Fred Hochberg was a Fall Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. He recently concluded his service as Chairman of the Export-Import (EXIM) Bank of the United States, serving as Chairman for eight years, the longest term in EXIM’s history, making him one of the highest-ranking LGBT individuals in the United States government. He sat down with the Gate to discuss his role as EXIM Chairman and as an LGBT advocate.
“Both my parents immigrated to America. And the reason I go back that far is—growing up in a family of immigrants, particularly immigrants who have escaped Germany on my mom’s side and Eastern Europe on my dad’s side, I had a sense of justice; a sense of equality and the importance of voting and democracy.
My parents were both in business, and I naturally gravitated toward that direction. I went to work in my family business, started by my mom actually. When I got there, the business did about $4 million a year. After working there for eighteen to twenty years, we were just under $200 million a year and it was a public company. So, I had an exciting run.
But, going back to my family and the sense of social justice, and, frankly, dealing with my own sexuality, I felt that I wanted to do something beyond that. I worked on Bill Clinton’s campaign in ‘92, building some support in the LGBT community, and with all that, I decided to leave my family business in ‘93. It was very hard to do.
In the ‘60s and ‘70’s, though, it was much harder to come out than in this century. Doing stuff on LGBT rights was a way of finding a remedy. I worked on ‘Gays in the Military’ issues early in the Clinton presidency, until President Clinton came up with ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’ Then I worked on Clinton’s re-election in ‘96.”
Hochberg’s initial work on LGBT issues set off his long period of service in government, during which he quickly found his way back in the realm of business.
“I had a very lucky day. The day after Bill Clinton’s election in ‘96, he was going down the receiving line, shaking everyone’s hand, and I said to him, ‘Mr. President, congratulations! I’d like to come work for you.’ He turned around, pointed to a woman, and said, ‘call Nancy tomorrow.’ So guess what I did.
I called her tomorrow! That’s what you do when the president tells you to call someone tomorrow. That’s how balls started rolling in terms of, ‘What you would like to do?’
I went to work in the second term at the Small Business Administration (SBA), which was to that point one of the best experiences I had in my life. That was a different environment. Bill Clinton was the only president who actively and forcefully and robustly put openly LGBT people in jobs. It never happened before.
Sometimes parents would come talk to be at the SBA because they had a gay son or a lesbian daughter, and seeing that their boss was openly gay, I hope, made it easier in how they treated their kids.”
Though Hochberg officially worked at the SBA, he did not stop championing LGBT rights. He became co-chair of the Humans Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy organization in the US. He also started a scholarship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Service that became the Bohnett Leaders Fellowship, which provides financial assistance for LGBT senior-level executives to further their leadership potential in government.
“[After Clinton’s term,] I got back to New York and became a dean at the Milano School of International Affairs at the New School. Even though I was in New York City, there was discomfort among some trustees with an openly gay dean. That was 2004, not that long ago.”
Soon enough, Hochberg returned to government. He worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and then joined the Obama administration at EXIM.
“Even in the early Obama years, there was some questioning: ‘Oh, can a gay person do that job? That’s an important job.’ But LGBT representation in government certainly improved under President Obama. One thing about government: it’s probably the place I’ve worked with the most diversified work force. So, we’re evolving as a society and a culture, we take a few steps forward, some back. We’re making progress but it’s not in a straight line. President Obama was the first one to talk that way.
I had eight extraordinary years with President Obama, promoting U.S. exports, but more importantly, promoting U.S. jobs. Through the work I did at EXIM, we supported 1.4 million jobs over that eight-year period. President Trump has said he believes in American jobs, American manufacturing, American exports—the EXIM bank is front and center of all that stuff.
It was an important priority for President Obama to double US exports, and I wanted to make sure that when we doubled it, we also made sure small businesses were a part of that. I grew up in a family business that was a small business at one time, and I did that work for President Clinton. We got to a point where about 90 percent of the transactions we did at EXIM were for small businesses.”
Progress for LGBT Americans and then for small businesses—the type of social justice work that Hochberg initially entered government to pursue—indeed materialized throughout his years in government, and particularly at EXIM. As Hochberg now takes a break from government and looks ahead…
“I [initially] got more involved in government because the way find a remedy is to look at: ‘Where is the policy made, where are the laws made, how do we make those changes?’
By the nature of our country, people are skeptical about the role of government, sort of a built-in skepticism. That’s just part of our DNA—people came to this country to avoid taxation, escape the tyranny of a king, or even later in my family’s immigration, escape bad governments.
But, having worked in government, I have enormous respect for people there. And now that President Trump has actually nominated five EXIM board members, I’m excited that EXIM can be fully operational again. Yeah, so I’m by nature an optimist—even though people may be discouraged right now.”
This interview was edited for conciseness and clarity. Image is licensed under Creative Commons; the original can be found here.
Elaine Chen is a second-year Political Science and Economics major. She's also a staff writer for South Side Weekly, a weekly newspaper that covers South Side Chicago civic and cultural news. On campus, she's involved with the dance group UChicago Maya.