Coffee with a (Former) Spy

Talking politics with Valerie Plame, a political celebrity running for Congress

My meeting with Valerie Plame begins when I furtively follow the former CIA agent into the building. We arrive at Downtown Subscription at exactly the same time, but she chooses a parking spot closer to the door than I do, so she's about a dozen steps ahead. I could shout after her as she walks in the door or run to catch up—but the prospect of tailing, unnoticed, a former spy is too good to pass up.

Once I'd crossed "do something out of a John Le Carré novel" off my bucket list and made myself known, we get our coffee (both black) and sit down next to the window.

Plame moved to the City Different in 2007 with then-husband and former US Ambassador Joe Wilson, the day after the man who can safely be called her nemesis, Scooter Libby—who played a key role in leaking her identity as a spy—was convicted by a federal grand jury. She tells me that she first fell in love with the place after visiting Los Alamos National Labs in her capacity as an anti-nuclear proliferation agent with the CIA.

"We looked," Plame says. "It was like, 'Hey! We can go anywhere. The government's not telling us where to go.' So we looked at many different communities, but I said 'I want to go to Santa Fe.' And I prevailed."

Now that her children have gone off to college, Plame says she's been wondering what's next. She landed on a political campaign, seeking the congressional seat vacated by Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

She's running in the June 2020 Democratic primary against District Attorney Marco Serna, state Rep. Joseph Sanchez (D-Alcalde) and local social justice attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez. Gavin Kaiser of Santa Cruz and Rob Apodaca, who worked in the US Department of Agriculture during the Obama administration, have also filed to run.

During our meeting, Plame rattles off her campaign platform, which sounds more or less like every other candidate's campaign platform. She offers a few tidbits: She talks more on prescription drug costs and their affordability than other candidates so far, and she mentions that her average donation is around $69, although her team says that number could go down after a small-dollar donation push they're planning.

But usually with these kind of interviews, there's some small talk—and, being two people who have a professional interest in politics, we talk about the weather for literally 30 seconds before the conversation shifts to the Democratic Primary debates, which would begin the next evening. What followed was a rare enough thing to hear a candidate speak about: a regular conversation about the issues of the day.

"Is there a candidate that you like?" she asks. "I won't tell anyone."

I see my opportunity.

"I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours," I answer.

"Honestly, I think we have an embarrassment of riches," she replies, not taking the bait. "There's aspects of every one of them that are really important, we just have to roll them up into one body."

She goes on to say that she's not a fan of candidates "picking on one another." The Republicans will do that just fine, she says, and she wishes that they would each focus on their own message.

"For instance," she says. "I'm not this huge Biden fan, but the most recent dust-up is when Biden is using—and once again he's a little gaffe-prone—examples of how he worked with segregationists back in the '70s to say, 'Look. Sometimes you may not like these people but you have to get stuff done.' And that's what I understood his message to be."

"I believe what Biden was trying to say was that you might not always like your bedfellows, but can you maybe get something done?" she continues. "And Cory Booker was apparently pushed by his supporters, who were saying, 'This is your moment, get in there!' I think it has the overall effect of deteriorating the field if you continue to snipe at each other."

I push back a little bit more.

"I thought it was a fair point," I say. "That [Booker] said, 'The guys you're talking about working with and getting things done with wanted to keep me in the back of the bus and make me use a different drinking fountain.'"

Plame again reiterates that she does not think Biden should be the nominee, and acknowledges that Booker made a fair point. "Be that as it may, I don't think he acknowledged what Biden was trying to say, clumsily, awkwardly, in a difficult manner. In the Biden way."

It's illustrative of a broader split within the Democratic Party, and one that has reared its head in local races around the country, where "outsider" candidates challenge establishment figures over their willingness to compromise. It's unclear whether the CD3 race will follow that trajectory, especially with no incumbent in play. Serna has also tacked towards conflict avoidance, emphasizing decorum and civility, whereas Leger doesn't make much hay about how she needs to compromise.

Before long we move to another big national news story: the looming war with Iran. Plame, whose career in the CIA focused on nuclear non-proliferation, has an insider's view on the subject, and she's worried.

"You know, I had a ringside seat in the run-up to the war with Iraq," she says. "And I see a lot of similarities, and a lot of the same people." John Bolton, for example, a major Iraq war booster, is back again as Trump's national security adviser.

"We thought you had a stake through your heart," she says of Bolton. "Nope! Here you are again!"

I ask if she, given her experience in Washington, believes there are people within the Trump administration who want war.

"Without question," she answers quickly. "Bolton is Exhibit A."

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