“I’ll take this one because I’ve devoted a lot of my professional career to working to bring more diversity into the conservative movement,” says Neri Martinez.

Martinez, staff director for the Senate Special Committee on Aging, has just been asked why her boss, Senator Tim Scott, Republican from South Carolina, ranking member of the Aging Committee, puts so much stock in diversity, which is all too often seen as more of a liberal watchword than a conservative rallying point.  

Martinez is being interviewed along with her colleague, Sarah Khasawinah, who also works for Senator Scott as deputy staff director for the committee. Khasawinah was working for the committee when Senator Susan Collins was Chairman. Scott asked her to remain.

“I’m a first-generation American” Martinez says. “And so, my parents were forcibly exiled from Cuba, when a communist dictatorship took over. I find that my perspective on the United States and diversity really comes from the origins of why I am here.”

Martinez grew up in Miami’s vibrant and politically conservative Cuban community. The honors graduate of Florida International University in International Business, however, wanted to experience more of the world. “One of the reasons I left Miami is because I actually wanted more diversity in my life,” Martinez says. “So, ironically, I came to Washington D.C. which is a more diverse place for me because now my Cuban-American culture wasn’t the majority culture. This allowed me to be more empathetic to others and really have a greater awareness that I am not the representative of everyone in the country.”

Martinez quickly realized that she had a mission: recruiting from communities that are often underrepresented in conservative politics. In pursuit of this goal, Martinez served as executive director of the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Future Majority Project, which recruited minority candidates to run for office in 50 states. In 2012, Martinez oversaw the RNC’s Hispanic outreach efforts in North Carolina, contributing to the RNC’s only pick up in a swing state that year. Martinez also served as Chief of Staff for the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity at the U.S Department of Energy.

Martinez has a Global Masters of Arts at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She also holds a certificate from Cornell University on Diversity and Inclusion and an Executive Certificate from FIU on Cybersecurity Leadership. She is fluent in Spanish and French.

Diversity is not just about the ballot box for Neri. “Once you have these folks from diverse backgrounds in the ranks, in the leadership, at the table,” she says, “then the benefits of having people who approach things from a different perspective or look at a problem from a different vantage point, to consider a solution that had never been considered before, is critical. I mean, there’s just no end to the value of that. Because, in governance, just as in any place, corporate or politics or otherwise, you can tend toward a sort of monolithic, one culture, ‘group think’ and then you miss out on the perspective that someone else might have to solve a problem. So, diversity is always valuable in any decision-making process, but particularly so in governance because we live in and are governed by a representative democracy.”

“Diversity also means we need more women in politics,” Martinez continued.  “There really aren’t enough. And I think that’s changing certainly a lot, but it is important to have more women representing the Republican Party and to have a perspective on this and to own narratives that too often others define us by. One thing I have to commend the Senator on – in addition to his focus on diversity – is that his staff and our staff here at the Committee on Aging has very good parity between male and female staffers, and very good minority representation. So, we practice what we preach. I think that is something that reflects his heart and his respect for women’s leadership role in politics. I have female mentors as well but really commend, men that seek to mentor and offer women opportunities of leadership in politics. And I think certainly the Senator is one of the best for that.”

The emphasis on diversity comes straight from the top, Sarah Khasawinah interjects. “Our boss, Senator Scott, wrote a book with Trey Gowdy about forming unlikely friendships,” Sarah says. “This book Unified is about how unlikely friendships can create not just tolerance but understanding, appreciation, and healing for our country from the local to the national levels. So, he practices what he preaches. And for me, it comes from my faith as a Muslim woman; being good and kind to others is something that’s a critical tenet of our faith.”

Senator Scott was elected to serve as ranking member of the aging committee in February. He immediately announced two hires, Sarah and Neri. 

“Growing up in Missouri, that’s something that my mom always modeled for me,” Sarah continues. “Whenever a new neighbor came in, she was the first to bake them brownies and always make sure that we were available to help whenever they ever needed anything. Often we were the only Muslims on the block, but I didn’t feel different, I just felt like a part of the community and found that whenever I talk with people of faith from any other faith, we have more in common than we have apart.”

