Krystal Ball is a co-host on MSNBC’s “The Cycle,” which airs daily at 3 p.m. ET. She also hosts a web-only video show, “Krystal Clear.” She is a CPA who worked with the U.S. federal courts to redesign their accounting systems and she created an educational software company. In 2010 she ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 1st District of her native Virginia. The race drew national attention when a Republican blog published photos of Ball partying in college. She spoke about the sexist treatment of women candidates of both parties in an essay, “The Next Glass Ceiling,” published on Huffington Post. She and husband Jonathan Dariyanani have a daughter and a son.
You were an economics major at the University of Virginia. What was the career path you saw ahead of you then?
I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I graduated I ended up taking a job not totally in my field with a federal government contractor doing non-technical design for accounting software and working with the U.S. federal court system. We developed software they would use to see whether people paid their fines, received restitution, how much and so on. I went around the county helping to build that, implement it and train people to use it.
Was that interesting?
It was. It was federal government accounting so that’s not going to be incredibly interesting but I got to travel all over the country. I was in Louisiana and South Dakota, Nebraska, Virgina, California. That part of it was great.
I liked talking to users about what they needed and then translating that into technical language for the developers. I did that for a while but I was ready to go in a different direction. I also went back to school to get my CPA license because it was relevant to the field I was in.
I’d already accepted a job with another firm when it happened that I took a red-eye flight from San Francisco to DC. On that flight was my future husband. We sat next to each other. He was doing educational software development. We started talking and I told him what I did and that I was interested in a career change. He hired me to do some work for him in the evenings and weekends part time.
A few months later that turned into us moving in together and getting married. I quit what I was doing to work with him. The two of us created a consultancy and we did some very interesting work [building learning software used in public and private schools around the world].
What shifted your interest toward politics?
Really it was becoming a mother. It so happened that my daughter was born the day before the presidential primary in 2008. It was a very heady time politically. I’d always been above average in political engagement.
Had you been an active worker for candidates?
No. None of that. I wasn’t involved in politics in college and I wasn’t out knocking on doors.
Did your parents talk politics much when you were growing up?
No. My mom was involved with the school board but not in any partisan way. Neither of my parents strongly identified with either party although my mother is more liberal than my father. I may now have talked my mother into thinking of herself as a Democrat. But then there wasn’t political talk in the house.
But once I became a mother, I really had a strong sense of needing to be more directly engaged. That was one spark for me. Another was the town in Virginia we lived in then. It was a Rust Belt town, a manufacturing-economy town that had crumbled underneath the people who lived there. They were struggling with figuring out what was going to happen to them and the town next.
[My husband and I] sometimes worked outside the U.S. and we were in Jordan on election night 2008. Watching your own country’s political system from the outside looking in can be interesting. For me it cemented how important politics really is. Here we were halfway around the world and people really cared about our election and were following it closely. They felt that it mattered to them, and it did.
The final impetus was seeing the film “No End in Sight” about the Iraq War and the reconstruction and how bungled it was. The cronyism of it was shocking: kids of big political donors were put in powerful positions as a perk. I found it unbelievable that that could be happening. I thought it was symptomatic of many problems in our political system and that I needed to do something. My husband said, “Why don’t you run for Congress?”
Did you say, “I’ll do it!”?
I thought it was totally insane because it was. At first I didn’t entertain the idea at all. But he believed in it and in my ability to do it. I didn’t have the self-confidence then to believe it was something I could do. But he gradually convinced me. It came down to, “What’s the worst thing that could happen? If you lose it’s not the end of the world. You at least deserve to give it a try.”
During the campaign, things turned a bit nasty with photos released of you partying and drinking in college. That became the talk of the campaign. How dispiriting was that?
It was horrible. One of the things I was sensitive to, and am still sensitive to as a young woman with a weird name is being taken seriously. I worked incredibly hard on the campaign and took time away from my baby and my family to do what I believed in. I built a team and a campaign and raised a lot of money and did all those things you’re supposed to do. When the photos were released it felt like it was all crumbling beneath me.
I felt embarrassed that people who stuck out their necks for me and believed in me would be disappointed in me. So it was incredibly hard and, yes, dispiriting. It was the feeling of being out of control. Things were being written about me where frequently the facts were wrong. It was partisan and nasty and ugly.
How do you view it now?
The irony is that there are few things I’m more proud of than how I responded to that set of circumstances. I didn’t hide. I came out and said this is nonsense, this is sexist, this is a distraction from the campaign and people responded to that, and some agreed with it.
