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The Edgy Interview: Rachel Laing

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Rachel has worked with Competitive Edge on a number of local projects here in San Diego. She’s also worked with John Nienstedt on the not-so-pleasant divorce of the local Alzehimer’s Association chapter from the Chicago-based national organization. Aside from being among San Diego’s most active and witty twitterati, Rachel notably stars (along with Jason Roe of Roe Strategic) in the Voice of San Diego banner ads you keep complementing us on. ~JN


Rachel Laing, Laing Strategic Communications

What’s the most important issue facing California, why, and what should be done about it?

Housing affordability is the biggest issue I see. If we continue along our current path, we’ll reach a tipping point where we start to bleed talent to other states, and companies will follow. California is a wonderful place to live, but at a certain point, when residents are broke because housing costs are so high, their eyes start wandering. Denver is a pretty nice, too.

Thankfully, this reality isn’t lost on our elected leaders, and we’re finally seeing a lot of action at the state level to address it. We have the investors and the strong market to build a lot more housing stock, but we just have too many veto points along the way that create too much uncertainty. The number of reviews and the ease of fighting and delaying projects through the courts create an unbelievable gauntlet. I think the San Diego City Council finally gets it, and you’re seeing a lot of leadership and willingness to make tough calls – approving great projects in the face of a bunch of angry neighbors who oppose projects simply out of fear of change. Removing veto points through state law and courage of conviction by our government leaders is what will make the difference.


If you could go back in time, which former President would you like to chat with and what’s the topic?

I’d want to talk to Harry Truman about the days leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima and his later reflections on that decision. I cannot imagine the weight it must have had on his soul. Did he fully appreciate the geopolitical implications of deploying such a weapon? Would he do it again, faced with the same decision?


Which American from history do you identify with most and why?

I relate to both the mission and what I know about the life and background of Alice Paul, one of the most notable U.S. women’s suffragists. Paul’s work fighting for women’s right to vote was an outgrowth of her upbringing in a household where both parents believed in gender equality and valued working for the betterment of society. She had a relatively comfortable life growing up, but that didn’t diminish her sense of purpose; it actually spurred her to want to give back and do more. I imagine that she felt fortune smiled on her, and she ought to do something to advance what she saw as her family’s good values. I relate to that. Honoring what my parents have given me in terms of a stable life, an education and passion for social justice is a driving force for me.


What music are you listening to these days?

I wish I could offer up some cool, obscure band, but the reality is, I’ve got pretty pedestrian tastes in music. I like listening to British pop and New Wave from the ‘80s – Squeeze, The Smiths, Joy Division. My kids think I’m such a dork.


What was the last book of fiction you read? Give me a one-sentence review.

Honolulu, by Alan Brennert. It was the first book I’ve ever taken from a Little Free Library. It’s a historical novel about a young Korean girl who runs off to Hawaii in the early 20th century. It’s not high literature, but the story was compelling and I learned a great deal about Honolulu as a young city and about Korean culture.


What was your favorite musical genre as a teenager and what is it now?

I mostly listened to 91X as a teenager, except for my hippie phase when I mostly listened to ‘60s rock. Now I don’t have a favorite; I’ll listen to pretty much anything — except country. I cannot abide country music and will try to make an immediate escape from any situation where it’s playing.


If you were a competitive eater, which food would be your specialty?

Pasta. I can put away an incredible amount of the stuff. When I was a broke college student in Boston, my friends and I would go to this restaurant in the North End that would serve an entire pound of pasta on a plate for about $7, and I had no problem eating it. [ed. Damn!] In retrospect, the orders were probably meant to be served family-style among several diners. They were probably horrified that we each had our own giant plate of pasta for a meal.


What’s your favorite memory from sports and when did it happen?

I don’t ever remember being as elated as I was as last year when the Cubs won the World Series. I actually got light-headed and even cried. I lived in Chicago for a couple years in my 20s, and I learned to appreciate baseball at a Cubs game. And just the loving patience of Chicagoans waiting 108 years for a victory, it was just a really special moment.


Favorite alcoholic beverage in winter and summer?

I enjoy red wine in winter and lager-style beer in summer. There is truly nothing better than an ice cold Pacifico with lime on a warm summer day.


When you retire, what’s your second career going to be, if any?

I would like to be a bartender — the kind who people confide in and ask for advice from. My husband is a talented amateur mixologist, so we dream about opening a bar in Costa Rica someday.


Most people say they got a lucky break at some point. Tell us about yours.

I started my business in 2013 more or less involuntarily. The public affairs firm I was working at basically dissolved with the sudden departure of its president and VP, so I half-jokingly posted on Facebook that I was launching Laing Strategic Communications. It wasn’t planned, and I didn’t expect it to last; I figured I’d basically freelance until a job opportunity came up. Now almost five years later, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best people in San Diego public affairs on projects I’m really proud to be helping push forward. I probably would never have done this had it not been forced to by circumstances.


What advice do you have for young people starting out in your profession?

Never refuse an offer of help, and never refuse a request for a favor. Both are signs that the other person has confidence and are an opportunity to prove yourself and build relationships. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done favors for others that had no immediate benefit to myself that paid off years down the road. Similarly, when people offer you help, they’re basically trying to forge a connection because they see potential in you. Take them up on it, even if it doesn’t seem immediately valuable. You won’t regret it.


When you were a child, what did you want to be when grew up?

I wanted to be an attorney. My mom was a class action litigator, and I admired her work to address all sorts of injustices – sex discrimination, environmental contamination, Ponzi schemes that robbed old people of their life’s savings. In my teens, I decided I wanted to be a journalist. My mom always hoped I’d eventually go to law school, but it never appealed to me as an adult.


Name a living person you admire. Why do you admire them?

Nikki Clay. She’s an icon to a lot of my friends in the public affairs world because she’s not only successful and influential, but she manages to also be warm and kind and lovely in what can be a pretty ugly business. She was the chair of the Chamber board when I worked there in my very first PR job after I left journalism, and I’ll never forget how good she was to me as I was learning on the job and making a fair number of mistakes because of my inexperience. She could have dismissed me for my cluelessness, but she was patient and helped me be more successful in the role. I appreciate that more and more as time goes on.


If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I would be more comfortable asking others for things — donations, favors, what have you. I very much enjoy giving to others, so you would think it would make me more comfortable being on the other side of the table, but I’m terrible at it. I cannot imagine how people can bear running for office and dialing through a list, asking for money. I would get hives.


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