Popkey on leaving journalism for political PR

popkeyWhy’d he go?

By Emilie Ritter Saunders

On July 29, 2014 veteran Idaho political journalist Dan Popkey announced he was leaving a 30-year career with the Idaho Statesman to become the press secretary for Republican Congressman Raul Labrador.

Boise State Public Radio called Labrador’s office to request an interview with Popkey to better understand why, at 55-years-old, he was ready to make a career change.

This is an expanded version of Scott Graf’s interview with Popkey that originally aired Aug. 8.

Q: Why did you decide to leave journalism?

It was the right moment. I’m 55 and I’ve been thinking about a second act. And the congressman came to me and it was not an easy decision. I agonized about it. I loved what I did at the Statesman, and I had a relationship with readers that I’m missing. I’m sort of grieving about this. On the other hand, being 55, I know you can keep your mind sharp if you do something different. In a way, it’s a homecoming for me. Politics is what drew me to reporting. I was a page my senior year in high school, in the U.S. House. I worked on the Hill, I was an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow in the late 1980s. I worked in a Senate office. So it’s not a foreign place for me. And the idea of applying the skills I’ve learned in 33 years of journalism, on the ground in an active way, instead of being an observer, I think it’s a good move for me. Although, not made without a lot of thought.

Q: You say journalism remains your first love, and you say you’re already missing readers – those two things seem to run counter to your decision.

I think it’s important I acknowledge this was a life change that took a lot of thought. When I say I’ll miss readers, I do, I miss that relationship, and people coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, did you know about this?’ That’s a thrilling thing to run down a story that nobody else has. But I will now be doing that in another way.

I’ve been using the word ‘apply’ and applying the skills of journalism to representing the congressman who represents half of Idaho. It will be rewarding, and has already been rewarding. My anxiety level has reduced each day.

Q: Some have speculated a lot of reasons for making this change. Was it the money?

Really the money was a wash. The benefits are better, federal benefits are better than what McClatchy has. But it really was not a financial decision. It was a ‘I need to do something new, I’m ready, and these opportunities don’t come along very often’. That was the advice I got from my 22-year-old college daughter. She said ‘Dad, you’ve got to take chances.’ That was the advice that came back to me more often than anything else I heard. Sometimes you’ve got to take a leap.

Q: Some people have reacted in shock to your decision, why do you think that is?

People caricature people, and I suppose people have caricatured me and the congressman. People think I’m a left-winger and that he’s a tea party guy. And I think we’re both far more complex than that. We both love and are students of the process. An effective communications team is a vital thing for a congressman. He’s got to be able to communicate what he’s doing to his constituents. Rather than eight or 10 stories per week, I’m writing one. And it’s about the same guy and what he’s doing.

People who know me well, got it in half a beat. I’ve known him from the time he was elected in 2006, and I was impressed by his guts, his character, and his curiosity. I always thought he had a gift, from early on I thought he had a gift.

Q: Is this an endorsement of Rep.Labrador’s political future?

One of the first things we talked about was how much risk there is involved in this, and the first thing my father said to me was ‘these guys run every two years’, and I said ‘yeah, and this is a guy who takes chances.’ I think he has great promise, but I think my job security would have been greater had I stayed where I was.

Who knows what he’s going to do in two or four years? I can say, if this is an implied question, we’ve talked about what his plans are for four years out and running for governor. I think I’m reading him correctly; he does not know what he’ll to do.

He wants to get better representing the 1st District, and he thinks I can help him do that. And that’s what this is about.

To suggest that working for Raul Labrador is an assurance of long term professional success, I think he’s a little too unpredictable for that.

Q: How closely do you align with Labrador’s politics?

I am a contrarian. I am not left, right, center. I’m a contrarian. I ask a lot of questions. I think in a heavily Republican state where my job focused on holding elected officials accountable, that meant that I criticized Republican action and policy more than Democrats.

I think people misunderstand my politics. My role as a reporter was to be a critic. As for any differences I have with my new boss, he’s the boss. And I’m loyal to him. And I will be able to convey his message to the best of my ability.

Q: How difficult will that be?

It’s already happened; I’m sitting in this studio against my will. They said, ‘Hey, Scott Graf wants to talk to you.’ I said, ‘That story is over.’ I didn’t feel like it was a good idea to extend this story. I advised the congressman and his staff that this story is not me, the story is him. But they convinced me that it was worth doing. I’m here because I work for him.

I understand that because of my longevity and profile, people want to know what was I thinking. There is a pretty strong affinity between your listeners and the Statesman subscriber base. So maybe one advantage of doing this is to thank them for being careful and critical and kind readers over these last 30 years.

Q: How comfortable are you with the state of Idaho journalism?

I don’t think it’s restricted to this state. Media are struggling. The financial pressure is substantial. I think fundamentally, however, this republic can’t survive without an independent media. And the business model hasn’t caught up to that, but it will, it has to.

If we want to be a free country, we have to have a free media.

This interview has been edited for clarity. You can listen to the broadcast interview at Boise State Public Radio’s website, here. Emilie Ritter Saunders is a reporter at Boise State Public Radio, and is the secretary of the Idaho Press Club board.