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McGarvey went from ‘flying blind’ as a staffer to a climate warrior in Congress

Freshman congressman returns to the Hill with lessons from his mentors

Rep. Morgan McGarvey, D-Ky.
Rep. Morgan McGarvey, D-Ky. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic Rep. Morgan McGarvey’s brief congressional staffing career began with a nine-hour-plus drive from former Rep. Ben Chandler’s special election night celebration in Richmond, Ky. It was Feb. 17, 2004, and Chandler had said: “If I get elected, we’re going to have somebody in the office in Washington the next morning answering phones,” McGarvey recalled.

It was McGarvey’s second attempt to get Chandler, a Democrat, elected to office, the first being Chandler’s run for governor. But the experience felt worth it, as a contribution to Kentucky’s future, but also because McGarvey “had a great boss,” he says.

McGarvey went on to earn his law degree from the University of Kentucky and worked in private practice before launching a political career. He also got his start in elected office at the state level, serving in the Kentucky Senate for a decade before running for Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District in 2022. He easily defeated his Republican opponent and succeeded the retiring Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, who represented the Louisville-anchored district for eight terms. He counts his predecessor among the resources he can consult.

“I’ve got John Yarmuth, who’s incredibly helpful,” McGarvey said. “And then I can also call Chandler as well.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: What was your first job in politics?

A:  I went to undergrad to be a journalist, and I was able to go down and do some reporting at the state capital. I found myself more interested in what I was covering than covering it. 

I took a flyer and got a job working on a congressional campaign in Louisville in 2002. That guy lost. And then they were looking for more or less a “body guy” for Ben Chandler, who was running for governor at the time. I’d never met him, but I got hired. 

And so I met Ben on my first day of work, and we just got to be really close. To run for governor of Kentucky is a special kind of election. People want to see you, people want to hear from you — it’s like running for the mayor of every town in Kentucky. As it turns out, usually it was just the two of us in the car, and we went all over the state. We would spend 14 or 16 hours a day together.

Q: What happened next?

A: Ben lost that governor’s race, but he lost to the person who was the member of Congress from the 6th Congressional District in Kentucky. When the special election was announced for his seat, Ben gets the nomination and then easily wins.

I had applied to law school while I was in undergrad, but I took a deferral to work on the first campaign and took a second deferral to stay on Ben’s race. I did not plan on staying, and it was a tough decision. 

I haven’t thought about this in years, but I was really close to my grandfather, and he was so excited that I was going to law school. I was dreading having to tell him I was going to put it off again. And so I told him, but no matter how late at night it was — and anybody who’s worked on campaigns knows the insane hours you keep — I wrote him a letter every single day. I told him what we had done that day, and that was my way of letting him know that what we were doing was important work. 

Q: How did you end up working on the Hill?

A: Ben was very big on constituent service. So he sent us in a car from the election night celebration, and we drove all through the night, and we were in the office in Washington the second it opened.

Ben, I will say, was notoriously cheap. Many times throughout the campaign, we were sleeping at people’s houses or sharing hotel rooms or doing whatever we could to cut costs. When we were setting up the office, they rented us a hotel room here in Washington because none of us had a place to stay yet. We open the door, and it’s one room for the three of us, with one king-sized bed. That’s one of the few times I put my foot down. I said, “OK, we’re at least getting a room with double beds.”

Q: What was it like to staff up after a special election?

A: My official title was legislative assistant and scheduler. I think I still have a business card somewhere. 

In a freshman office starting in a special, you’re really flying blind. They say you’re building the plane as you’re going down the runway, but we built a plane after we’d gone off the cliff. 

But the flip side is, a lot of offices wanted to help. Being a scheduler and kind of continuing in my role as body guy, I went with him a lot of times to events in the evenings. He was a pretty popular guy, because he was serving as a symbol. It was the first congressional race of 2004, in a presidential election year, and Democrats were looking to reclaim the majority. And here you’ve got a guy in Kentucky who flipped a seat that had been Republican for several years.

Q: Chandler was a moderate Democrat, but now that you’re a congressman yourself, you’re joining the Progressive Caucus. 

A: We didn’t agree on the issues all the time. I’ve always been pretty strong in my beliefs, and in the office we would always talk about votes before they happened. It’s up to the member to make the decision, but what I liked about Ben is how open-minded he was to all input. 

John Yarmuth’s voting record is more similar to mine, but he’s the same way — Yarmuth loves to debate, he loves to have that give and take. 

Central Kentucky is beautiful, for example, and preserving the green spaces and natural beauty is really important. Even in 2004, we were talking about the impacts of climate change and making sure we were caring for the environment.

One of the reasons I ran for this job is I was fighting for climate justice in the state Senate, but there’s only so much you can do at a state legislative level. It really deserves a federal response. 

Q: Now that you’re the boss, what’s one thing you’ll carry forward from your staffing days?

A: Ben always told a story about his grandfather, who was really good friends with the coach of the University of Kentucky basketball team. He could go in the locker room whenever he wanted, but he only went in after a loss. His grandfather would always say, “It’s easy to be with your friends when they’re winning.” 

Ben was a good person all the time, but he was particularly empathetic when something was going wrong, and very supportive. Once you got into the Chandler family, that didn’t stop when your employment ended. Even years later, we had twins who were born 14 weeks premature. Ben was a member of Congress, but he came down to Louisville to check on us. Looking back at my time with him, he exemplified how important it is to be there for people.

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