PUBLISHED:June 21, 2009

Chris Kang '01

Charged with persuading lawmakers to support Obama administration policies, Chris Kang says success in his job is heavily dependent on building relationships on both sides of the aisle.

“A lot of the job is about building goodwill,” says Kang, one of 10 special assistants to the president for legislative affairs. “One way we do that these days is by notifying offices of grants that are being distributed through the Economic Recovery Act so that their constituents have an opportunity to take advantage of them. Sometimes relationship-building might involve an invitation to the White House for a member to attend an event or meet with the president.”

With his assignment to the Senate, indepth knowledge of senators’ priorities is also key, he adds. “The fact is that we’re all pushing for what we believe is best for the country, whether or not we agree on policy, so we try to find consensus as often as possible. “These strong relationships are the foundation for substantive negotiations,” Kang continues. He and his counterparts start by working with various executive branch agencies to refine the administration’s overall position on legislative proposals and then negotiate with Congress on language and policy.

Kang was well prepared for his current position through seven years on the staff of Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. Having started with Durbin as a legislative correspondent straight out of law school, Kang quickly moved to the senator’s Judiciary Committee staff, eventually working on criminal justice and constitutional issues as counsel. For the four years prior to his White House appointment, Kang ran Senate floor operations for Durbin, the Democratic whip. “I gained a lot of experience in how the parliamentary process works, what some of the opportunities and pitfalls are, and a sense of the relationships the members have with each other — their priorities and their concerns,” he says.

From Durbin Kang says he learned how to be effective in public service. “I learned about different opportunities to impact policy even if it wasn’t through legislation. So when I worked on the Judiciary Committee, sometimes it would be trying to address concerns with amendments in committee, and other times it involved writing letters to agencies and working with people in our Chicago field office to find ways to help people within the current structure.”

Kang got his taste for public service from his parents, South Korean immigrants who both worked in special education in Gary, Ind., public schools. “My father lost his eyesight in a sports accident when he was a teenager and had to fight the discriminatory policies in Korea at the time, first to be given the right to attend university, and then to come to the United States to pursue graduate education,” says Kang. “From him I learned a lot about the power of government and the power of policy to both limit and to help people.” His parents have been active in policy relating to disability; Kang’s father was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the National Council on Disability. Attending the University of Chicago, where he majored in public policy and economics, helped push him in a progressive direction, Kang says. “Being in an institution of privilege surrounded by the South Side neighborhoods of Chicago where people are a lot less fortunate was formative for me in thinking about equal access to education and opportunity.” He focused his thesis on the Illinois public school finance system.

Knowing that he wanted a career in public service, Kang prepared during his years at Duke Law. He headed the Public Interest Law Foundation for two years and took all of the substantive policy classes available to him. Among those were the classes on Congress taught by Christopher Schroeder, the Charles S. Murphy Professor of Law and Public Policy Studies, and Senior Lecturing Fellow Ted Kaufman. After running into now-Sen. Kaufman, D-Del. at the Capitol earlier this year, Kang joined his former professors in the classroom, sharing his experience with law students enrolled in the new Duke in D.C. program.

Kang says he still gets a charge from public service and calls working in the East Wing of the White House fun. “But the part that’s the most meaningful is also the part that’s the most daunting — tackling the challenges the country faces now,” he says. “It’s an exciting time to be part of this — to play a role in shaping a budget and an agenda for the next five to 10 years. It’s a great job, and it’s an honor to have the opportunity to play a small part in trying to move this country in the right direction.”