Andy Kim is paying his pen pal forward

New Jersey Democrat recalls lessons from ex-boss and foreign policy giant Richard Lugar

New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim still draws inspiration from his brief stint as an aide to former Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard G. Lugar. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

New Jersey Democrat Andy Kim learned a lot of what he knows about governing from two of his mentors — the late Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and the late Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the 2012 Benghazi attack.

One started out as a pen pal, the other as an officemate. And after stints at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the State Department and the Pentagon, those lessons still come in handy for Kim, one of 23 House freshmen under the age of 40. 

Last fall, he became the first Asian American elected to the House from New Jersey. He spoke to CQ Roll Call about keeping politics out of national security and passing the torch forward.

Q. How did you first become a staffer on the Hill?

A. I had a chance to meet with Sen. Lugar when I was younger. He was telling me a story about how when he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he had built up this pen pal relationship with Sen. [J. William] Fulbright.

When I had the opportunity to go off to grad school, I would write to Sen. Lugar in that same vein. … I was seeking his advice on different things, and I was interested in foreign policy. And at some point, he asked if I’d be interested in coming out and working as a fellow on his Senate Foreign Relations team.

Q. How did that lead to your time at the State Department as a foreign affairs officer?

A. When I was working in grad school, I did my doctorate on international relations. I was interested in working in foreign policy in some capacity, but I wasn’t sure exactly how.

When I was working at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I shared an office space with Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was at that time a midlevel State Department official on loan to Sen. Lugar’s team. And he was the first diplomat I actually ever met.

I learned a lot from him, what it means to work in government in a nonpolitical way, in a career capacity. I just really fell in love with that idea.

Being able to both work under Sen. Lugar and then work with someone like Chris Stevens, who, obviously, went on and had a very tragic death — those were experiences that really seared into me a belief in public service.

I learned through Sen. Lugar that the last place that partisan politics belongs is in national security. I saw how he engaged with both sides of the aisle. I saw how he engaged with me.

I don’t know if he knew that I’m a Democrat, in terms of political leanings. I certainly knew that he was a Republican senator, but what was interesting was how that had no real impact on whether or not I was going to take the opportunity when he offered it to me. I just said, of course, you know, he’s the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Kim was a strategic adviser to Gen. David Petraeus when he was commander of the Internationl Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. (Courtesy Rep. Andy Kim)
Kim was a strategic adviser to Gen. David Petraeus when he was commander of the Internationl Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. (Courtesy Rep. Andy Kim)

Q. And then you moved to the Obama administration as a national security staffer.

A. To rewind, I started at [the U.S. Agency for International Development] under the [George W.] Bush administration, prior to the Senate. So I did have some experience working in the executive branch. I really tried to round out my perspective of foreign policy, of the three D’s — development, diplomacy and defense.

At USAID, that’s the development side of foreign policy, with the State Department being the diplomatic side. And then eventually I worked in the Pentagon and out in Afghanistan as an adviser to military generals, which gave me a real good sense of the defense side of things.

What was great about my time at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is you get a better sense of how these all come together.

I see that right now with my work here on the House Armed Services Committee — how these different elements are connecting in. I try to think of things holistically. There is no pure military solution to any problem we face in the world, and oftentimes there’s no pure development solution. Diplomacy is a tool, but it can’t necessarily always do things on its own either.

That comprehensive nature is something that Sen. Lugar taught me. I remember one particular time he took me out and treated me to a breakfast, just me and him, at the Senate Dining Room. … He was just very honest and open with me about the decisions he made, why it is that he ended up running for elected office, the way that he approaches that job. How do you focus on the constituents of Indiana when you are working as a Senate Foreign Relations chairman?

He helped me think about running for office down the road, but also helped me think about joining the Armed Services Committee, understanding that national security and foreign policy is something that’s important to the people of the New Jersey’s 3rd — not just because we have a joint military base there, but because these are issues that have deep consequences and that people care about.

I didn’t get to work with him for very long, and I don’t claim to be someone who was able to be a longtime staffer of his. But even just the short window that I had and my continued relationship with him, that was very powerful.

Q. What did Lugar think of you winning election and becoming a member of Congress?

A. Well, he was just proud of my time working at the State Department and in foreign policy and proud that I’m just still trying to stay engaged in the government.

When I was at the Lugar Center [within the last year, before the former senator died in April], there was a whole class of young students from Indiana sitting in the lobby. He was inspiring that next generation, in the same way that he took me under his wing and gave me an opportunity that he didn’t have to.

I try to focus on that too, always try to engage students that are interested in service, always try to make sure that I’m open and accessible and engaged with my own staff and interns and fellows — because I just remember how important it was. I know he would want me to continue to pass that torch forward.

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