” – Monty Python. That’s always important because I think in this present climate, a lot of AAPIs feel hopeless, or downtrodden with the deportations of Vietnamese and Cambodian people, and their voting rights being shrunken. It’s hard not to feel hopeless. I get that. However, always look on the bright side of life- find what you enjoy, if it’s environmental justice, immigration, law, whatever, and find a way to get involved.
Run for your local school board or board of supervisors, join a campaign, or help out in your community to help register people to vote. We always need people at polling places who can help translate, and I’m always inspired when I go to the Eden Center (in Northern Virginia) and see aunties and uncles from the Boat People’s Organization registering people to vote and cheering for everyone who signs up. It’s really cool to see them engaged. So whatever it is, go for it!
APAICS: Who is your favorite AAPI entertainer?
MP: Lana Condor – the amazing Vietnamese American actress in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” She will be accompanying Michelle Obama to Vietnam this fall to promote girls’ education which is awesome.
APAICS: What events do you look forward to every year?
MP: ASIAN PROM. I love the APAICS gala and the Military Luncheon, but the Alumni Reunion is the real winner. I love to catch up with my cohort, other APAICS alum, and hear about all the exciting things they’re doing. I love my cohort and I’m proud of everything they’re doing – and love to see if I can help however I can. They’re a great bunch and I’m proud to be part of the APAICS family.