January 25, 1999
Volume 51, No. 17
Berry prepares for life in the public eye in role as lobbyist
A little over a year ago, just a half-dozen months after earning his political science degree from Emory College, Jeremy Berry found himself escorting around campus a man who can only be described as a civic legend, especially in Atlanta.
Berry, who'd started work for his alma mater as a legislative analyst in the Office of Governmental and Community Affairs, was assigned to chaffeur Congressman John Lewis, who was spending the day at Emory to speak and meet with people. As Berry watched the veteran Democrat and civil rights activist navigate through various circles--at a university not even in his district--he realized the phrase "of the people, by the people, for the people" can be more than just rhetoric.
"He was so down to earth," Berry remembered. "Here's someone who as a young man was speaking at the March on Washington in 1963--obviously he was very accomplished, but you wouldn't know it. He didn't have that arrogance."
Berry said the same thing goes for President Jimmy Carter, whom he's had the privilege to meet a few times. And Berry should know a thing or two about politicians, since not only is it his job to work with them, but he's actually been one before--and probably will be again. After never being involved in student government in high school, Berry got bit by the ballot bug as an Emory freshman and spent four years in the Student Government Association, serving as president his senior year.
It's not difficult to see elected office in Berry's future. He spent a summer as a White House intern in 1995 and a year later worked on the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign in Alabama. But when Berry graduated, after surveying the atmosphere in Washington and examining his own options, he decided it would be best to stick around Atlanta a while longer. "Everything there is politics, and understandably so, but it's just a whole different culture," Berry said. "That's just not for me yet."
So through a tip from one of his political science professors, Berry applied for and won his job in governmental affairs, essentially serving as an Emory lobbyist concerning state and federal legislation. Even for someone who'd been involved in government before, Berry's year-and-a-half working with legislators and their staff have opened his eyes to the world of politics.
"I'm fascinated to learn that it seems every industry, every interest, has representatives in D.C., which I never really knew," he said. "So I enjoy being part of that legislative process, learning more about Emory's position and the way things work behind the scenes in Washington and on the state level."
Another surprise has been the extent to which Emory is affected by government policy on a range of issues, not just the apparent ones like education, financial aid, even health care. "I know every office says it's understaffed, but we could get by with a staff of 20," said Berry, whose officemates number five. "There's so many issues to be addressed on a University level: financial aid, tax issues, computer or copyright issues, all the medical and health issues. We put together our federal and state agendas, pretty thick books, outlining where we need to go."
It hasn't all been easy; Berry admits to sometimes having trouble "deciphering" the thick legalspeak that is any piece of legislation, much less a federal bill. Law school would help in this respect, and Berry would like to go back to school sometime in the near future. One of the things about becoming a politician, he said, is there's no "beaten path" he has to take. "It's a lot different than becoming, say, a doctor," he said. "You go to medical school, you do your residency and internship, and you're a doctor. It would be easy if someone just handed me an itinerary and said, 'Here's your life for the next 10 years,' but it's not like that at all."
In the meantime, Berry is training for the task not just in his regular, 9-to-5 job, but in his "extracurricular" duties as well. He serves on Employee Council and has spearheaded the council's recent effort to examine the University's policy of not matching retirement fund contributions of employees under the age of 26.
"In the University's defense, what it's doing is fine under the law, and overall Emory has a very good benefits package," Berry said. "But if I'm asked to work just as hard as the person next to me, then I think I should be treated like the person next to me." The Employee Council resolution, which Berry wrote, recommending Emory amend this policy is under consideration now by the University Senate.
Berry is 24 years old; even if Emory opts to change its policy, it's entirely possible such a move would be finalized after Berry's 26th birthday. If nothing else, the experience has taught Berry two things that will prove useful to him should he ever run for political office: the importance of achieving consensus and the knowledge that sometimes those who work hardest for a goal don't get to personally reap the rewards.
"It's like the metaphor of planting a tree: you're not going to see the effects for many years down the road," he said. "Politics, in a lot of ways, is like that. If you want instant gratification, I don't think this is the place to be."