Young Obies gear up for the November vote.
Summer 2004 Cole Scholars include (from left) Samantha Yarbrough ’05, Rebecca Kenna-Schenk ’05, and Molly Harper ’05.
Ten years ago, disgusted by the conduct of elected officials during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, Oberlin graduates Richard and Dorothy Maloney Cole ’56 decided it time to raise the bar for public service. They turned to their alma mater, hoping to find a way of enticing honest and idealistic Oberlin students into careers as elected public officials.
Working with faculty members in the Department of Politics, the Coles helped develop the Oberlin Initiative in Electoral Politics, a program that merges classroom instruction in American politics with a summer internship that provides on-the-ground field experience. In the past 10 years, Cole Scholars have been placed in House, Senate, and gubernatorial campaigns, at the White House, and in city council and mayoral elections. This year’s crop of interns performed so well that eight of the Scholars were asked to stay on with their campaigns at the end of the summer. Three of them accepted.
“This is the type of curricular innovation that relates the latest scholarship on politics and elections to the complex, and at times confusing, political and social world outside the classroom,” says Monroe Professor of Politics Ronald Kahn. “Students are witness to the fact that ideas, as well as social, political, and economic institutions, affect the life changes of their fellow citizens.”
The Cole Scholars do not spend their internships fetching coffee and stuffing envelopes, but rather performing important roles in influential political offices. Junior Alex Hirschhorn, a double major in Japanese and politics, nabbed one of the hottest Senate campaigns in the country this summer as an assistant scheduler for Barack Obama, the superstar Illinois state legislator who is considered a future leader of the Democratic Party.
Hirschhorn first noticed Obama during a campaign stop last year—prior to his underdog win in the primaries and long before his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention made him a sought-after commodity at party functions. “I was extremely impressed,” says Hirschhorn. “I had a dim view of politicians back then.”
Much of Hirschhorn’s internship was spent “on the phone, telling folks, ‘Thank you for your invitation. Unfortunately, the senator will be on the other side of the state at that time,’” he says. “As they say in politics, it’s about keeping people less unhappy.”
Hirschhorn was hired by the Obama campaign at the end of his summer internship and planned to stay on until the election. Although most pollsters predicted an easy win for the senator, his campaign remained focused and busy. As for Hirschhorn, he feels more drawn than ever toward the public sphere. Having grown up in the D.C. area, he considered himself a hardened cynic. Now, he counts himself among the inspired. “You can be a decent person and still run for office,” he says.
Junior Jack Larkin, a politics and violin performance major, spent his internship working for Ohio State Representative Jim Trakas—an incumbent Republican in a highly Democratic Cleveland district. “Trakas has secured enormous amounts of state funding for schools.” Larkin says. “He’s been really good at hammering the local school boards and trying to get them to spend money more efficiently.”
Although Larkin defines his own political leanings as independent or libertarian, he agrees with a Republican strategy on many state and local issues: “My feeling is that we should have a Democrat as president, a 50-50 Congress, and a Republican state legislature.” As the manager of Trakas’ campaign web site and the field commander for voting drives and visibility efforts, Larkin says his most daunting task was raising his candidate’s profile in the local press. In the famously rough-and-tumble world of Cleveland politics, it was a heavy load. “It’s really vicious here,” he says, relaying stories of such particularly volatile events as a screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 that led to scuffles between liberal and conservative demonstrators.
With several campaigns now under his belt—including that of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell—Larkin is aiming for a career in politics, ideally in Cleveland. “I love it,” he says. “It’s really fast paced.”
The presence of Obies in such well-publicized and influential campaigns was balanced by the efforts of Cole Scholars in quieter state and local elections. The experience was no less valuable. Small campaigns allowed for more involvement in strategy and control over day-to-day operations; in one case, a Cole Scholar ran the whole show.
Junior Sierra Weaver is no stranger to politics, having been involved in lobbying efforts and a mayor’s political task force in her hometown of Indianapolis. But nothing prepared her for her role as the manager of Nadine Romero’s primary run for Washington state representative.
“I did everything,” says Weaver, a politics major. “It was up to me to lift the campaign off the ground. I got all of the endorsements. I did all of the press.”
Romero, a Mexican American scientist, ran for an open seat in Washington’s Olympia district. The campaign was assisted by Cathy Allen’s Seattle-based consultancy that seeks to elect more women, minorities, and LGBT candidates into office. Romero ran on a platform of pragmatic and scientific approaches to complex problems—such as environmental and energy issues.
“It was really intense at first,” says Weaver, whose many tasks included an eight-page direct mail piece. “But I loved the energy and the chaos.” Although Romero lost the seat in the primary election, Weaver isn’t discouraged from a future in politics.
The Cole Scholars relayed common election war stories—long hours, hassled schedules, and a sometimes cynical public. But none claims a disillusion with politics; instead, each returned to campus more world-wise and driven to make a difference in the political world.
Rebecca Kenna-Schenk worked as a field organizer for Tony Knowles’ U.S. Senate campaign in Alaska. Dena Iverson, much like Sierra Weaver, worked high up in a local congressional primary race, as deputy communications director for Jamie Metzle of Missouri. Samantha Yarbrough served as a regional liaison for the re-election campaign of California Senator Barbara Boxer. Darla Migan worked with Citizen Action, a New York-based voter registration group targeting swing voters in Pennsylvania.
Tom Fazzini served as an assistant to the press secretary for the re-election campaign of U.S. Congressman David Wu in Oregon. Valerie Baron was a field operator for the primary campaign of Betty Castor, a challenger to Bob Graham’s open Senate seat in Florida. Molly Harper did fundraising for the Senate
re-election effort of Washington Democrat Patty Murray. Ary Amerikaner was a field director for the Lois Murphy Congressional campaign in Pennsylvania’s sixth district. Renata Strause worked as the Lancaster County director for the Lois Herr Pennsylvania Congressional campaign. Freddrick Effinger was a field and event coordinator for Congressman Artur Davis’ re-election campaign in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Our Cole Scholars are amazing in what they accomplish, and they are terrific ambassadors for the school,” says
Associate Professor of Politics Eve Sandberg. “By learning about the realities of running an effective race for public office, they can succeed in a future race of their own someday.”
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