Michigan state legislative staffer Aaron Keel is passionate about Michigan, politics, and speech writing – and not necessarily in that order.
Keel’s childhood memories are steeped in politics. Conversations around the kitchen table covered topics as kid-friendly as economic and social justice. His mother was an active member of her teacher’s union. He grew up hearing stories of people who participated in the United Autoworkers Sit-Down strike of 1936-37, which happened in his hometown of Flint, Michigan.
“I was aware at a young age that politics has a hand in everything,” Keel says.
That awareness grew into a love of asking questions and eventually, a talent for public speaking. In high school, he had a teacher who pushed him to get involved in debate and forensics. He took home top honors for the first speech he ever gave. “I felt really comfortable and got a rush out of it,” he says.
The rush became a passion that directed his search for a university where he could continue studying speech and debate. He was accepted to the University of West Florida, but when the campus was damaged by Hurricane Katrina just as school was about to begin, Keel had to change plans.
He quickly registered for classes at the University of Michigan-Flint, where he would eventually major in organizational communication and be a founding member of the university’s speech and debate team, led by Dr. Marcus Paroske (M.A., ’99). He was also a founding speech and presentation tutor at the Marian E. Wright Speaking Center.
During Keel’s senior year he interned with former Lieutenant Governor John Cherry as part of the Michigan Leadership Development Program. After graduating from UM-Flint, Keel continued working for Cherry as a part-time staff assistant, helping with media outreach, legislative and policy research, and writing briefing memos, press releases, and opinions.
Keel found his stride as a legislative staffer, but graduate school beckoned and he was eager to immerse himself in rhetorical studies at CSU, a decision strongly influenced by Paroske. Looking back, Keel credits his two years at CSU to the key skills that serve him daily in his current position: thinking and writing.
Keel daily faces a revolving door of issues, people, and assignments that each demands his attention and energy. Yes, he works incredibly long days that become even longer during campaign season. But he delights in processing massive amounts of information in a short period of time while reacting to “things in the moment.”
He’s also guided by the fundamental task of making sure his boss, a democrat in a republican-controlled house, is not caught off guard.
“We don’t get to set the agenda, so we’re reacting to bills that are being passed by drafting last-minute amendments and floor speeches,” says Keel. “I have to make sure he has the necessary background information he needs, that he’s prepared to offer any amendments, and that he can address any line of questioning.”
One of his most satisfying tasks is penning drafts of Rep. Wittenberg’s speeches. He enjoys the rare chance that speech-writing affords to hash out what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. “It’s one of the few times you really have the opportunity to get an argument or idea across with everyone’s full attention,” Keel says.
Keel says that crafting a speech can be a heavy burden, but you never know when you’ll make a difference – which is something he helped his boss achieve in March 2015.
The Michigan House of Representatives was voting on a bill that would allow adoption agencies to refuse services to people based on their faith or beliefs. Before the vote representatives give last speeches and they rarely affect change. According to Keel, by the time a bill gets to a vote, everyone has a good idea of how their colleagues will vote.
“The speech my boss gave actually convinced one of his colleagues to change his vote,” Keel says. “It made the news here.” Despite this victory the bill still passed, but for 28-year old Keel, the opportunity to be a part of change and the political process, to be a part of the conversation about how Michigan will look next year and the years down the road is rewarding.
“I’m truly blessed to be able to do what I do on a daily basis,” Keel says. “To be able to advocate for the type of change I believe in and really get deep into the issues to find compromising solutions to our most pressing problems – it’s fun work. I’m lucky to have this opportunity.”