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Capitol Hill veteran offers advice on how to restore civility to politics
by Chuck Gordon

If you think that Capitol Hill is nothing but backstabbers, narcissists and worse, Katie Strand Patru ’02 would like a word. A very kind word.

For 16 years, Patru was one of those hard-working staffers who keep the government running while the people at the top bicker and point fingers at each other. She left the Hill a couple of years ago for the private sector, and then earlier this year she left Washington altogether. Now a legislative aide in Loudoun County, Virginia, where she lives, Patru remains in politics, only now much closer to her husband and three boys.

But in the years she spent researching issues, planning events and rubbing elbows with members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the former Wingate communications major and soccer star learned to be humble, polite and as nonpartisan as possible. She’s the embodiment of the idiom that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Katie Patru in front of the Capitol building

In this election year, when the country seems more polarized than ever, Patru stands as a good reminder that a cooperative approach can actually work on Capitol Hill.

Just ask former Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “Katie is always a dose of sunshine wherever she is, and with a lot of energy in the positive direction,” he says. “Given today’s world of cynicism and partisan divide, that’s a real gift.”

“My motto is always, ‘Work hard, be kind, great things will happen,’” Patru says. “I’ve always stuck to that.”

Patru isn’t exactly politically neutral (who is?). She’s a Republican, and she’s married to a conservative-leaning political-communications specialist who also has extensive experience on the Hill. But she describes herself as “not very political,” despite working in the lion’s den for so long. And her last role on the Hill – deputy staff director for member services with the Committee on House Administration – was nonpartisan.

Patru is well liked and well regarded by all who encounter her. She takes a real interest in others, has a genuine friendliness about her that is disarming, and is a born pleaser. 

“Kindness always crushes meanness, in my mind,” Patru says.

She’s also escaped Congress with her sense of optimism intact. With that in mind, here are a few pointers Patru would like to give to people across the political spectrum to help us get back to a more civil form of debate.

1. Reach across the aisle.

“If you just talk to people that only agree with the things you agree with, you’ll always think you’re right,” Patru says. “But does that make you better? Does that make you improve? I don’t think it does.”

Like most people, Patru has friends who don’t view things through the same political lens she does. She’s good with that. In fact, she thinks it’s healthy.

“If I was advising a new member coming in (to Congress)?” Patru says. “If someone looked at me and said, ‘Can you give me one piece of advice about what I should do?’, I would say, ‘Go find a friend across the aisle. Befriend someone who has different political views from you that you can talk to regularly.’”

We’re so quick as a society to jump all over people – for anything and everything. That’s not directed at one group of people or one party. It is a collective state of mind.

She had an opportunity to give advice to new members of Congress a couple of years ago. Working in member services for the Committee on House Administration, Patru spent 14 months planning “freshman orientation” for first-time congresspersons elected in November of 2018. She planned two weeks’ worth of sessions for December of 2018 designed to advise Congressional newbies on finding an office in their district, planning their budget, hiring a staff and many more of the daunting tasks they were going to have to accomplish by the next month.

Among the newly elected members were those in The Squad, a group of young, female Democrats with a decidedly progressive agenda. Although they campaigned to the far left and came into office guns a blazin’, Patru did not view them as the enemy. They were in Washington to do a job, same as she was. And it was Patru’s responsibility to get them up to speed on the ways of Capitol Hill as quickly as possible.

Patru, ever the professional, never got her hackles up. “I was so impressed with these freshmen that were coming in,” she says. “A lot of the women on the Democratic side – military background, teachers – I was blown away, and I was excited for the Congress. It doesn’t mean I agree on every vote, but seeing that happening and being in the middle of it was exciting.”

Before that job, Patru was in charge of “member services” for Cantor, which meant taking care of a variety of needs for all the Republican members of Congress. She spent her days meeting with chiefs of staff in order to get a handle on pending legislation. Even though Patru dealt primarily with congresspersons who were on the same “team,” Cantor says she still had to be deftly diplomatic.

“She would be very sensitive to particular individuals’ partisan affinities and really try to look beyond the differences and try to forge a consensus,” he says, “whether it was across the political aisle or, sometimes even more difficult, across the ideological aisle on the Republican side.”

“People with differing views coming together in an atmosphere of respect, finding a way to compromise,” Patru says. “That’s what we want.”

2. Don’t make everything political.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a face mask is just a face mask, not a political statement.

The daughter of a Capitol Hill lifer, Patru grew up around politics, and she’s had a career in the field since she graduated from Wingate. But politics, strangely, doesn’t consume her.

