Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, 58, elected to the Senate last November after seven terms in the House, talks about his childhood overseas, working in Alaska and traveling to Cuba.
Q: Tell me about growing up abroad.
A: Our family is a Foreign Service family, so we grew up part time overseas, always coming back home in between. But I was born in Karachi, Pakistan. So, I take this birther stuff very personally. We lived in India, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, representing the United States overseas. My dad was in the foreign service, my mother later worked at the State Department on South Asia in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Those were great experiences, growing up with people of different backgrounds, different cultures, different religions.
Q: Your college jobs involved quite the adventure. What did you do?
A: In college, I had a roommate from Bellingham, Washington, and so we flew up [to Alaska] together. Four of us landed in the airport in Anchorage, camped out in the woods and then hitchhiked to Homer Spit, where we’d heard there might be some jobs.
My first job was sitting next to a conveyer belt that brought in the shrimp catch that included all the extra fish. Our job was to sit there and pull out all the extra fish that had been caught with the shrimp. We moved up in the world and went to work in a place called Clam Gulch that was a bar and a fish-processing plant — everything you need in life. And, there, I started on what’s called the “salmon line,” cleaning the salmon and grading the salmon. Then I became the forklift driver and, yes, as part of that, we went and unloaded fish off the boats.
I bought a motorcycle up there and … learned to play a lot of poker. I did mention it to the Alaskan senators. They knew most of these places. Sen. [Lisa] Murkowski said that the plant might not be there anymore.
Q: During downtime, what do you like do to with your family?
A: We spend a lot of time outdoors, hiking and fishing in Maryland, but also in Pennsylvania and Vermont. We do a lot of overnight camping and fishing for rockfish and trout — fly-fishing.
Q: How has your soccer coaching career gone?
A: I played a little bit of soccer in school, but then I coached my kids’ soccer teams. Montgomery Soccer Inc. is a huge soccer league and I coached until the two boys got way beyond my pay grade and they ended up playing in travel soccer leagues. In Congress, I co-chaired the Soccer Caucus. We revived the caucus and that was a lot of fun. We had ringers — it was a mix of members of Congress and the pros.
Q: How many times have you been to Cuba?
A: I’ve been to Cuba four times now. … So my first trip to Cuba was to meet with [Alan Gross] when he was in prison and [I worked] to help to secure his release — I worked very closely with the Obama administration during this period of time.
[Editor’s note: Gross, a constituent of Van Hollen’s, was a government contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who was arrested in Cuba in 2009.]
My second trip to Cuba was going to get Alan Gross out of prison [in 2014], it was with Sen. [Patrick J.] Leahy and Sen. [Jeff] Flake. We probably spent 40 minutes in Cuba, literally picked up Alan Gross and flew him back. And we were in the air when the president made his announcement about Alan’s release and the new relationship with Cuba. And then I went there right after we had announced some of the new steps for the relationship.
And, in December, our family took an educational trip to Cuba where we really got to know the island better. So we visited some of the most remote places, stayed in an Airbnb. We traveled about the country pretty extensively. You’re in a time capsule in Cuba. You land there and the first thing that strikes you is all these 1950s American cars.