University of Iowa alums at work in Washington, D.C. amid an uncertain election

As the nation awaited the results of the presidential election, Hawkeyes working in DC went to work among tension and anxiety.


Katie Goodale

House Parliamentarian Thomas Wickham poses for a portrait outside of the Capitol in Washington DC on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2020.

Rylee Wilson, News Editor

The Ethics & Politics Initiative, a donor-funded enterprise of The Daily Iowan, sent a photographer and editor to Washington D.C. to capture the nation’s capital on election night.

As the nation awaits the results of a contentious and unusual election, Hawkeye grads are in the heart of the action in the nation’s capital. 

The University of Iowa alums returned to work on Capitol Hill, in consulting firms and nonprofits in an uncertain political world, but they said the work continues as normal. 

Tom Wickham, a 1990 graduate of the UI, recently retired as House Parliamentarian, a role which advises House leadership on the rules and precedents of the chamber. 

Wickham’s role is nonpartisan, but he said the leadership of both parties in the House of Representatives will be watching the results of the election very closely. 

“We are nonpartisan but we are a part of a house that is very much election centric in that control of the House affects our job very much – who’s in the majority in the House, in the Senate. But that’s part of the beauty of our house is that we’ll just keep going on giving the same advice, no matter who wins or loses the election,” he said. 

Wickham is currently serving as a senior advisor to the House, where he will help oversee the process of electors voting in the electoral college. 

Barry Jackson, a 1983 graduate of the UI, served eight years working as assistant for special initiatives to President George W. Bush, and ran the Bush campaign’s recount efforts in Miami-Dade County in Florida in 2000. Miami-Dade and ultimately Florida propelled Bush to victory, but not until after recounts, hanging chads, and pro-Bush protesters at Al Gore recount locations roiled the Florida county.

Barry Jackson poses for a portrait outside of the Library of Congress in Washington DC on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2020. (Katie Goodale)

As the election remained undecided on Wednesday evening, the 2000 election, where a winner was not clear for weeks after the election until a 5-4 Supreme Court decision ended the election recounts, became a historical parallel.

Jackson now works as a strategic consultant, and he has been spending election week doing analysis for clients, working into the early hours of the morning on Wednesday. 

Jackson said while he believes the early count will favor Biden, there will be a long road of legal battles ahead for both candidates.

“The margins are going to be so small, there’s going to be automatic recounts everywhere. And as soon as you start the recounts, there’s a cascade of litigation that starts from both sides,” he said. “It took us until the second week of December to get one state ligitgated – now you’re going to do six states all at once.” 

Alexia Sanchez, a 2020 UI graduate, works as a fellow with Running Start, an organization that trains young women to run for office, in the office of Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. 

Sanchez said she is keeping her options open once her fellowship ends, but she wants to work inmigration policy in the future. 

Alexia Sanchez poses for a portrait at the Capitol in Washington DC on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Katie Goodale )

Speaking on the night before Election Day, Sanchez said Washington felt like the calm before the storm. 

“Everyone is tense right now, whether you are in politics or not, there is a lot on everyone’s minds,” she said. “I would say there’s a lot of pausing right now, figuring out what’s going to happen, and then moving forward with whatever action plan people have in place, whether that’s within the workplace or your personal life.” 

While businesses in downtown D.C. were boarded up and access to government buildings was blocked in anticipation of unrest, demonstrations remained peaceful in the absence of a clear winner of the election. 

Bridget Blair, who graduated from the UI in 2017, works as a development manager at No Labels, a nonprofit focused on building bipartisanship. 

Blair said that while many around her are anxious about the election, the divisiveness in the country makes selling her organization’s bipartisan vision easier.

Bridget Blair poses for a portrait near the Washington Monument in Washington DC on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2020. (Katie Goodale)

“With fundraising, it’s difficult because you’re basically selling something,” she said. “And the past four years have been very divisive. I think anybody on either side of the aisle can agree with that. I sell the point that we have these members in the House and Senate willing to work with each other, and that’s exactly what this country is looking for.” 

Beyond the uncertainty of the current moment, alums spoke fondly of their time spent in Iowa City. 

Johan Bergenas, a 2005 UI graduate, works at Waxman Strategies, where he says he works at the intersection of environmental issues, national security, and technology.

Johan Bergenas poses for a portrait in the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Katie Goodale)

Bergenas, originally from Sweden, came to the UI to play tennis, and did a brief stint writing for The DI. 

He said the time he spent in Iowa gave him a unique perspective to take to his work in D.C. 

“I think one of my greatest strengths in Washington is that I am not coming from the East Coast or the West Coast,” he said. “So when my friends and colleagues and family here sometimes in despair don’t understand the rest of the country. I don’t agree with all of the values here or in the rest of the country, but I can say I understand where they come from.”