Second in a series of profiles of candidates running for the Democratic nomination in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District.
Joel Rubin calls Jan. 27, 2015, the best and worst day of his State Department career.
He spent nearly three hours at the witness table before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, answering questions from angry Republicans about the deadly 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Libya. Democrats regard the probe, still ongoing after nearly two years, as an attempt to undermine the presidential candidacy of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Rubin, then deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs, deflected, demurred, denied and placated. He promised total cooperation. He told the chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), that the department was hard at work responding to the committee’s requests.
When Rubin’s young daughter asked him that night why the men on television were so mean and always interrupting him, he says, he figured out what he wanted for the next chapter of his life.
“It really made me recognize that you have to be in the fight,” he said.
Rubin left the State Department in July to found a foreign policy consulting group. Now he is running for his party’s nomination to succeed outgoing Rep. Chris Van Hollen, hoping to use his years as an organizer, advocate and diplomat to advance the Democratic agenda in what is likely to remain a Republican-controlled House.
“We have to remember there will be huge fights coming up,” Rubin told an audience recently. “It is important that we put people in Congress who are ready from Day One to take on those fights.”
Slightly built and still boyish at 45, with dark hair and a light dusting of a goatee, Rubin clearly relishes the tactics and strategy of organizing.
“The task is not to convince the diehards how to sign up. It’s to get the gettable in the middle,” he told a group of Young Democrats in Rockville.
He is running a scrappy, low-budget campaign, and struggling for attention in a nine-candidate field. Rubin was the first to directly confront wine retailer David Trone on Trone’s contributions to Republicans in states where his company, Total Wine & More, was doing business.
“With all due respect, you are exactly what is wrong with Washington,” he said at a Valentine’s Day candidate forum at Leisure World.
His campaign has benefited from the fundraising instrument most closely identified with big-money politics — the super PAC. William Benter, a Pittsburgh businessman and friend, has raised $100,000 for A New Voice for Maryland, a pro-Rubin group.
Rubin’s main challenge is that foreign policy expertise — the core of his résumé — doesn’t engage voters in a congressional race like jobs, taxes and other kitchen-table concerns do.
He likes to talk about how his work as the State Department’s liaison to the House helped protect the Obama administration’s Iranian nuclear agreement, making him the only candidate who has worked with the opposition on a high-stakes policy matter.
The House voted 269 to 162 against the pact, with every Republican in the nay column. But Rubin and his colleagues cobbled together enough Democratic support to avoid a veto-proof resolution of disapproval, which would have certainly scuttled the deal.
“That means that we beat the Rs in Congress on behalf of a progressive agenda. A rare and unique victory,” Rubin said.
He has drawn on some deeply personal events as he attempts to break through before the April 26 primary, highlighting women’s health as a policy priority.
Rubin produced what might be the most harrowing ad of the campaign, recounting the forced sterilization of his Sri Lankan mother-in-law, Mithra Ratne, in 1972 by a doctor in Washington state who said “this country has too many colored babies already.”
When he discusses the need for affordable health care, Rubin often mentions his own health crisis, which began one morning in 2013 when he woke up with ringing in his right ear. He was diagnosed with a tumor on the nerves controlling balance and hearing on his right side. It was benign and successfully removed.
Rubin, the Pittsburgh-born son of an architect and a college English professor, said two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica set him on the path toward public service.
He worked at the Agency for International Development and the Energy Department before his first stint at the State Department. He was a fellow in the office of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and an aide to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) before becoming founding political and government affairs director for J Street, the liberal advocacy group that promotes diplomatic solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also worked at the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-proliferation group.
Rubin’s bipartisan experience extends to his off hours at home in Chevy Chase. His wife, Nilmini Gunaratne Rubin, is a senior policy adviser to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She is also a Republican.
“We talk. We have differences,” he said. “It’s good to have difference.”
Next: Sen. Jamie Raskin.