by Melissa Sorrells '05
No matter what strata of government you look at, HWS community members are in politics. From weekend volunteers and student organizers to campaign managers and finance gurus, they've infiltrated all levels of the political system and are unequivocally tearing up the trail this election season.
"I always encourage HWS alums and students to get involved in politics. I think it's important for them to learn about the process and have their voices heard, and it's important to our democracy," says Joseph DiGangi, professor emeritus of political science and founder of the Colleges' program in Washington, D.C. "The more people that get involved at any level, the stronger our democracy is, and when our democracy is strong, all citizens benefit."
For the dedicated HWS students and alums who choose to engage in politics, service to their country and fellow countrymen isn't just a part-time hobby, a town to be canvassed on weekends or a list of phone calls to be made at their convenience. For those who've dedicated themselves to life on the trail, the long hours, dirty jobs and thankless grind is a way of life.
The reasons HWS students and alums cite for getting involved with a political campaign are as varied as they are. For some, it's about staunch party politics. For others, it's about preparing for the future. It's about change, it's about experience, it's about belief and it's about believing in the process.
"Truth be told, I knew almost nothing about politics when I first got involved," says HWS student Joshua Strenger '09, who landed an internship with Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign in the hopes of learning more about campaign communications and public relations.
For Brian Kilduff '09, throwing his weight behind a campaign wasn't a question of life goals but of sincere passion for the candidate.
"I'd become really disenchanted with politics and politicians, but when I read Senator Barack Obama's book, I felt like we really shared the belief that politics can be a force for change," Kilduff explains. "When he started gaining momentum last November, something just clicked for me. I felt like I couldn't sit by and do nothing, so one day I just decided to put college on hold and dedicate myself to his campaign."
Peter Gregory '07, a J.D. candidate at Albany Law School, didn't leave school, but he has devoted a substantial amount of his time to the McCain campaign as a member of the National Steering Committee of Law Students for McCain.
"I've backed Senator McCain since the primaries because of his experience and dedication to a small government. He is a proven leader," he says. "I've been behind him for a long time, and it's nice to see support for him growing nationally."
During the primary season, Giancarlo D'Orazio '07 organized for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's campaign. "I believed in Richardson, and I still believe in Richardson," he says. "I still think he had the most legitimate experience of any of the Democratic candidates during the primary season, and I felt like he would have been a good counter to Senator McCain in terms of experience."
On the other side of the spectrum, Christina Amestoy '11, who is involved with the HWS chapter of Students for Obama and has volunteered with the Obama campaign, believes in her candidate because he's the best counter to Senator McCain in another way.
"Senator Obama seems so different from other politicians, and I think that's something our country needs right now," she explains. "It really stood out to me that he took the time to speak directly to college students, like me—that's important because it's going to be our country soon."
Kate Bardsley '08 found that selecting a candidate to support was as easy as rooting for the home team. She's serving as the finance director of NY Senate 55th District candidate David Nachbar. "I love Western New York. I grew up here, and it's really great to have an opportunity to help someone who I believe can actually make positive change in my own backyard."
Though they support different candidates for different reasons, one thing ties our political staffers together: the numbers they punch on their time cards are almost as unbelievable as the responsibilities they've been asked to take on, often right out of college.
Since leaving HWS to join the Obama campaign in November 2007, Kilduff has traveled all over the United States, working his way up through the ranks with each move. Since June, he's been logging more than 110 hours each week working field operations in Northern Colorado. Charged with coordinating volunteer efforts in his region, he jokes that, "if someone knocks on a door or makes a call in my region, it's because I told them to."
Gregory's job as a volunteer with Law Students for McCain closely resembles Kilduff's and includes pulling together phone banks, organizing rallies and systemizing law student volunteer efforts in New York State. "I've had a lifelong interest in politics. I enjoy going out there and stirring things up. My experience at HWS really solidified that," says Gregory, a former fixture on the campus political scene.
