The crowd began to march and shout as it moved down 16th Street in Washington, D.C., a cluster of federal workers and union organizers protesting the partial government shutdown that was then about to head into its fourth week.
In the front ranks of the march, among the labor leaders and fellow politicians, Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 8) joined in the chants urging President Donald Trump to work with congressional Democrats to end the stand-off and send federal employees back to work.
You could say activism comes naturally to Raskin.
Some of his earliest memories are of playing tic-tac-toe with his older sister in a Boston courtroom where their father was on trial for conspiracy charges for activities related to his opposition to the Vietnam War, for counseling young men to avoid the military draft.
But the shutdown issue has a practical component for Raskin as well: the 8th District, which includes parts of Frederick County, has the second-highest number of federal employees in the country.
“It’s a profoundly demoralizing and damaging thing for my constituents,” he said of the shutdown.
Raskin’s support of labor, gun control, the environment and other progressive causes has made him a favorite of national progressive activists and organizations, but he may be poised to take on an even larger role.
With the newly Democratic majority in the House of Representatives promising to look into the activities of President Trump and his administration, Raskin’s seat on the Judiciary Committee could offer a more nationally prominent role in the time leading up to the 2020 election.
Legislation and oversight
On the marble floors of the Cannon House Office Building, the click-clack of staffers’ heels echo through the high-ceiling hallways as they scurry along, constantly checking their phones to see the latest information they can feed to their bosses in the fast-moving world of Washington.
In Raskin’s fourth-floor suite, staffers and interns answer calls and help constituents deal with problems. It’s clear from the office’s sides of the conversations that many of the calls deal with elements of the partial government shutdown.
A picture of his freshman House class, elected in 2016, hangs on the wall, along with posters for various seasons of the AFI Silverdocs festival, held at Silver Spring’s AFI Silver Theatre.
Framed pictures of Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan look down on the outer office from atop a set of shelves.
In his private office, Raskin seems relaxed in suspenders and rolled-up sleeves.
He doesn’t hide his opinion of Trump, his Cabinet, and staff as “the most ethically compromised and corrupt administration of our lifetimes.”
The Trump Hotel situated on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and White House, which Raskin has nicknamed “The Washington Emolument,” after the Constitutional clause that prohibits public officials from profiting off foreign governments, is a particular sore spot.
The Judiciary Committee, on which Raskin sits, oversees anything related to the U.S. Constitution, criminal law, executive branch administrative agencies, and the FBI and federal law enforcement agencies.
It would be responsible for making recommendations on articles of impeachment, if it comes to that. And Raskin, a Constitutional law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, knows he could very well take a prominent role in any impeachment proceedings.
He ticks off a list of legislative items the Judiciary Committee needs to accomplish in the new term: gun safety, ethics reform, passing the DREAM Act to protect people who came to the country illegally as children, judicial ethics reform, and passing legislation to protect Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation from interference by the administration.
But he quickly comes back to the committee’s responsibility for oversight, mentioning agencies such as the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, where he believes the administration has let special interests take over the agencies’ responsibilities.
“It seems that they have found a fox for every henhouse in Washington,” Raskin said.
While he describes Trump’s alleged violations of the emoluments clause and other conduct in office as “egregious and heinous,” Raskin discusses the possibility of impeachment with a lawyer’s detachment and a professor’s eye for nuance.
While he believes the Democratic base is pretty unified in believing that Trump deserves to be impeached, he also thinks its members are savvy enough to know what impeachment would involve.
Lawmakers would have to consider not only the legal question of whether Trump has committed the impeachable standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but also the political question of where it fits with other problems the country has, such as climate change and the needs of infrastructure and other priorities.
“Impeachment should be neither a fetish for anybody here, nor should it be a taboo,” Raskin said.
A bigger role?
The Democrats’ new oversight rules could lead to a substantial role for Raskin, especially if they decide to pursue impeachment against Trump, said Dan Glickman, who served nine terms as a congressman from Kansas, including on Judiciary in the 1980s.
“I suspect he will be on cable news a lot more than he is now,” he said.
Glickman is currently the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Congressional Program, which provides a nonpartisan educational program for members of Congress.
If the committee moves toward articles of impeachment, every member will become an expert on the various elements of the process.
But, according to Glickman, Raskin’s experience in the academic study of constitutional law may give him a perspective that other members — even those who are lawyers — don’t have.
“Because he has had personal experience with studying and understanding the Constitution, his perspective, no question about it, will be listened to more carefully, I think,” he said.
If the House decides to pursue impeachment, the Democratic majority would want to present a sober-minded, constitutionally grounded argument for support, which could create an opening for someone like Raskin to become more prominent, said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
At many congressional hearings, members take up their allotted time to make speeches instead of probing the issue at hand, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) said.
