When he was elected Prep’s Commissioner General his senior year, Rishi Sahgal ’98 had already interned for a U.S. presidential campaign. After graduating, he attended Georgetown University, majored in government, and worked at a political PR firm for a few years there before returning to LA to earn a law degree at USC.
Sahgal worked in the Obama White House for five and a half years before transitioning to the Department of Energy, where he developed an expertise on energy, transportation, and environmental policy—those interlocking spheres which affect our daily lives in countless ways.
Take, for instance, California’s high-speed-rail project. As Senator Dianne Feinstein’s legislative advisor for climate, energy, and transportation, Sahgal works on and thinks about, this project regularly. Is it feasible? Is it fiscally, and/or environmentally responsible? Will it be safe? Who does it serve? Why? Meeting with people on all sides of the debate, “exercising a different muscle every 15 minutes” is his job, Sahgal says, and he loves it.
Sahgal has 40 million constituents to represent and to please. He relishes the information, the negotiation, and the strategizing. He is also mindful of the position California holds as a trendsetting gorilla in the room, with a brand name and a big economy. “California is physically removed from the NY-DC corridor—and that’s good—but we’re not too far removed,” he says. “What California does, with the fifth-largest economy in the world, reverberates, like our insistence on higher fuel economy. Working in Congress, I can elevate what California does and extend it nationwide.”
Climate, energy, and transportation have frequently been at the top of the news amid the pandemic. Then, there was the political upheaval of the last year. Sahgal was working from home on the Biden transition team, horrified and worried for friends and colleagues, when the Capitol building was breached. He says now that things have calmed down and the military presence is dissipating. “We’re glad to not get alerts on our phones,” he says, adding that he’s extremely proud of the “two senior California women” standing behind the podium at the State of the Union, calling it “momentous.”
A momentous act for Sahgal came just two days before the Capitol riots, as he saw his first major bill passed. The Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, a reaction to the loss of 34 lives off Santa Barbara on the dive boat Conception, was part of the congressional override of former President Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, which required bipartisan support in both houses.
He’s realistic about what the federal government can and does accomplish. “I am optimistic: the activism of the young people coming into our office as interns has been inspiring,” he notes. He remembers his own passion, working on campaigns and as a White House staffer. He says there is definitely an esprit de corps as a young politico, but over the years he has felt that “a dose of cynicism is also necessary. Change can be a years-long process, and what I often think of as a commonsense measure takes effort and persistence.
“Norms and institutions are important and irreplaceable,” he believes, and points out that the last year has proved how interconnected we all are, “If I am fully vaccinated in DC, but people halfway around the world are not—that is a problem of safety for all,” Sahgal says. “We have a responsibility to each other, and the planet, and to the future, and we need to live up to that.”
Photo credit: Lawrence Jackson