Heard on the Hill

Kendra Horn still worries about her student loans. She’s not the only one

When the Democrat worked as a Hill staffer, she deferred her loans, brought her dog to work and (yes) sometimes disagreed with her boss

UNITED STATES - MARCH 6: Reps. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., center, Andy Kim, D-N.J., and Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., are seen before a House Armed Services Committee hearing titled "Outside Perspectives on Nuclear Deterrence Policy and Posture," in Rayburn Building on Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Kendra Horn is the new lawmaker no one saw coming. An upset victory in Oklahoma sent her to Washington, but she’s actually been here before.

Back in 2004, between stints as a lawyer and a nonprofit executive, the Democrat briefly served as press secretary for Rep. Brad Carson.

Did she disagree with her boss? Sometimes. Did she bring her dog to work? Definitely. Through it all, she worried about her student loans, like so many other staffers on the Hill, where rent is high and pay is, well, not.

We caught up with Horn earlier this month to ask about her Capitol past.

Q: Student loan debt was one of your big campaign issues in 2018. Did you have student loan debt back when you first came to Washington?

A: I still do. I graduated from law school in 2001, and I am still paying for my student loans every month.

When I was [a staffer] on the Hill, I had deferments because I wasn’t making enough to pay my student loans. I know that’s true for a lot of people. … My student loans were higher than I could afford with the salary.

Q: How have you dealt with paying for housing in Washington?

A: It is very expensive! I think one thing a lot of people don’t know is that you have to maintain housing in two places. So, I pay for my housing and all of my bills at home. And then up here I’ve got roommates and did my best to find a situation that was affordable.

Q: Is there a day you remember in Carson’s office that sticks out to you?

A: It was the day of President Reagan’s funeral. There was this plane coming in, and there was this massive evacuation. Everybody was running from the building. This was 2004, so just three years after 9/11, and it was just pandemonium. Some of my friends had gotten way down the road. … That was one of those memories that I don’t think you forget.

[Here’s another memory:] Sometimes we could bring our dogs into the office, and my dog Allie — she’s since left us — used to get to come. She liked to lie in the middle of the floor, so people would walk by her and pet her. So now sometimes my own staffers will bring their dogs in, and I love it.

Q: What was a daily ritual you had as a Hill staffer?

A: I got to drive along the river, and I got to see the cherry blossoms and come around and see the Lincoln Memorial and all of the things that just really reminded me of the importance of the work that we were doing. And I never ceased to be in awe of the job that was ahead of me.

Q: Was there a policy that you ever had to advocate for that you didn’t agree with?

A: Oh yeah. There have been a lot of them. As press secretary, it was my job to be the voice of the member. And I didn’t have to necessarily agree with everything to be an advocate. … That experience taught me to look at the nuance and the detail in the bills. Because it’s easy to sort of have this idea we’re going to govern in hashtags, or something that’s simple, but the truth is, the details matter.

Q: You went on to manage a nonprofit that nudges women toward running for office. What did you see during your time in Washington to convince you that was needed?

A: I think having different perspectives is good for us because it forces us to really think about what we’re doing. … Having more women serving in office is not because “women are good, men are bad.” That’s not it. It is about the fact that when the people that represent us look more like our communities, we’ve got different experiences that come to the table.

Q: Now that you’re the boss, how do you work to ensure that all of your female staffers are treated equally to their male counterparts?

A: That’s a no-brainer. We treat everybody with dignity and respect. … The fact that I am only the third women ever elected to serve in Congress from Oklahoma and the first Democratic woman sends a pretty powerful message, because it’s hard to be what you can’t see.

I’ll tell you a story: It’s not just staffers. I was touring a school in Oklahoma City called Positive Tomorrows; it’s a school that serves homeless children. I was talking to this little girl. I just introduced myself as Kendra and asked her what she was doing. But one of the board members that was there came over to the little girl and said, “She represents us,” and this little girl looked up at me and got this huge smile on her face and she says, “Oh! You’re Kendra Horn!” and she jumped up and she gave me a big hug.

And this, like, 9-year-old little girl, who is currently dealing with homelessness, told me that she wanted to run for office someday. So, just being here and telling that little girl that she can do it also helps me and the staffers in our office know that we can do it. We just have to keep working.

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