Published March 11, 2020 by Bowdoin Magazine

Wonky for Maine  

Aisha Woodward ’08, chief of staff for US Congressman Jared Golden (D-Maine), is based in DC, but her heart is back home.
Aisha Woodward ’08
Aisha Woodward ’08. Photo by Allyson Eslin.

What brought you back to Maine? Did you always envision yourself returning?

I spent the first few years after Bowdoin hopping around to different jobs: I helped manage a fellowship program at Harvard; I taught English at a university in Turkey; and, then I began a PhD program in Italian language and literature at Yale.  

I returned to Maine in the summer of 2012 for what was intended to be a temporary stint. I had just completed my first year of graduate school, and I planned to spend the summer studying for a Latin exam and waiting tables at a restaurant in Brunswick. At the time, Governor Angus King had announced he was running for the US Senate, and his campaign headquarters was right in downtown Brunswick. I stopped by the campaign office and offered to volunteer with whatever free time I had. The volunteer work quickly became a full-time endeavor, and by the time the fall came around I realized I was not going to return to graduate school. King’s Senate election led to a policy job in his Washington office and, a few years later, the opportunity to return to Maine to help run his reelection campaign in 2018.

Because I grew up in Maine, there was some part of me that expected I would always maintain some connection to the state, but I never imagined that my professional work would tie me so directly to the state’s people and politics.

Tell us a little about your role as chief of staff for US Representative Jared Golden.

It can be difficult to describe—every day is different. The job basically involves two different sets of responsibilities. The first is advising the congressman on issues of policy and politics. That can range from big issues in the national news (What actions should Congress take to reassert its war powers responsibilities?), to the more local (How can we help a local farmer navigate confusing USDA regulations?).

The second part of the job involves managing a team of seventeen staff across three offices in Maine and an office in Washington. The staff run the gamut from a policy team that helps draft legislation, to staff on the ground in Maine who focus on outreach to communities and helping constituents resolve problems with federal agencies. I spend most days trying to maintain a big picture view of our operation and ensuring that we are moving the ball forward on our strategic priorities, while also helping the team troubleshoot issues by providing guidance on how to approach policy or political challenges.  

What’s your favorite part about your job?

It’s hard to pick just one. Politics is a challenging business—particularly in the current climate, where so much about our system feels broken—but I am motivated by playing a small part in trying to counteract the cynicism that many Mainers (and folks across the country) feel about the role that government and elected representatives can play in their lives. When our constituent services staff are able to dig into a problem and help solve it for real people, or when the congressman is able to elevate and give weight to a concern that previously had been neglected, I feel like we are still engaged in work that matters.

On a more personal level, when I started this job over a year ago, we had to build a team and operation from scratch. I have found that the experience of helping to hire, build, and lead an organization has been one of the most rewarding of my career thus far. Our team has been through a lot during the first year on the job, from taking office during a partial government shutdown to ending the year with historic votes on impeachment. To a person, our staff are incredibly talented and hardworking, and their commitment and enthusiasm motivate me every day.

As a government and legal studies major, did you always know you wanted to get involved in politics?  

Not at all. I majored in government largely because I was interested in international affairs and sub-Saharan Africa (I studied abroad in Ghana.). I took the minimum number of American politics courses to complete the requirements for the major, but gave no thought to working in domestic politics at the time. Honestly, if anyone had asked my college self to consider working in Congress, I would have likely dismissed the idea altogether.

How does your graduate degree in Italian literature fit into the picture?

My interest in Italian literature was piqued during my junior year at Bowdoin when I took Professor Arielle Saiber’s course on Dante’s Commedia. The following year, I pursued an independent study with Professor Saiber on canto XXIX of Inferno. By the time I graduated from Bowdoin, my love for Dante was such that I began contemplating graduate school. I took a few years to do other kinds of work and travel, but I kept going back to the idea of graduate school—it was an unanswered question of sorts. So, I applied to a handful of Italian programs and began a PhD program at Yale in 2011.

