America’s Entertainment & Technology Leaders recently had the opportunity to interview Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI), who gained fame long before his Congressional days when he started out on MTV’s The Real World Boston in 1997. Duffy’s career experience is unique in that not only did he get to be a part of reality TV when it was still in its infancy, but he also gleaned important lessons that he says still help him in his current role as the representative for the central and northern Wisconsin region. His stint with MTV also led him to star in a Road Rules: All Stars special, where he met his wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, and with whom he shares eight (soon-to-be nine) children.
Duffy represents a large agricultural district with plentiful farms that operate as multimillion dollar entities for the area, and the Congressman had a lot to say about how access to high-speed internet is helping his district’s rural residents, schools and businesses stay on the cutting edge of technology and information, and of course about his days on The Real World and how it helped shape him today.
Take a look at some of the highlights from our conversation below.
Charter Communications recently invested over $800,000 to bring high-speed internet service to Thorp, Wis. How is this project making an impact on the community?
So we might have great communities, great workers, but if we don’t have broadband, you can’t get businesses to come to your communities. A perfect example is Thorp, Wisconsin, and a program (Wisconsin’s Broadband Forward) that helped them clear barriers to get investment for broadband companies to come in, specifically Charter, to invest in Thorp. … You have video, voice, broadband, all-access in a small community. If you’re looking for where you are going to go as a business, where you’re going to expand, broadband access won’t be one of the reasons you won’t invest in Thorp. Instead you can look at all the benefits a small community can offer your company, the work ethic and the people. I look at what Thorp is doing in breaking down those barriers and incentivizing the investment of Charter.
It’s expensive to build out broadband in rural America. If we’re going to see a broadband buildout, the buildout has to come from some federal and state support. If we’re going to see a Thorp, Wis., happen in other communities, it’s going to happen because there are partner dollars coming from the federal and state governments. I think the payback is huge because of the growth that can happen in these communities when they can access broadband and information like other communities across the country.
What role does broadband access play in STEM and education in your district?
Making sure that rural communities and their schools have great STEM programs so that our rural kids can take advantage of all the opportunities across Wisconsin and the country is incredibly important. To have the best programs and the best education means you need the best information, which comes from broadband access. We have great FAB labs [a high-technology workspace and curriculum] in our district. We have a bill that says let’s give grants to our smaller communities to build out their FAB labs and to give our rural kids the same skill sets and opportunities that larger communities have. Our FAB labs have been very successful, kids are thriving in them. And they’re able to take advantage of those great opportunities that come from a strong rural education and a strong work ethic that they gained from their families and the community in which they were raised.
Let’s pivot to your experience on The Real World.
The Real World is a unique show. They take seven strangers from wildly all walks of life. People who would never associate with each other. They force them to live in a house for six months. They have conflict and disagreement because they don’t come from the same experiences. I was forced to live with people who were so different than me. When I first got there, I saw the stark differences I had with my roommates. But when I left, I realized I had way more in common with them than I ever imagined. It’s a good lesson in that if you give people a chance, if you open yourself up, you’ll see that you share more in common with someone than maybe you didn’t think you did just because you come from different walks of life, economic backgrounds, faiths. That’s a good lesson for all young people.
And I’ve come to the House, to Congress and have seen the same thing. If you give people a chance, if you build a friendship and a trust, it’s amazing the kind of legislation you can work on together and how many points of agreement you actually have. But a lot of people don’t make that effort or put themselves out there or take that risk. If they did, I think our Congress would be far more effective and we’d have a far higher approval rating with the American people.
Are there other life lessons that you took away from your days on reality TV?
To bring people into your life [through social media], into your campaign and to get buy in, even though they might not be going to the event you are going to but they still get to experience it through your phone [as you update them on your social media channels]—that I can say I was very comfortable with doing after having been filmed on The Real World for six months, and then doing the Road Rules special where I met my wife. It made me feel very comfortable in front of the cameras. You share your story and your life, your experiences and your views with people who will then see it, whether on Facebook or YouTube.
I do think if you look at politics today, whether it’s Donald Trump or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—there’s an authenticity that both of them have, and you have to feel comfortable talking into a camera about your viewpoints and your ideas, your life experiences. On reality TV, you’re forced to do that every day for a long time. It made it easier for me to embrace social media when I was running for Congress because of my experience on The Real World.