Crises Bring Out the Best in Congress, Ian Koski Maintains | Exit Interview

For all its flaws, the legislative branch, ex-staffer Ian Koski says, is truly at its best when adversity rears its ugly head. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo) The former spokesman for Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who signed on Monday as North American communications director with the ONE Campaign, said one of the most rewarding moments in his career involved watching lawmakers come together to kick bigotry to the curb as part of the It Gets Better campaign. “For me, the best days were the ones where I felt the work I was doing was directly constructive,” Koski said of the sense of accomplishment that followed from a particularly fruitful project. One such instance was a collaborative effort orchestrated in conjunction with the It Gets Better campaign. “ recruited 12 other senators to participate in it, and he didn't blink at the notion of drawing a line that connected kids who felt they'd never be accepted for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and lost hope, to a government that had legalized discrimination against them,” Koski said of the bipartisan rallying cry delivered to struggling youth. “They weren't just saying, ‘It will get better,' they were saying, ‘We are, right now, fighting to make it better for you.’ That resonated with a lot of young people.” The yin to that heartfelt yang was the 2011 earthquake that stirred up deep-seated fears around #ThisTown. “Sen. Coons had just arrived on the train to preside over a pro forma session, and he had to call in to MSNBC for a live phoner about Libya. We were standing in a quiet spot in Lower Senate Park for the interview when the earthquake hit,” Koski recalled. “When Tamron Hall came on the line a minute later, she asked whether he could confirm reports of an earthquake in Washington. He was so relieved it wasn't terrorism that he exclaimed, ‘Oh, thank God!’” Shortly thereafter, Coons was told to evacuate the area. “Capitol Police vans whisked Sen. Coons, our chief of staff and I through gridlocked Capitol Hill streets to the off-site facility in the basement of the National Postal Museum. Senate personnel assembled a makeshift chamber, we organized a makeshift press gallery, and Sen. Coons gaveled-in perhaps the strangest 22-second session in Senate history,” Koski related. On a more personal note, Koski felt particularly moved while watching NASA’s final space shuttle mission rocket into the great beyond above Kennedy Space Center. “It didn't matter that day if you were a senator, congresswoman, ambassador, member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, co-founder of Apple Computer or a space nerd Senate staffer — we all watched that launch with the same child-like awe,” he said of the other-worldly experience. Back on Capitol Hill, Koski attempted to stay grounded by soaking in his surroundings. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo) “I always liked walking around the Capitol at night, when all of the tourists were gone and most of the staff had gone home. The Rotunda has a ghostly quality to it at night, and the silence makes it easy to really absorb the paintings — to study them and appreciate them,” he said. “The intimacy makes it hard to miss the history.” Then, of course, there’s all the unforgettable characters he had the privilege of working with. Coons (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo) “I don't think Sen. Coons gets enough credit for being funny. There's no question he's a serious guy, but there's a cleverness and a dry wit about him that most people miss,” Koski argued, pointing to the then-freshman lawmaker’s appearance at the 2011 Washington Press Club Foundation dinner as a prime example of Coons being completely in his element. “His delivery was amazing,” Koski asserted. Former Sen. Mark Begich (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo) According to Koski, the Alaska Democrat had a gift for striking the fear of God in unsuspecting public servants. “One day, after Sen. Coons had given a speech on the floor using a chart that had a map of only the continental United States, Sen. Begich stopped in our front office and jokingly upbraided our terrified staff assistants. It was hysterical,” Koski said. Sen. Jon Tester (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo) “If we were friends, I think I'd always be trying to make Sen. Tester laugh,” Koski said of his affinity for the Montana Democrat. Sen. Al Franken (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo) “Sen. Franken works so hard and absolutely deserves the reputation he's earned as a serious lawmaker, but there are times — usually during committee hearings — when he'll make a witty comment to a witness or tease another senator that just amuse me,” Koski said of the Minnesota Democrat and “Saturday Night Live” cast member-turned-solon. Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo) Lunch runs, it appears, can be more mentally challenging than one would think. “Sen. Carper once essentially fat-shamed me for getting a taco salad from the Senate Carry-Out,” Koski said, recounting an awkward exchange that transpired in the bowels of the Capitol. “I was waiting for the train back to Russell when he walked by. He notices me and stops. He looks down at my taco salad, then up at me, then down to my taco salad, then up at me again,” Koski shared about the Delaware Democrat. When Carper turned to take the long walk back to Hart, Koski said he felt compelled to follow suit. “So I obviously start walking with him, during which time he shared a number of good ideas for being healthier during the work day,” Koski said of the instructive discussion that unfolded as they ambled along. Those types of memorable strolls may be over for him — “The ability to walk around the U.S. Capitol freely is probably the perk I'll miss the most,” the veteran staffer said. — but he is excited for others to blaze their own trail in Congress. “Hill communicators get the opportunity to work with people who can make a real difference for people just by opening their mouths and taking a principled stand. That's a pretty awesome thing,” he said. See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. 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