In the early 1990s, plenty of fourth graders were gobbling up episodes of The Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Full House.

And then there was RJ Laukitis ’02, whose must-see TV included some decidedly different fare: “I remember watching shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation as young as 11,” he says.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that two decades later, Laukitis has found a home in politics. He is chief of staff for Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), helping shepherd the congressman’s legislative plans and serving as a bridge among the congressman, staffers, and constituents.

A political career might have been in the cards all along, but Laukitis says that Macalester helped hone his political chops—and his conservative viewpoint. In fact, Laukitis credits going to college at Macalester as an “out Republican” with being able to work across the aisle during a time when Washington, D.C.—and our entire country—is more politically polarized than ever before.

“Mac definitely prepared me for working and operating around people with different views than my own,” Laukitis says. “I hope Mac students, faculty, and alums with views different than mine feel the same way. So often, it’s easy to fall into the trap of surrounding yourself with peers and news sources that only complement your views and interests.”

Laukitis has spent the past 15 years on Capitol Hill, serving members from his home state of Michigan. Before becoming Rep. Walberg’s legislative director in 2011, Laukitis worked for Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.).

Though Walberg is solidly conservative, his constituents have complex and varied views, choosing Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016. Walberg’s team has emphasized bipartisanship since Laukitis joined his office. In the 2018 election, Walberg even touted his work with President Obama to highlight his willingness to work with those outside his party. “Our office recognizes that if you ultimately want to get work done in Washington, it almost always has to have bipartisan support,” Laukitis says.

Collaborations have included bills addressing human trafficking, energy reform, and the opioid crisis. Last Congress, Laukitis partnered with Minh Ta ’97, then-chief of staff for Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), to get a piece of retirement security-related legislation through the House. Though the bill didn’t get signed into law, Laukitis says he relished working with someone who was focused on outcomes rather than party. “We both share the same belief that Hill service is about getting results and not just political bomb throwing,” he says.

Although Laukitis has fond memories of his experience at Macalester, he says it wasn’t always easy being a Republican on a left-leaning campus. Along with Brent Nichols ’03 and Stephanie Seidl ’03, he launched Mac GOP (Macalester’s chapter of the Minnesota College Republicans and the current version of a campus Republican student organization) for support. Nonetheless, Laukitis says that Macalester’s strong emphasis on the importance of public service profoundly affected him, so much so that after college he became a Peace Corps volunteer for two years on the island nation of Dominica. His experience at Macalester also reinforced his conservatism—and his choice to launch a political career.

“Ultimately, being a Republican at Macalester is definitely challenging,” he says. “Regardless, it’s a great school for a dialogue and understanding other people’s points of view. It also makes you strongly reflect on why you feel a certain way or why you might have a different outlook than someone else; it’s that intellectual journey that gets you to a good understanding of why you care about what you do.”

How to talk about politics when you don’t agree

These days, the divided, partisan nature of politics in Washington, D.C. is seeping into everyday conversations with neighbors, friends, and family. Exchanges can get heated, but Laukitis says he has learned how to lower the temperature of these important discussions:

Engage honestly and kindly. Don’t start off a conversation having preconceived notions of the person you’re talking with. Listen earnestly to their concerns and don’t be dismissive. “It’s really important to be respectful,” Laukitis says. “We have to go back to hearing people out, trying to understand them. Keep listening and keep learning.”

Be well-read. Having a solid grasp of current events will enable you to make fact-based arguments. “Don’t put all your faith in one figure or type of resource,” he says. “If you watch MSNBC all day, try to also watch a bit of Fox and vice-versa. If you read The New York Times, you probably should also be reading The Wall Street Journal.”

Find common ground. “People automatically turn off if they think you’re just going to disagree with them,” Laukitis says. Conversely, they are more open to listening to your opinion if you’ve already found some things you share in common.

Know when to walk away. It’s important to realize when you aren’t making headway and each side is just digging in more. “Sometimes, it just gets to a point where you’re just going to have to agree to disagree,” he says.

By Tequia Burt / Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg
Tequia Burt is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

January 21 2020

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