Johnnie Podcast Goes on the Job with New Mexico Congresswoman
April 5, 2021 | By Eve Tolpa
Podcast producer and host Mary-Charlotte Domandi (SFGI91) says the impulse to create her latest project, “Diary of a Congresswoman,” was “entirely a whim.”
Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives by New Mexico’s District 3 voters in November 2020, and right afterwards Domandi was on the phone offering her congratulations. It was then that she floated the idea for a podcast chronicling the new congresswoman’s first 100 days in office—and was amazed when Leger Fernandez said yes.
“She thought it would be a good opportunity for reflection in what would inevitably be an extremely busy job that doesn’t normally allow for such reflection,” Domandi recalls.
The two women had attended Yale together as undergraduates but didn’t meet until about a decade ago. Although Domandi frequently examined New Mexico politics in her former job as host of the Santa Fe Radio Cafe for local public station KSFR, she characterizes “Diary” as existing “somewhere in a fuzzy boundary between political journalism and a series of conversations between friends.”
The result is akin to a civics lesson filtered through the lens of real-time personal contemplation, where, Domandi explains, “we learn something about the process of democracy and the challenges and rewards of being a legislator.”
During her time as a St. John’s student, Domandi was “eager to learn, and I still am.” She cites “listening, close reading, paying more attention to the text than to commentaries on the text” as some of the skills she honed at the Graduate Institute and continues to use in her working life.
Not surprisingly, her job hinges on crafting effective questions, and for “Diary” these arise from numerous sources, including the news of the day and Leger Fernandez’s own interests: voting rights, economic development, equity and justice for historically oppressed people, and the health of the environment, to name a few. Domandi also takes questions from listeners, “which is great, because they come with problems and issues that I wouldn’t necessarily have known to ask about.”
She puts together the “almost daily” podcast with the help of assistant producer Max Walukas (SF11), whose role varies from project to project. “In this case,” he says, “I have supported the show by developing business relationships, preparing pitches, and general project management to keep track of loose ends.”
“Working with a fellow Johnnie is really a pleasure,” he adds. “Collaborative discussion is critical in a work environment, especially on a developing project where processes and responsibilities are being established. Mary-Charlotte and I have great rapport partially because of her enthusiasm about subjects across the academic spectrum. That sort of interdisciplinary approach is refreshing to be around.”
“I couldn’t ask for a better collaborator,” Domandi says of Walukas. “He’s a good thinker and doesn’t have a big ego. He looks at a problem and comes up with ways to solve it.”
The audio installments are short “because Teresa is very busy; frankly it’s amazing that she has time for this at all. And they’re intended to be snapshots of her days and specific topics.” By delving into those topics, Domandi finds herself gaining a wider perspective on congressional processes and procedures.
“One thing I hadn’t thought about is how very much [Leger Fernandez] works with her constituents in her district, both individuals and governments,” Domandi says. “She has spoken to every mayor and county commission in her district and has a clear sense of what they need” in terms of program funding for things like schools, vaccine clinics, and domestic violence shelters.
For Walukas, the biggest revelation is the mere fact of the podcast’s existence. “It’s unusual for a journalist to get this level of access to an elected official on the federal level,” he says. “It’s an exciting opportunity, and we had a fairly short timeline to put a show together that does justice to the subject matter.”
Many of Domandi’s other podcast series (like “Down to Earth,” created in conjunction with the Quivira Coalition, and “Thought Huddle,” commissioned by Arizona State University) comprise discrete storytelling units characterized by a beginning, middle, and end. “Diary,” however, is a work in progress, always evolving.
“When we started we couldn’t have predicted the events of January 6th,” she says. “If there is a through line or a narrative arc, I don’t think I’ll know what it is until it’s over.”
Until then, Domandi is “riding the wave,” right alongside her listeners.