Patru wasn’t really considering a career in politics while at Wingate, where her communications emphasis was in public relations. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do, other than graduate and go visit her sister, who was in Italy at the time, but she wasn’t thinking of Capitol Hill.

Katie Patru and her family

Patru’s dad, Mark Strand, persuaded her to at least test the political waters. Strand is president of the nonprofit Congressional Institute and a former chief of staff for multiple members of Congress. He knew he’d be able to provide his daughter with a sounding board and a brain to pick if she opted for a career on the Hill. “He said, ‘Just go do some informational meetings on Capitol Hill and see if you like it,’” Patru says.

She relented, and she wound up working for Cantor, then a congressman from Virginia and still a few years away from becoming majority leader. (Patru worked for Cantor twice, leaving in 2005 for a seven-year stint with the House Conference before returning in 2013, a year before Cantor lost his primary in a huge and unexpected upset.)

Patru worked her way up from staff assistant to deputy press secretary, but from the start she treated it more as a job than as a calling. “I didn’t really have an opinion on many things going on here,” she says. “I had never processed those things. I just wanted to take it all in, figure out where I could help the best, and be as good as possible.”

Over the years, she’s retained her sense of diplomacy and has gained a greater understanding that most people essentially want the same thing for the United States; they only differ in how they think we can get there. In the meantime, it often appears that the country has gone in the opposite direction.

“It feels right now that everything we say, or someone says, gets written up as political,” Patru says. “It just shouldn’t be.” Like, say, whether to wear a mask during a pandemic.

Patru blames knee-jerk generalizations on both sides of the partisan divide. “When one person in a party says something, all of a sudden that must mean the party is for it,” she says. “We need to stop holding every other person who may be in a party to account because of what one person said.”

A remedy for that, Patru says, is wrapped up in tip No. 3.

3. Engage with social media less and with people more.

Patru is hardly anti-social-media. “I love seeing fun pictures of people’s children,” she says. “I love finding out about new trails to go hiking on. There are benefits of social media for me. I’m on it every day. But there’s part of it where I cringe.”

Think replies to Donald Trump’s tweets, or comments on a Washington Post story or an article on FoxNews.com. Or, and more to Patru’s point, Facebook arguments between friends that get out of hand. And that’s not to mention the disinformation campaigns that are rife on several popular social-media platforms.

The end result is a breakdown in civility. People become emboldened when they’re not face-to-face with the person they’re engaging with, often letting their emotions take over.

“We’re so quick as a society to jump all over people – for anything and everything,” Patru says. “That’s not directed at one group of people or one party. It is a collective state of mind.”

Patru’s answer is to talk more and type less.

“When we stop picking up the phone to call people, and that (social media) becomes your form of communication, there’s a complete and total personal disconnect,” she says. “Clearly, human interaction helps us. Talking helps us. When that is gone and when people aren’t talking in Congress and people aren’t talking in their neighborhoods, no one gives anyone the benefit of the doubt anymore.”

Leaving the Hill

In February, Patru left D.C. after more than 17 years. She and her husband, Ed Patru, had made Ashburn, Virginia, their home four years earlier, and the hour-and-a-half commute, each way, was killing her.

“You can get work done in those hours, but you can’t do anything with your kids,” says Patru, whose boys are all in elementary school.

Now she’s got two and a half more hours a day to devote to her family, and she’s still got a career in politics. These days, as a legislative aide for Tony Buffington, a member of Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors, Patru is fielding calls from people in the western side of the county who need a pothole filled or a sidewalk put in.

The transition has been smooth, all things considered. Barely a month into the job, the pandemic forced most of the world to retreat into their homes, slowing Patru’s introduction into the world of small-town politics.

“You need to meet everybody to learn how the county operates,” she says. “That, for me, is really an in-person thing.” (How very on-brand for one of politics’ nicest people.)

For now, Patru is learning the ropes remotely. The transactional nature of local government appeals to her on a certain level. And it helps that she lives just down the road from Buffington’s constituents.

“I’ve never worked for someone who represented where I lived,” she says. “I see the timeline of when that’s going to happen, and it’s happening 20 miles from my home. It’s a good feeling.”

And despite the seemingly irreparable political divide in the U.S., Patru also has a good feeling about the future.

“I’m optimistic,” she says. “I’m raising three little boys in a world that sometimes can feel heavy. But I believe there’s a good life ahead of them. I want to make sure they see the world as a positive place and don’t want to tune it out but get engaged.”