“I think you’ll see Jamie, if he’s put in that position, take much better advantage of the opportunity to question witnesses and to dig into the investigations that the committee is involved with going forward,” Frosh said.
Frosh, who served with Raskin for eight years in the Maryland Senate, and worked with him on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, expects Raskin to be a pointed but fair critic of the Trump administration under the new Democratic Congress.
With the issues that Democrats are expected to address, he sees Raskin, with his academic background in Constitutional law, “likely to be called upon not just to opine, but to work on the issues that are facing Congress.”
‘We just go to bat for everybody’
On the wall outside the door to Raskin’s personal office hangs a framed map of the 8th District, a reminder to him and others of the people they represent — and the interests he must balance.
The district stretches from western Frederick County around the city of Frederick, including Middletown, Walkersville, Thurmont, and New Market, runs east into Carroll County, then dives south to cover eastern Montgomery County to the Washington, D.C. border.
While Raskin, a Takoma Park resident, won November’s re-election easily, with 68 percent of the vote, his popularity had a notably regional appeal.
His Republican challenger John Walsh captured 56 percent of the vote in Frederick, and 61 percent in Carroll.
Raskin’s majority came in Montgomery County, where he took 81 percent — with 178,474 votes to Walsh’s 38,021.
Balancing the needs of more urban and liberal areas of Montgomery with more rural and conservative areas in Frederick and Carroll counties can be a delicate task.
Raskin admits that he knew little about Frederick County before his election, and virtually nothing about Carroll.
But he says he’s enjoyed getting out to the various parts of the district, and his staff doesn’t ask constituents their political affiliation when they call the office to help them “navigate the twists and turns of federal bureaucracy.”
Middletown Burgess John Miller said Raskin and his staff have been responsive to any requests that they’ve made, and he’s been very receptive and informed on any issues that the town has brought to him.
“I’ve found him very open, as a representative,” Miller said.
County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said she didn’t know Raskin before he ran for Congress, but he’s been very engaged in Frederick County since his election.
“I really think the district has to recognize that he really has shown up,” Gardner said.
“We just go to bat for everybody who lives in Maryland’s 8th District. And I love that,” Raskin said.
The lines of the neighboring 6th District, represented by freshman David Trone, is the subject of a Supreme Court case, and Raskin acknowledges that either the court or the General Assembly will redraw it, which means that the boundaries of his own district would change.
While he strongly believes that America needs an overhaul of redistricting, he’d hate to see any parts of his district be represented by someone else.
“I would be heartbroken to lose any of my constituents in this process, just because I’ve become very connected with them,” he said.
‘An ideological liberal’
The political dexterity needed in his wide-ranging district was clear in Raskin’s Maryland Senate career, where he served from 2007 through 2016 in a district that included Takoma Park and Silver Spring.
Frosh said Raskin was well-respected in Annapolis among both Democrats and Republicans, even as he took leading roles on divisive issues including marriage equality, gun control, marijuana decriminalization and the elimination of the death penalty.
He said Raskin was always well-prepared, didn’t embarrass people when he was making arguments, and was willing to have private conversations and accommodate opponents when he could.
“If Jamie was making an argument, people were less likely to jump in and challenge his argument than they would have been [with] some others who are not as stellar in their intellect,” Frosh said.
Republican state Senator Michael Hough (R-District 4), said he and Raskin got along very well during their time together in the Senate.
“He’s more of an ideological liberal than a partisan liberal,” Hough said.
While their politics are far apart, they worked together on issues that included civil liberties, civil asset forfeiture and other areas where they were able to find common ground.
“I liked him because he was there because he had an ideological view of the world,” Hough said.
That worldview has been cultivated over a lifetime’s exposure to liberal and progressive policies.
Raskin is the son of Marcus Raskin, a Kennedy administration official who became a vocal critic of the war in Vietnam and a celebrated progressive intellectual who helped found the Institute for Policy Studies.
In 1971, he received documents that were part of what would become known as the Pentagon Papers, and helped connect Daniel Ellsberg with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan for their publication.
In 1968, Marcus Raskin was indicted along with pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, Yale University chaplain William Sloane Coffin, and two others for conspiracy to help young men resist the draft.
Jamie Raskin was 6 years old at the time of the trial, and while he didn’t understand the nature of the charges, the ramifications were clear.
“I knew that my dad might go to jail. And that did make a very profound impact on me as a kid,” he said.
Partly through his father’s legal experiences, he also harbors strong libertarian instincts, expressed in his work with Hough and others on civil asset forfeiture, as well as mass incarceration and other issues.
He’s a passionate advocate of due process, as necessary for the various Trump officials who have been indicted, as for other defendants.
“I know a little bit from my childhood what it feels like to have the government bring down the full weight of its resources on individuals and on families,” he said.
His father was eventually found not guilty and was involved with IPS until his death in December 2017.
