November 13 2013
Portrait of a Modern Feminist: Riva Litman
As a Republican woman who works on Capitol Hill, Riva Litman, 27, says that she finds the “war on women” rhetoric that was a key part of the Democratic Party’s White House victory in 2012 and later in this year's Virginia gubernatorial race maddening.
“Nothing frustrates me more than this fictitious ‘war on women,’” admits Litman—who serves as deputy communications director of the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives—adding that “the best way to combat it is with the facts and with the truth.”
Litman, a vivacious woman who cut her teeth in politics as a member of the campus Republican club at the University of California, Berkeley—hardly a GOP enclave—says that the Democrats have successfully pitched women voters on a narrow set of social issues. “We must highlight that all issues are women’s issues,” Litman, who won this year's RNC "2013 Woman Trailblazer" award, says. "There’s no issue women don’t care about—whether it’s the economy, health care, or energy."
"I don’t think the ‘war on women’ messaging is going away, and so Republicans have got to do a better job of combating it," she continues. "The Democrats were excellent at getting their message out. If you turned on the TV during the presidential campaign, you’d see Democratic women talking about this fictitious ‘war on women’ and painting the Republican Party as supposedly not caring about women. Whether it’s about women, gay people, or minorities, the Republican Party has got to do a better job of communicating its message to everybody in the country.”
One of the things that quickly becomes clear in talking to Litman is that she learned early on to communicate with people who don’t necessarily share her views. Take being a college Republican at Berkeley. Between her junior and senior years at Berkley, Litman won a coveted internship in the White House speechwriting department.
When a Berkeley professor spotted a picture of Litman and President George W. Bush in a magazine, he passed it around the class and joked, “We have a Republican in our midst.” Litman laughs and says it wasn’t at all unpleasant to be a Republican at the famously liberal Berkeley. She did have one minor mishap—asked to write about a political hero, Litman selected President Bush as the subject of her essay. She got a B+—her lowest grade that year. Litman graduated summa cum laude from Berkeley in 2008.
“I was raised in a conservative Republican family in Danville, California,” says Litman. “My mom was a ‘Goldwater Girl’ and we talked politics at the dinner table. I actually became more conservative at Berkeley. It isn’t talked about that much, but Berkeley actually has a big and vocal Republican club. I loved everything about my alma mater. Berkeley is full of such vibrant, intellectually curious, and fascinating people from all over the world. It made me more committed to my beliefs because you're around faculty and classmates who don’t necessarily agree with you - so it forces you to figure out why you believe what you believe. I left Berkeley with a bigger heart and a more open mind."
After Berkeley, Litman came to Washington, D.C., and worked for a year at the American Enterprise Institute as a research assistant for philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers. “Christina definitely taught me that it’s important to think outside the box, to challenge mainstream assumptions, and to go against the grain sometimes,” Litman says. “I’ve carried that with me since my days at AEI.” She then worked for The Fratelli Group, a public relations firm in Dupont Circle that specializes in public policy strategy. As with talking to more liberal friends at Berkeley, the experience convinced her of the importance of shaping the message for a broader group of people.
Litman says that she realizes that partisan feelings run high on the Hill but adds that, contrary to what we might think from reading the news, the atmosphere for staffers from the two parties remains cordial. What makes her experience particularly rewarding, she says, is working for a boss she believes in. One of the key members of the “staff” who helps create a cordial atmosphere is Henny, a fun-loving and outgoing bichon frise who belongs to the conference’s chief of staff and who regularly comes to work during recess weeks. Because of Henny’s enormous, bipartisan appeal, there is a sign on the door when he is at work. It reads “Henny in the House,” and his many Democratic friends flock to the office to visit him. Henny is also an avid Twitter user. His handle is @conferencedog.
"We don't want people to believe that the Republican Party doesn't care about women or gays or Hispanics,” Litman says. “It's just not true that we don't care. The overall lesson is that we haven’t done as good a job as we need to in communicating our message. We need to do better job of articulating why Republican policies are good for everybody—and not just old, rich, white men, as the Democrats have erroneously portrayed us. Communication is a huge issue and why my boss, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, ran for chairman of the House Republican Conference."
Democrats are always calling for more women to be elected—of course, they mean Democratic women. Does Litman believe that it is important for Republicans to elect more women to political positions?
"On the one hand, I've always thought that you should never be elected because you are a woman or a minority or come from a certain place," she says reflectively. "But having worked on the Hill for such a dynamic woman, and having sat in on high-level leadership meetings in which she is the only elected woman present, I’ve seen that women often bring a different, unique and important perspective to the table. Women are so good at empathizing, multi-tasking, and listening - and what our party needs to do better is listen to people."
Litman originally joined the staff of Rep. McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.) as the congresswoman’s personal press secretary. When McMorris Rodgers was elected to head the House Republican Conference in 2012, Litman moved to the conference. “Engagement” is one of Litman’s favorite words. She is excited with the outreach the conference is doing, particularly the social media and the meetups. The meetups have become famous.
While one meetup invited Millenials to Capitol Hill to talk about the effect of the national debt on their lives, others have focused on women and technology, and Korean American business people, and Hispanics. During meetups, participants attend panel discussions, attend a roundtable, and have a chance to talk to members of Congress.
“We have found that open dialogue is invaluable,” Litman says. “The biggest lesson is that we must open the lines of communication and engage with people. The second lesson is that we must humanize these issues. It’s not all about numbers. When we talk about the debt, we aren’t just talking about numbers.”
McMorris Rodgers has encouraged members of Congress to get on Facebook and use Twitter to have back and forth conversations with their constituents. Litman says that the Democrats originally had a “huge” advantage with social media, but that members of the House Republican Conference are catching up rapidly. Members are encouraged, for example, to find out how ObamaCare is affecting people in their districts. This is a subject of particular importance to Litman.
Famously upbeat, Litman was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease for which there is no cure, in her teens. "It can be difficult to modify your lifestyle to conform with it," Litman told a California newspaper several years ago. “You can be fine one day and in the hospital the next." While in college, she won a $10,000 scholarship for her accomplishments despite having been diagnosed with Crohn's disease. Litman has never let the disease prevent her from doing well, but she is concerned about ObamaCare. She will go on the ObamaCare exchange in January. “I am worried,” the usually upbeat Litman admits. “We’re hearing more and more stories about people who are not only facing higher premiums but are losing their doctors.”
Crohn's hasn't been the only painful challenge in Riva's life.
In 2010 a fire broke out at her family's house in California. Her father, a physician, survived, but tragically, her brother, Ben, did not. He was 19 when he died. He was an aspiring musician who "hoped to be the next Bob Dylan."
Her brother's death "has had more impact on me than anything in my life. It was the most profound experience of my life," says Litman. Ten months later, Riva's mother, 60, died of metastic breast cancer, which led Riva to raise $47,000 for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer this past spring. She was awarded as the second-highest fund-raiser in all of Washington, D.C. She is hoping to do something in conjunction with the District of Columbia firefighters to remember her brother.
In addition to her commitment to charity, Riva is certainly having an impact on Republicans efforts on Capitol Hill, and I suspect we will be hearing more about this young dynamo in the future.