Former Richardson organizer D'Orazio was part of a two-man team covering the entire city of Dubuque, Iowa, and its outer lying rural areas. "It was a 2 hour drive from my office to the outer edges of my territory. The average territory is 150 square-miles, but I was covering 600 square-miles with no additional resources," says D'Orazio, who admits that he worked a minimum of 12 hours a day. "We often worked until midnight and even well past that some days."
William Cox '06, the political director for Congressional-hopeful Chris Myers' bid in NJ, works at least 16 hours a day every single day of the week. "It's long, it's grueling, and we don't get days off. We've been working weekends since March, and we're all exhausted by this point."
As Myers' political director, Cox has shouldered unbelievable responsibility. "I set up and maintain his entire office on my own. I had no idea how to do that when I joined the campaign," he says. "There's a lot more to this job than meets the eye, too. There are a lot of moving parts, and you never know what's coming the next day."
"Because I have experience in Washington and Myers doesn't, I've had an integral role in shaping his outlook on the issues," Cox continues. "For me, being a policy guy, I'm really helping to build a member of Congress from the ground up. It's a very hands on experience."
The hours may be long and the responsibilities daunting, but one of the perks of working on a campaign can be getting to know, firsthand, the important political figures that most people can only watch from afar on television and at rallies. But it's not always exactly what you'd expect. For Kilduff, the experience was downright frustrating.
"I was able to meet Senator Obama a couple of times throughout the primary season. It's a wild experience. He's such a powerful presence," he says. "It's obviously an honor to meet him, but it's a trade off because whenever he holds a rally you lose at least a day's worth of canvassing and phone banking."
Usually, though, getting to know a candidate is a very rewarding experience. On his first day as a Clinton intern, Strenger, who made time to work on the campaign during breaks and after classes let out, learned firsthand what unfettered access to politicians means. "They sent me to a Turkish-American fundraiser to work the VIP room," he explains. "And in walked former President Bill Clinton, shaking hands and talking with people. It was electrifying, and I immediately knew I was in the right place."
Strenger had the opportunity to meet Senator Clinton, former President Clinton and their daughter Chelsea several times, and worked with Chelsea on a project called Hill Blazers, which aimed to get more college-aged Americans involved in the process.
In the end, Strenger was able to get a "Vote Hillary" poster signed by all of the Clintons as well as other folks on the campaign. "It was really nice to spend time with them and it was so fulfilling to be a part of the campaign."
Though one-on-one access to presidential candidates is often short and controlled, many alums have found that the best way to get to get real access is to work with a candidate whose face isn't plastered all over the news quite as often.
Cox, who's helping to coordinate a national Congressional campaign in NJ, spends nearly every moment of his day with the candidate. "I spent 14 hours of every day with Myers. Sometimes, I have more access to him than I'd like," he says, laughing.
Bardsley also enjoys close contact with her State Senate candidate. "I spend at least three hours with him every day," she says. "We're a small, tight-knit staff, and I really feel like I am an integral part of the process. He lets us all know we're appreciated."
Anna Hineline '11 spent the summer interning with Massachusetts State Representative Jeffrey Perry and was very pleased with the close contact she was able to sustain. "I got to know Representative Perry on a personal level, and that took a lot of the stress out of the job. It was an honor to work for such an honest person. I felt comfortable going out there and making calls on his behalf because I really supported him."
The perks of working on a campaign can be great, but so can the pitfalls. Many political staffers and volunteers are asked to get their feet wet by hitting the pavement: getting doors slammed in their faces and phones slammed in their ears in the hopes of changing even one constituent's mind about their candidate.
"The ground game is extremely important to every candidate," says Kilduff, who believes that a neighbor knocking on your door is more meaningful than any ad on television. "Senator Obama's campaign in particular is in every precinct of every county of every state in this nation. It's the best way to get the word out, combat false ads and get people excited about voting. "
D'Orazio agrees. "Voter contact is so important—the candidate needs to know what's important to the constituents and vice versa. Making calls is the number one job for people on the ground, and it's the job that everyone hates. Sometimes, it seems like you're a glorified telemarketer."
"I would call at least 1,000 people every day," says Strenger, who worked in Senator Clinton's NY office. "Sometimes the calls were difficult. A lot of the times they'd use words (and combinations of words) that I'd never heard and in many cases hope to never hear again!"