When Sarah was 14, her family moved to Northern Virginia. She was nicknamed “Missouri” at Jeb Stuart High School in Falls Church (now Justice High School). She went to Bryn Mawr College, the prestigious women’s college outside of Philadelphia, where she double majored in English and mathematics. She graduated summa cum laude. She also completed a master’s degree in mathematics. She has a Doctoral degree in Mental Health and a Master’s of Health Sciences in Biostatistics from Johns Hopkins University. Sarah wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on mental health issues in older adults.

“Aging is my number one passion,” Sarah says. Under Chairman Collins, Sarah shepherded more than a dozen bills from innovative ideas to signed laws, including the 2020 reauthorization of the Older Americans Act (OAA). “The Older Americans Act is the landmark law that serves seniors at home, such as through Meals on Wheels and programs for family caregivers. OAA is critical during normal times to provide seniors the resources they need. During COVID, OAA became a lifeline.”

Another key bill that Sarah developed under Senator Collins’ leadership is the BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act, which created the nation’s first public health infrastructure for Alzheimer’s disease to help mitigate risks and change the trajectory of this devastating disease. Sarah’s first bill from start to finish is the RAISE Family Caregiver’s Act, which created a national strategy to support family caregivers. The Senator’s mom is a professional caregiver, so as ranking member, he authored a report this year of his policy priorities related to caregiving.

Khasawinah initially made the jump into policy from academia through the Health and Aging Policy Fellowship Program. “I thought it would be a yearlong field trip to Capitol Hill – but here I am today, six years later, actually making policy and supporting seniors every day.”

Senator Scott was elected to serve as ranking member of the aging committee in February. He immediately announced two hires, Sarah and Neri. 

While special committees such as the Special Committee on Aging do not have legislative authority, they study issues and can make a real difference in people’s lives. 

Sarah explains: “We have had a longstanding tradition in coming up with new ideas to support the aging population and perform oversight on programs that currently are up and running that were written to support older adults, like Medicare, Social Security, so that’s part of the history of the committee. I’ll turn a little bit to Senator Scott’s priorities on the committee that we’ve been particularly focused on. One is biomedical research and medical innovation. So, innovation specifically to bring new treatments and therapies to older adults, making sure that government is supportive in that process. 

“Just recently the Ranking Member released a report called Patients First. That report outlines policy proposals that would support advancing innovation and make sure that treatments get to patients, and specifically older Americans, when they need them. A second priority for Senator Scott on the committee is retirement security and financial security overall. This has been a huge priority for the ranking member, particularly given Covid and what that did to the economy and to seniors. So, we’ve held hearings about older workers returning to the workforce, about creative paths to support older Americans to make sure that they are able to live comfortably and retire as they see fit.” 

Khasawinah continues, “Another priority for the ranking member is protecting older Americans against scams and financial abuse. This is also a legacy issue for the committee, stopping rings of scams and being able to protect older adults so that they don’t fall victim. Just last month we held a hearing on the types of scams that have increased during the Covid pandemic.”

When Neri Martinez and Sarah Khasawinah work together on an issue such as aging, they are able to bring different perspectives to the table.

“Something that I found particularly tragic is that romance scams have increased largely due to the social isolation that seniors are facing being stuck at home not being able to see anyone. We heard from widows who had turned to the internet for companionship and found themselves caught up in romance scams. These scams are really heartbreaking.”

When Neri Martinez and Sarah Khasawinah work together on an issue such as aging, they are able to bring different perspectives to the table. But they have a lot more in common than not. Both grew up as first-generation Americans from diverse backgrounds and both are very strong in their faith and close to their families. Neri’s father is a Reverend and she grew up in the ministry and as a missionary’s daughter. Her father had a church for over 25 years in Miami and continues to serve his community. “I never intended to get into politics necessarily,” she said, “I wanted to study theology, but God had other plans.” “Politics is the business of people and ideas, and my faith drives my approach to both and my role in public service.”

Sarah was inspired to serve the Aging because of her grandfather who was her biggest role model growing up, Neri was also raised closely with her grandparents. They often discuss how the Committee can serve more people like their grandparents and how they can lead and empower their staff to do so as well. That kind of genuine commonality among diversity is a distinguishing feature of Senator Tim Scott’s office and a model for the GOP.