Longtime Nantucket summer resident and former US Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford is running for Congress in Massachusetts’ third district.
With his patrician good looks, an impressive resume in public service and backing from a highly respected New England family, Ambassador Rufus Gifford would appear to be a made-to-order congressional candidate. But the Massachusetts third congressional district he is seeking to represent is mostly made up of working-class cities including Lowell, Fitchburg and Haverhill. On the surface, the lives of Brown University educated Rufus Gifford and that of the third district would hardly seem to intersect. But despite his privileged background, Gifford defies many of the stereotypes normally associated with someone of his pedigree. He is a liberal Democrat, an Obama acolyte, and has eschewed the pursuit of money in favor of public service as an openly gay man. Gifford is the son of Chad and Anne Gifford, whose family has been coming to Nantucket for years. Gifford sat down with N Magazine and discussed why he believes he is the best candidate in what has shaped up to be a very competitive race.
GIFFORD: I met Barack Obama in February 2007 and worked for him for ten years. I’m so incredibly proud of the legacy that I and so many others have been fighting for over that ten years of work, from climate change to health care to LGBT equality. On the morning of November 9th, 2016, when I woke up, I was still in Copenhagen serving as the Ambassador to Denmark, and Donald Trump was President of the United States, I realized that so much of what I had been fighting for was fundamentally at risk. I knew I had to come home and step up my level of service. That’s why I decided to run. In November, I launched my campaign for Congress in the third district of Massachusetts.
N MAGAZINE: Are there particular issues in the third district that are your focus? It’s a working-class part of the state; what do you feel you can do for them?
GIFFORD: When I launched my campaign, I put tens of thousands of miles on my car and went from coffee shop to coffee shop, diner to diner, living room to living room, asking questions, listening and taking notes in every single corner of this district. What I’ve learned is that there is tremendous frustration. There is frustration at the Trump Administration. There is frustration over issues like a lack of rising wages, the cost of health care, the cost of education and the cost of housing. Why do I believe that I am uniquely qualified to deal with that? I am the only candidate in this race that has both top level national political experience and international experience. I have seen this from the inside, and I have seen this from the outside. I actually believe in our system — as wounded as it seems to be right now — because I’ve seen it work. I was at Grant Park in Chicago the night we elected Barack Obama. I was serving overseas as ambassador when we did big things like pass the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran Deal. You need people in there that understand the system, believe in the system, but also fundamentally want to improve it.
N MAGAZINE: You come from a family of privilege, and the dichotomy between your upbringing and the people of Lowell and Fitchburg and Haverhill is fairly significant. How do you reconcile that and connect with your constituents?
GIFFORD: I walk into any room and without a doubt there will be times that people view my resume and my background with a degree of skepticism. That’s happened over the course of my career. But I go in and throw my heart on the table right away. I want to present my values first and foremost. I will never lie about who I am. I am who I am. I will never lie about my background or pretend that I am someone who I am not. But I will explain to people why these issues matter so much to me. I will explain to people that this job is something that I desperately want because I desperately think that we are at a critical moment in American political history. We need to remind people that politicians are public servants first and foremost, and somehow, we’ve lost the public trust. We’ve got to build that trust back. When I walk into any room, I try to be the first one to show up and the last one to leave. I ask questions and listen. I lead with authenticity and sincerity. I know that I have to earn it. I have earned every single endorsement that I have gotten in this race, and I have gotten a lot.
N MAGAZINE: Not to belabor the point, but if someone stood up in Fitchburg who is underprivileged and who comes from a difficult path, and they said to you give us an example of hardship that you have experienced, what would you say?
GIFFORD: One of the reasons why I’m working in politics is because I’m a gay man. Growing up as a young gay man within the climate in which I grew up made me feel like an outsider from day one. From the time I was fifteen or sixteen years old, all I wanted to do was escape my life over and over again. One of the reasons why I moved to California after I graduated from Brown was that my dad was a banker in Boston, and I wanted to be anything but a banker in Boston. I needed to be comfortable in my own skin. My years of coming out, the level of discrimination that you face, the taunts and the name calling and the belief that you would never amount to anything in this world made me want to fight harder and prove the doubters wrong in my life. And, oh my, were there doubters — that a gay kid could be an ambassador when no one believed that that would happen. Those stories are real, and they have made me appreciate struggle. I want to fight for racial justice, economic justice, social justice, because I have experienced that sort of discrimination over the course of my life and that makes me want to fight for equality for every single person.
N MAGAZINE: On the subject of gay marriage, what is your reaction to the developments on the Supreme Court in which Trump has appointed a right-leaning justice who could overturn the federal protection of marriage equality?
GIFFORD: This was our greatest fear. The problem is that we have very little control because the Democrats lost the Senate, the White House and the House. All we can do right now is keep our heads down, try to win hearts and minds back and fight for the country that we want to see. We have to put a lot of pressure on senators like Claire McCaskill, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, because the court hangs in the balance right now. As a gay man who is married, knowing that we are losing one of the five votes that voted our way just three years ago, knowing that the court could turn five-four the other way, knowing that conservatives are going to try and overturn the marriage equality ruling and my marriage could be stripped from me is unacceptable. We’ve got to fight for it.
N MAGAZINE: The political climate in this country has never been as polarized as it is now, certainly in modern times. How would you relate to Republicans in Congress, because right now we appear to be going in polar opposite directions and the middle ground is disappearing?
GIFFORD: My campaign is a campaign of optimism. I believe that if we are going to reclaim the heart and soul of the Democratic Party and the country, we’ve got to present a vision that’s the opposite of Donald Trump. One which is hopeful and unified. One where there is a legitimate sense that the government has the people’s back. That’s the kind of campaign that I want to run. Secondly, as a former diplomat, as a former ambassador, I desperately think we need more diplomacy in politics. It was my job for four years to sit around the table with nine Danish political parties and try to get those political parties to agree on something that would move the world forward. That’s what we need more of in congress.
N MAGAZINE: What would you prescribe to the Democratic Party? What should Democrats be doing differently?
GIFFORD: When you do go to the western part of the third district of Massachusetts — Fitchburg, Gardner, Haverhill — you listen to people’s stories. You listen to how the opioid epidemic has ravaged their community. You listen to how student loan debt is preventing their kids from standing on their own two feet because they are so saddled in debt by the time they are twenty-five. You listen to people who can’t afford houses. And you get a sense that society is failing certain people. We have not done a good enough job making people feel like we have their back, that we are fighting for them. Part of that is just going to these communities and listening. Politicians live in their bubble in Washington, and man do we have to pop those bubbles. We have to win people’s hearts, and I think you do that by listening and learning about their experiences.
GIFFORD: I think I would look him straight in the eye and say, “Sir, I have an enormous respect for this office, but understand that your presidency only speaks to part of this country. Your presidency is speaking to your base and your base only. Please do everything you can to unify us once again. Please do everything you can. You’ve got to use your words as well as actions.” I’m not optimistic that it will be successful, but I just feel like beyond anything else that’s what we are missing right now. People are hurting, and we need unifying messages, not divisive ones.