"There were also positive calls," he continues. "I also had the opportunity to talk with many people about how Senator Clinton has changed their lives in some way. Sometimes they'd call in and just thank us for volunteering our time. That is a wonderful feeling."
It can also be a terrifying feeling, according to Amestoy. "Going door-to-door is intimidating. A lot of people don't want to talk to you, and a lot of them are downright rude!"
"I don't think anyone enjoys door-to-door campaigning," admits Gregory. "I think it needs to be done for sure, but it's not fun."
It's true: campaigning is long, hard, thankless work, and occasionally someone might sic their dog on you. Your feet will hurt. Your girlfriend will dump you. Your clothes will develop a serious funk. And you'll probably never get to tell Senator McCain about your awesome healthcare plan. So why bother?
The simplest answer is this: the people.
From the strangers who'll become brothers at arms to the goofy locals who'll make the day brighter, the people that campaign contributors meet on a day-to-day basis make the bad days and bad assignments that much easier to stomach.
"One of the most rewarding parts of being involved in the campaign is working with the volunteers," says Kilduff. "I had an 84 year-old woman who knocked on 84 doors in 1 day with her daughter and grandson. It was three generations of this family, going out and knocking on doors for Senator Obama. It's that kind of thing that makes it easy to keep going."
In Iowa, there were two types of people that made D'Orazio's job bearable. "It was great to get to know all of the other political organizers in town. We'd all get together at the end of the day, but the rule was that we couldn't talk about politics at all," he says, admitting that his roommate was a Clinton supporter. "There is also a whole slew of local characters in Dubuque, and it was a pleasure to get to know them as well."
"The ability to really communicate with local citizens is great," says Cox. "Whether it's a current member of Congress or a poor 70-year-old woman with three grandchildren, they all have very interesting things to say."
"The average American is so interesting," says Strenger. "We don't get to hear from them enough. I wish there was a radio station or cable channel where average Americans could tell their stories on a daily basis."
"For my money, the most interesting debates in the country are happening between the canvassing groups from different campaigns," he continues. "It was a great opportunity to meet college students from all over the country and learn from each other. Working on the Clinton campaign, for me, was like living in an episode of Cheers. It was the most amazing time of my life to be surrounded by people who were just as gung ho about politics as I am."
NJ State Senator Joseph M. Kyrillos, Jr. '82, currently serving out his fifth term in office, has done his fair share of campaigning, and he spent a good portion of this most recent primary season campaigning on behalf of former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. "At all levels of politics, you spend a lot of time raising money. You eat a lot of chicken dinners. And you spend a lot of time trying to get on television. That's just how it is."
"It's an immense challenge to convey a sense of yourself and your vision for the country. The press can be helpful, but they often make things overly simplistic," he explains. "There's a real battle to rise above the noise and communicate with the people. There's intense scrutiny from the media and interest groups. It's become a blood sport, really. I think it's unfortunate that there can't be more focus on the important issues that we face."
"No matter what the news outlets are covering, they're not covering what you want. And, when they are, they don't always have the right angle. The news is incredibly frustrating," Kilduff explains. "The media polls actually work against us. When we're 'up' in the polls, we can't get people to volunteer. We're such a completely grassroots campaign that a 'good day' in the polls really hurts us."
Some HWS alums aren't letting the news media push them around. "We've taken an aggressive stance on using the media to our advantage," says Cox. "In a lot of ways, I think it's more difficult for Republican candidates to get a positive media portrayal, and we're trying to turn that around for ourselves."
"I often felt like the media was against Giuliani, so I quickly developed a thick skin to anything that was said about him," says Vincent DeFabo '08, who worked on the former New York City Mayor's presidential bid. "In some ways, it energizes you and created an 'us vs. them' mentality that is constantly reinforced by the media coverage."
Strenger had the unique opportunity to join Senator Clinton when she appeared on the Tyra Banks Show in January 2008. "I felt that Banks put a lot—maybe too much—emphasis on the fact that Hillary is a woman. The media in general really focused on the gender issue, and I think they held her to a different standard than Senator Obama."
