Laurie A. Watkins is a political and executive coach, speaker, and frequent Democratic pundit on network television. She was Barack Obama’s Florida Deputy Political Director in 2008, his Florida Policy Director in 2012, and was appointed as Senior Advisor to two Assistant Secretaries of the Army in his administration. She is the author of the award-winning book, Go from Stressed to Strong: Health & Fitness Advice from High Achievers. She is pictured here in The Elizabeth.
What drew you into the political realm?
I was in college in Tallahassee, Florida during the 2000 Bush/Gore election. Florida was in the national spotlight and we were constantly being bombarded by reporters. Tallahassee had never seen anything like this. It was my first time to vote and I felt like my vote was stolen. The following year I interned with a member of the Florida House of Representatives and the rest is history.
How were you able to move your career forward from a college internship all the way to being the Deputy Political Director for the State of Florida for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign?
My path was to keep rising in my roles, seeing how high I could get in terms of the leader I was working for. My first formal political role was an internship working for a Democratic member of the Florida House, which I loved. After college I got a job with a member of the Florida Senate and I started doing campaign work. Following that role I worked for a member of United States Congress, Ron Klein from Florida, and then I quit to go work for Barack Obama as his 2008 Florida Deputy Political Director.
For those of us who have not worked in politics, the political world can often seem the stuff of movies. It’s very exciting, but also hard to understand how it all works. You worked with the Obama team on and off for five years. What was that experience like?
I worked with the Obama team on and off for five years. The pace of this role was at an entirely different level than anything I had done before. Many people were so inspired that they were all in. When you do that you can develop tunnel vision, and that’s when selfless service can become a detriment to success. You aren’t performing as well then because your self-care goes down in terms of basic things like sleep, food, stress management, and not taking care of your body.
After your work on the Obama campaign you then worked in the Pentagon, but in a civilian role. What did you learn from being so intimately part of the military world? And how did you bring that knowledge to your work with your next campaign?
At the Pentagon I witnessed the promotion, support, and value of self-care that is present in our military. I learned that leaving work at a certain time, rather than working all night, keeps you at your peak performance. The civilians I had worked with didn’t have that regimen. They didn’t have a leader looking out for them, and ensuring they were doing what was needed physically.
I started to follow more of what I saw my military colleagues doing. I would say no to happy hours and after work social activities so I could get more sleep and cook healthier meals. All of this increased my performance.
Then in 2012 I was asked to resign from this post to go back on the Obama campaign and back to Florida, this time as his state Policy Director. I didn’t want to go back to the place in my life that I had worked so hard to get out of which was filled with stress, tension, and worry. As I considered the opportunity (because I needed to take the weekend to decide) I asked myself when I’d ever turned something down because of fear. I had found a way to take care of myself, and I was determined to continue this in a senior campaign role.
On the 2012 campaign I still went to the gym at 6 am. I still ate healthy meals and got in a good amount of sleep. I started encouraging others to take better care of themselves, taking 20 minutes or even an hour each day just for themselves. Everyone saw that my team wasn’t failing and that no one was getting sick. I even brought a massage therapist into the office one day!
What is one of the biggest lessons you learned from the political world that we can all apply to ourselves?
No matter what job you are in you have to be your best advocate. Advocate for time off and take care of your physical health and self-care. Don’t let things fall by the wayside and really fight for that time to exercise and ensure you are able to find ways to eat well. If you really want to perform at the highest level you have to be able to handle and manage your stress, or you will fail.
You are also a nationally recognized author on the subject of handling dress. What are your biggest tips for busy professional women on managing stress?
Manage your time. Learn how to say no and yes to things that only align and fall within your roadmap. For example, you may want to be at a particular conference but it would cost five other issues with your schedule. On the other hand, if you are going after a goal and get a big invitation that aligns with that goal, then it’s up to you to determine whether it is a priority or not. Keep moving forward and take one day at a time. Don’t stress about what you need to reorganize for real opportunities when they present themselves.
Personally, I feel that this is the toughest political climate of my lifetime. I know I’m not alone, and my grandparents in their 90s even feel this way. What did you learn about politics that can help us all in this season for our country?
These days we judge every political candidate on their authenticity. Shared lived experience is something more people need to value. Going to school to get a degree or certificate is very different from a learned and lived experience. We need to listen to people, and to each other, as we all have something to say.
On the flip side, people that represent hate have felt emboldened to use their voice. As history has shown us, when these moments happen major change usually comes afterwards. Our country is in a difficult transition. It’s up to strong women and men with the values that they hold dear to continue to fight for them as well as stand up for others who don’t feel they have as strong or loud a voice.
We now have a record number of women in the United State Congress. I also know men and women who have always been engaged citizens before, but they feel a pull now to be more engaged than ever before. What advice would you give specifically to women who want to get more politically engaged?
Women are now the supermajority and the determining factor of what happens in the next election. We need as many female voices as possible along with as many strong men as possible, who are willing to speak up on behalf of their mothers, sisters, and partners.
Women thrive together. Go online, do your research, and start out at the local level. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from a presidential campaign, but you really get to know your community by getting involved at the local level. All politics is local. Find local organizations that align with your values. Those could be women’s organizations, they don’t have to be partisan groups. It’s about being engaged on issues that are important to women. Women’s issues no longer list one just issue: reproductive rights. Climate change, the economy, education, health care, and affordable housing are all women’s issues. Get involved, join a group, march, donate to an organization that aligns with your core values and stance on issues affecting women, children, and families, and if you do just one thing this election season, please ladies, it’s to go out and vote and get three people to vote with you. There’s too much at stake.
Photography by Brandon Scott.