Marcus Raskin was a brilliant scholar, but not a natural politician, said John Cavanagh, the institute’s executive director. Jamie has the same intelligence, but is a much better politician, he said.
“Most super-smart people don’t have great political instincts. He does,” he said.
Cavanagh said both Raskins share an attraction to big ideas, a lack of intimidation by power, and a sense that any good idea is worth following.
Raskin embraces the progressive label, a link to the Progressive movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s through what he called a shared commitment to structure a society and economy to give people the maximum opportunity to thrive and succeed on their own terms.
“I want to see a market economy, but I don’t want to see a market society,” he said.
Jamie Raskin grew up in a world of “smart people who were getting things done,” Cavanagh said.
That trend continues in his current life.
His wife is Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former member of the Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve and a deputy treasury secretary in the Obama administration.
Cavanagh believes Raskin learned early about the forces that can be arrayed against progressive change, and the importance of being aligned with powerful social movements that can help his ideas win.
He tells a story about how former South Carolina Republican congressman Trey Gowdy once jokingly denounced Raskin as “a liberal,” to which Raskin said he replied, “Damn right I am.”
“The heart of the word liberal is liberty,” Raskin said. “If we’re not for liberty, what are we fighting for? But I’m also a progressive, because the heart of that word is progress. If we’re not making progress, what are we doing in politics?”
Gowdy joked that he wouldn’t want to hurt Raskin in his district by saying he was one of Gowdy’s favorite colleagues, and recalled the “liberal” comment with a laugh.
“I figured there was no higher compliment I could give him than that,” Gowdy said during a recent interview.
He and Raskin worked on the issue of criminal justice reform, and Gowdy said there were many other issues where they agreed on what needed to be done but disagreed on how to get there.
Lots of other Republicans respect Raskin for his humor, legal knowledge, and the fact that he’ll fairly lay out all sides of an argument, Gowdy said.
Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, said he could see Raskin as an effective litigator in an impeachment hearing, if it comes to that.
But he could also see Raskin telling his Democratic colleagues that a case doesn’t meet the standard for impeachment.
“If that’s what he believes, I could hear him saying that,” Gowdy said.
Along with his liberal and progressive instincts, Raskin said he’s also come to consider himself a conservative, with a desire to protect the air, water, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
But he worries about the state of conservatism in Trump’s Washington, and has embraced a definition of that cause as well.
“He doesn’t seem to be conserving anything, other than his own wealth and power,” Raskin said of the president. “And that is not sufficient for a great intellectual tradition like conservatism...Edmund Burke would be turning over in his grave if he saw what Donald Trump is doing in the name of conservatism.”
‘In the hope business’
As an early, wintry dusk fell over Capitol Hill, Raskin attends a classified bipartisan briefing for members, then heads to an event to mark the 100th day since the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Raskin arrives with U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), who stops to talk with Virginia Senator Mark Warner (D) as Raskin attaches a small, black #ProtectJournalists pin to his lapel.
He leaves before the event is over, so that he can make it to a Progressive Caucus reception he had promised to attend.
As members and journalists mingle, Raskin talks with his House colleagues, caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. Later, he chats with Ilhan Omar, a freshman congresswoman from Minnesota.
Omar and the recent influx of ambitious — but green — House Democrats from the 2018 election could put progressives such as Raskin in more visible roles in the coming years.
Kondik, at the Center for Politics, said that while Raskin is only in his second term, his experience in the General Assembly gives him a more traditional biography than many of the Democrats who entered in the influx of 2018 without governing experience.
“There’s just been a big injection of fresh blood into the Democratic caucus,” Kondik said.
At the same time, a lot of the Democratic leadership is older, and Raskin could be in line for a spot further up the Democratic leadership post, he said.
Kondik also points out that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is term limited in 2022, and the Democratic nomination will likely be highly sought.
It’s hard to imagine that a popular congressman from the largest, wealthiest, and most heavily Democratic region of the state wouldn’t be an attractive candidate in a state where Democratic voters heavily outnumber Republicans.
Raskin laughed sharply at the mention of the governor’s mansion, but didn’t dismiss the idea.
“I’ve never been a great long-term planner in terms of my career,” he said.
Politics is an interesting career choice, he said, because so much of your fate rests on the whims of other people.
He loves the parliamentary procedure rules and process of the House, and his spots on the Judiciary and Rules committees, as well as the committee responsible for overseeing the Capitol complex, surrounding grounds, and various memorials, where thousands of his constituents come to work each day.
He also hopes to put his teaching skills to use to help the new members as they settle into congressional life.
And he wants to help others who are concerned about the direction the country is going.
He recalled a speech his father gave later in his life that included the line, “When everything looks hopeless, you’re the hope.”
Raskin wants to help move his fellow progressives and others through the Trump era, and into whatever comes beyond.
“I’m kind of in the hope business now.”