The media is only one major stressor in the daily life of a campaign staffer. There's also the lack of sleep, lack of healthy food options and lack of pleasant dreams in some cases.
"I put a hold on school, and I've been traveling all over, working 16-hour days for a year now. It's extremely exhausting," says Kilduff. "It's not like it ever stops. As soon as I finish one thing, there are three more things on my list. We never get a day off, and the food is really just terrible. You eat what you can, when you can, and mostly you don't even have time to realize that you feel like crap. Sometimes, I actually have nightmares about polling locations not opening and people leaving without voting."
One of the toughest things about being on the campaign trail can be managing the stress that, in Kilduff's case, can create an endless cycle of exhausting days and restless nights. Many HWS community members suggest that keeping a positive attitude is the best way to keep afloat.
"When things were going well, there was such excitement. But when things started to take a turn for the worse, you could see the stress, worry and exhaustion all over people's faces," says Strenger. "What I think made a huge difference was that none of us ever stopped working. We never gave up hope."
"The schedule is so grueling. One recent day, I woke up in DC, headed to NY in the afternoon, then ended the day with a fundraiser in NJ. It's exhausting, and it can be hard to take care of yourself," says Cox. "There are a lot of up days, but there are a lot of really bad down days, too. I try to keep an even keel in the face of it all, but you have to believe in your candidate 100% or this job would just tear you down."
Are 20 hour days, fast food guts and breakneck traveling the building blocks for a happy, fulfilling life? It might look like a no-brainer on paper, but for many HWS community members, the jury is still out.
Kilduff plans to finish his degree when the campaign is over. "But before I come back to HWS, I think I'm going to go on vacation. I'm going to turn off my BlackBerry and not check my e-mail, and it's going to be great."
Does he plan to join the ranks of the political elite permanently? "Part of me would love to do this for a living. It's such an adrenaline rush. The other part of me worries that I'll end up a lonely 40-year-old with high blood pressure and no personal life," he jokes. "And, anyway, who would I work for next? Working for Senator Obama has been the peak. I wouldn't have put college on hold to work for anyone else."
"Working on a campaign is a huge roll of the career dice," says former Giuliani staffer DeFabo. "If your candidate wins, there's potential to get a really engaging job, but if he or she loses then you're out of luck for however long it takes you to find another job with another candidate."
It might be a hard life and it might be a career gamble, but Cox plans to stay on the ride as long as possible. "I will go on to work with Myers in Washington if he gets elected to Congress. And if he doesn’t, I feel confident that other opportunities will present themselves."
Like Cox, others plan to use their political work as a stepping stone. "Working on this campaign has changed my life. My ultimate goal is to work in communications in the White House," says Strenger, whose internship with the Clinton campaign was a great PR primer in and of itself. "I want to be able to help people access the great programs that are available to Americans."
"I worked for an understaffed, underfunded campaign, and it was extremely daunting, but it was still a great experience," says D'Orazio, who's currently working at Ithaca's Youth Bureau and the city's Big Brothers Big Sisters program. "I think I'd like to get involved in local politics, maybe city council. I'd really like to start from the ground up and learn about all levels of government first hand. Maybe I'll work on a presidential campaign again someday, but not anytime soon."
"I am not planning to make this a career right now," says Gregory, who plans to complete his J.D. and become a practicing lawyer. "But I have not ruled out making it a career down the road."
Also not writing off a future on the trail are Bardsley, who plans to stay involved in politics no matter what the future holds for her, and Amestoy. "I would love to continue working on campaigns," says Amestoy, whose father was a high ranking official in Vermont. "I grew up on the campaign trail, and I've always loved it. The excitement, the stressfulness, it feeds me."
One thing is for sure: the stress, sleepless nights and manic pace make for a test unlike any HWS students and alums faced on campus. "Campaigns are long and intense, with many opportunities for missteps, but they are the battleground that all good leaders must go through," says State Senator Kyrillos. "You come out of a campaign with the knowledge and understanding of what drives people and what you need to do to help make their lives better, which is what it’s all about in the first place."