On a warm Saturday morning in October, Northwestern alumnus Ethan Reiss landed at Chicago O’Hare International Airport with bags in hand and immediately headed to a local farmer’s market with Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.
“She bought a ton of produce at the farmers market, and brought it home. And then on the way back to D.C., she brought that corn with her, so I’m just lugging over a suitcase full of corn,” Reiss said.
Reiss, who graduated from Weinberg in 2021, is Duckworth’s scheduling and accessibility assistant. Duckworth uses a wheelchair, so Reiss is often tasked with checking locations for accessibility. He also acts as the senator’s “body man:” If you’ve watched "West Wing," he’s Duckworth’s Charlie Young. If you haven’t watched "West Wing," it just means he’s Duckworth’s personal assistant.
Duckworth is running for re-election, so Reiss has spent the last twenty weeks crisscrossing the nation with the junior Democratic senator — and watching Northwestern football games from his phone.
Their days are full of motion, often starting with a call to the Transportation Security Administration. Sen. Duckworth is part of a pilot program for wounded veterans where a TSA agent walks them through security and allows them to skip the line. And, of course, no day is complete without Reiss and the senator falling asleep in Chicago traffic.
Reiss says every day is different, but a recent Saturday at work started at Reagan International Airport at 8 a.m. Eastern and ended at a steakhouse in River North at 8 p.m. Central. Reiss has an apartment in Chicago, but he often spends his nights in a hotel in D.C. or near the senator’s home in Hoffman Estates, a suburb about 20 minutes west of O’Hare. These thirteen hour days may seem extreme, but it’s nothing new for Reiss.
“I was band staff,” said Reiss, who initially came to Northwestern as a Bienen student. As a first-year, he didn’t know if he wanted to go all in on music education, but he did know that he wanted to graduate in four years. After a year taking both Bienen and Weinberg courses, Reiss spent a summer debating which major to go with before settling on political science.
This also isn’t Reiss’ first time getting involved in an Illinois midterm election. In 2018, he interned for Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss in his bid for governor. After Biss lost his primary, Reiss interned for Laura Fine, who ran for (and won) Biss’ newly vacated seat in the Illinois Senate.
After graduating, Reiss spent a year working for the nonprofit organization World Chicago. There, Reiss realized that he didn’t want a job that required him to sit behind a desk.
“I started shifting my job searching priorities to mainly campaigns, but also just stuff where I could be on my feet a bit more,” Reiss said.
Reiss applied to the Duckworth campaign in early May this year, and thought he had been passed over.
“Out of the blue, I got a call from them,” Reiss said. “I do two interviews within the span of like five days, and then they offer me the job in mid June.”
By July 1, he was on the campaign. Reiss got to meet Sen. Duckworth three days later while walking with the team at the Hyde Park Independence Day Parade.
“She's using the motorized scooter at this parade, and she's making jokes like, ‘We’re falling behind,’" Reiss said. "Normally she can go pretty fast in that thing, too. She needs to attach rocket boosters and go flying, and that she's gonna complain in the [Veteran Affairs] about that: they didn't make her chair fast enough and didn’t give her rockets, but she has a good sense of humor, thankfully, which I think is important in this job.”
With all that time traveling with the senator, I was hoping that Reiss would come to me with a lot of Capitol Hill gossip. But after a long day on the campaign trail, Reiss shared that the time spent in transit is more an opportunity to rest than to talk. Traveling is often the only downtime Duckworth gets.
“She has little kids, so she's either talking to her kids back home, or she's just on her phone, playing a game or browsing Target, or Amazon, or whatever,” Reiss said.
Reiss didn’t have a background in accessibility before joining the campaign, and working in accessibility has changed the way he looks at daily life. One moment came while doing an accessibility check for a fundraiser on an architecture boat tour. When Reiss came across inaccessible elements of the boat, he asked the staff what they normally did when a wheelchair user wanted to go on one of these boats. They responded that they typically just lifted the person up. “That is completely unacceptable,” Reiss told them.
For the campaign, they were able to bring their own ramps, making their events accessible (except for the bathrooms), but most wheelchair users don’t have an advanced team scoping for accessibility and a group of campaign staffers to buy and set up extra ramps to go on a boat tour.
Reiss also emphasized the importance of knowing when to take a step back.
“If she needs help, she'll ask for it. And she has asked for it. She's not afraid to ask for help, but at the same time, you know she doesn't [always need it],” Reiss said.
Reiss added that the work isn't easy and his job will wrap up at the end of November. But the 13-hour days are worth it for the “once in a lifetime experience.”
“Am I making the most money in the world? No, of course not,” Reiss said. “My brother's going into consulting.He's going to make three times what I'm making. But I truly believe in what I'm doing. And I think that it really helps. And it's really important.”