I also got some media attention from it and appeared on cable news shows. A few thought I acquitted myself well enough that after the election they continued to ask me back to talk about a variety of topics. And that’s how I ended up where I am now.
Did the election experience give you confidence that you handle doing television news?
Yes. Once you’ve been through an experience like that where you’ve had ugly things said about you, where you feel as though you’ve had your clothes ripped off in a public square, it takes away a lot of fear around other things.
Everyone in the public eye faces criticism and those criticisms feel much smaller and I can put them in perspective and not let them get to me. I’ve been through it before so I know the trajectory of what happens. I can see the other side of it right from the beginning. I know that this is a blip that won’t last because people always move on.
What did you learn about politics or people from that experience?
Even though I had negative experiences, most of it was very positive. The campaign was positive. There’s a very special thing about running for office where people you’re meeting for the first time really open up to you because you’re there as a receptacle for their hopes and wishes.
That aspect of it was very special. I saw the best of people that balanced seeing the worst of humans tearing each other apart to get power.
I learned that in a lot of political races, especially at the house level, a lot of it is just about the year and the district and incumbency and gerrymandering and factors you have no control over.
And it’s simple, but I really learned that you have to figure out what you can and can’t control and let go of what you can’t. You have to set the right goals because bad goals lead you to make bad decisions. Of course you want to win a political campaign, but, frankly, winning isn’t in your control. What you control is putting every bit of effort you can into running a campaign you’re proud of. That’s in your control; winning is not. So winning shouldn’t be your goal.
You said you were drawn into politics because of what you saw and that you needed to do something to make a change. You didn’t get that chance in Congress. Does what you’re doing now make you feel you’re addressing that need to make things better?
I hope so. When you’re doing job you get caught up in the daily grind of it. I love what I do. Every day I feel blessed and privileged. But I am here because I hope I can make a difference and occasionally shine a spotlight on issues that need that. I want to provide a voice for people who don’t get to be in the national media and don’t get that kind of platform.
In a lot of ways I feel I have more power to affect change here than I would if I were one of 435 and in the minority in Congress.
Recently you said you weren’t sure that Hillary Clinton was the right person at this time to be running for president. That was widely picked up and repeated and debated. Does it surprise you sometimes that can voice an opinion and have it reverberate as that did?
It does. Yes. I don’t take it for granted in any way. As I say, I really consider it a privilege to do this and I have these moments where I wonder, “How did I end up here?” It was an interesting moment when I talked about Hillary Clinton and I got so much pickup but I created a conversation and moved it forward.
There also are moments like election night in 2012. We anchored our show from Rockefeller Plaza. They set up some temporary sets over the ice. Our first guest was Tom Brokaw. So there we were talking about a presidential election taking place that day with an absolute legend. It seemed impossible; it seemed so surreal. Just to be in this studio when history was made. I remember hearing [MSNBC’s] Rachel Maddow say, “The next president of the United States will be Barack Obama.” It’s unbelievable that that is my life and that I ended up in a place where I can witness things like that.
Have you considered running for office again?
Not really. I don’t rule it out. My life has gone in so many different directions that I am loathe to do that. So I don’t rule it out but neither is it something that I am thinking about or looking for opportunities with at all.
If you were elected president tomorrow, can you say what would be the one or two main issues you’d address first?
Absolutely. I believe very strongly that the central issue of our time is inequality. Not just from an economic standpoint but from a power standpoint. There was a study recently that found that the voices of average citizens had literally zero impact on our legislative process. Finding a way to rebalance that so that workers have more power in the workplace and average citizens have more power in their democracy is vital. Because right now I think we’re in a very unbalanced, precarious place. That can’t last forever but the farther we go down this path the harder it becomes to turn back.
That’s why we need someone who is bold and understands that we’re at a tipping point where we have a choice of several different directions in which we could go.
What do you tell younger people seeking advice on career building?
One thing that’s key is finding a mentor who can give you advice that you trust; an ally. It can be a man or a woman, but for young women it can help to have a mentor who’s a woman because she will understand some of the specific struggles you’ll face.
I also think we devote too much thinking to one particular goal. We say, “This is exactly the thing I want” and we close doors and opportunities. I’m a believer in opening up and surveying the landscape and choosing what the next right thing might be.
One of the scary things today is that it’s no longer set so that if you do X and Y and Z and follow the rules here’s how [your career] will work out. Everybody has to be entrepreneurial. Our generation has a sense that nothing is guaranteed no matter how secure your job field. You always need to be thinking about what else you could be doing if this [job] went away. What else might you want to do?