Early into the program I determined that the insularity of the humanities PhD experience was a challenge for me, and I began to question whether I wanted to keep at it for six or more years, particularly given the difficult job market. After spending that summer on the Angus King campaign, I changed course. Still, I have no regrets about my pursuit of Italian. Indeed, being exposed to and absorbing a rigorous approach to Italian literature and history at Bowdoin and in graduate school have sharpened my ability to dig below the surface of the events around me and taught me how to analyze and synthesize complex material into a concise message or argument. As a result, I think it has made me a more effective critic of public policy, as well as a more grounded, balanced person.

Now that you’ve been involved in Maine (and national) politics for some time, what do you see as the most pressing problems for the state? What are we getting right in Maine? What do we need to work on?

I think there’s a good deal of agreement about some of the big challenges facing Maine—our aging workforce, lack of rural infrastructure, and the ways in which the shifts in global markets and the changing climate are making once-reliable jobs in Maine’s traditional industries, like forest products and fishing, less secure.

To me, the greater challenge is that although we can get people from across the political spectrum to agree upon what the challenges are, policymakers haven’t done a great job coordinating a response to them. Some of that inconsistency is natural—changing administrations in Augusta and Washington produce new officials who want to make their mark by starting new initiatives. Old ideas are abandoned and replaced by the new. But the only way I think we can make progress on the biggest challenges Maine faces is if we commit ourselves to coordinated, strategic approaches to solving these problems and level with the public about a realistic time-horizon to achieve change.

Do you have an “only-in-Maine” story that you love that you can share?

In December, Congressman Golden and several of our staff drove up to Millinocket to join in the fifth running of the Millinocket Marathon & Half. For those readers who might not know much about Millinocket, it’s a town in northern Penobscot County that has fallen on some hard times since the Great Northern Paper Mill, the town’s primary employer, closed in 2008.

In 2015, a runner/race director from Mount Desert Island named Gary Allen decided he wanted to help breathe a little life into the town during winter, the hardest part of the year. So, he decided to build a marathon in the town. There is no entrance fee to run the race, but the goal is to attract people to visit a part of the state that doesn’t receive many visitors in the winter. The race organizers encourage people to direct the money they might otherwise have spent on an entrance fee to the town via restaurants and accommodations and to find other ways to give back to a place that is willing to open its roads and doors to a bunch of distance runners.

The story of a community coming together in the face of hardship isn’t unique to our state. What I think is distinctively Maine is to see how that impulse to look out for one’s neighbor generated the creativity and optimism to coordinate such a seemingly improbable event. It’s a special combination of Maine hardiness and camaraderie that prompts people to trek up to a place like Millinocket to run a long-distance race on a snow-packed logging road in the middle of December.

Was there any singular experience when you were a student at Bowdoin that helped to cement your love of the state?  

Because I grew up in Maine, I didn’t anticipate that my time at Bowdoin would change my feelings about the state. Interestingly, though, it was the experience of viewing my home state through the eyes of fellow students who grew up in other parts of the country that made me look at Maine with a fresh perspective. The things my friends appreciated—the beauty of our landscape and coastline, the way a fresh snowfall changes the acoustics of the outdoors, the convivial atmosphere of a candlepin bowling joint—were features I had largely taken for granted as a kid. Leaving Maine after college only intensified those realizations.

I count myself fortunate to have a job that allows me to return to Maine regularly, and it has been a great joy of the past few years to see several Bowdoin friends decide to return to Maine to make a life, too.

If you could be anywhere in Maine right now where would that be and why?

I maintain that where I grew up—on the Blue Hill Peninsula, in a small town called Sedgwick—is one of the most beautiful parts of Maine. If I could situate myself in Maine at a specific moment in the year, I would go to my part of the state in early September, when the tourists have left town and the weather is the best. I would hike up Blue Hill Mountain, go for a swim at Curtis Cove, eat a tray of fried seafood at the Bagaduce Lunch, and end the day with a beer at Strong Brewing Company.

For people reading this who are nowhere near Maine, what in your opinion should they be absolutely missing right now—if only they knew better to be missing it?!

You’re missing out on sampling the wares of 100+ breweries in the state—and not just in Portland. The craft-brewing scene across the state has really taken off. The fact that my hometown of 1,000 people has a brewery tells you all you need to know. The next time you’re in Maine, get off the beaten path and check out towns like Norway, Skowhegan, and Belfast—great places to visit with excellent breweries as well.

Winter 2020 Bowdoin Magazine Cover



This story first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.