Hill Climbers: A Lifetime of Activism

Posted January 26, 2010 at 4:55pm

It’s not an understatement to say that Aaron Keyak was born into politics, because he’s been involved literally since he was a baby.

[IMGCAP(1)]“My mom tells me stories about how we’d go to political events, and when she got up to speak, they’d pass me around,— Keyak said. “When you’re speaking and you don’t have a baby sitter, what do you do with your kid? Passing me around the audience would be the baby-sitting.—

More than two decades later, Keyak now has a lifetime of political activism under his belt, all of which comes as good preparation for his new calling: communications director for Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.). Just 12 days ago, Keyak, 24, began directing media coverage for Rothman.

For Keyak, a San Francisco native, politics melds tradition, Judaism and progressive ideology. And it transcends multiple generations, too.

His grandfather, Bert Coffey, was a political powerhouse in California and a chairman of the California Democratic Party. Last summer, Keyak wrote a commemorative article for the Huffington Post on the 15th anniversary of his grandfather’s death.

Keyak’s grandmother also blazed her own legacy. “My grandmother was a lawyer, which was quite an accomplishment for her time,— he said. “She and my grandfather were a team in politics.—

With Keyak’s mother, political activism became a family tradition. She has worked as an inner-city public school teacher for 30 years.

“She teaches first grade. She teaches kids to read,— Keyak said. “There’s some range of the students she has, but there’s a lot of inner-city kids whose parents sometimes send them to school with candy bars for breakfast. … So my mom ends up doing a lot of parenting. You don’t really think about it when you’re younger, but when you look back you see that she clearly made the choice to make change happen on an individual level.—

[IMGCAP(2)]In the 1980s, Keyak’s mother also helped found the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club, a San Francisco organization that works on behalf of Democratic and Jewish issues.

“At the time the group was founded, there were a couple issues,— Keyak said. “Can you be a true progressive and very pro-Israel? That’s obviously something that my upbringing showed can happen. The other big controversy of the time was Jewish identity. My mom tells me stories of people saying, ‘Why have Jewish in the name? Why not call it the Raoul Wallenberg Democratic Club?’ People were uncomfortable expressing their religion overtly.—

During Keyak’s childhood and adolescence, politics touched everything, from folding envelopes in the living room to lively discussions at the dinner table.

“It was always interesting to see the interaction between my mom, who comes from more of a political background, and my dad, who’s an engineer,— Keyak said. “He was active but he’s very practical. We’ll be talking and he’ll cut right through the double-speak.—

By the time Keyak headed off to Washington University in St. Louis, politics was his own activity. He worked extensively with the College Democrats as an undergraduate, eventually rising to chapter president and president of the Missouri College Democrats.

In many ways, that experience still has an enduring effect on him. In 2008, he co-founded the College Democrats of America Alumni Association. “Once I left College Democrats, there wasn’t really an institutional alumni network,— Keyak said. “We thought there was all this energy and we wanted to network, so it was agreed that what would make us last is fundraising. Now we’re a 527 and raise money mostly for college students and progressive causes.—

Keyak today serves as co-chairman for the organization.

During summer breaks from college, Keyak kept up his political involvement. He worked district internships with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) as an undergraduate. In 2005, he had a stint as a press assistant for then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, something that would prove very fruitful for his career.

“It was really my first experience doing press,— Keyak said. “It was very exciting to strategize and shape the message. I was willing to do anything on the campaigns and had always worked field and the finances. Communications was something I was drawn to.—

After graduating in 2007 with a degree in political science, Keyak wasted no time in coming to Washington, D.C. He worked as an associate for Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications for a year before moving to the National Jewish Democratic Council in 2008.

“Around the time Obama won the primary there was a lot of talk about the Jewish vote, and the National Jewish Democratic Council decided to hire a full-time press secretary,— Keyak said. “There was a lot of misinformation about Obama during the election. We proactively talked about the issues that the Jewish community should pay attention to.—

Keyak rose to communications director for the organization before moving to the Hill.

Keyak said he’s looking forward to focusing on more local issues in his work for Rothman. “Congressman Rothman is a leader on a lot of the issues I really care about, but he’s also able to have a real influence on his constituents’ lives,— Keyak said. “I think that’s a lot more tangible.—

Keyak said transitioning to work for New Jersey’s 9th district, which is in the northern part of the Garden State, has involved more than just brushing up on the New York Jets.

“New Jersey is a place where I have a lot of friends,— he said. “I’m constantly learning from colleagues in the office and from Congressman Rothman’s own constituents about the issues facing the district.—

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