It’s a wintry holiday in Boston, so schools are closed, workers have the day off and, despite the frigid weather, a few hundred folks have come out to watch a military-themed parade and hear an Army band play patriotic tunes beneath the statehouse’s glittering gold dome. A few train stops away in Harvard Square, Emily Cherniack is outlining a very different way of recognizing those who have served their country. She’s determined to convince military veterans to sign up for duty in a world she says badly needs them: politics.
“They are about country first,” the animated brunette says over coffee at a busy café. Here, she blends into the crowd of bright-eyed students and strivers, dressed in an understated fashion in all black, except for her lone flashy item: a sparkling faux-fur jacket. The 37-year-old’s pitch: a plea for former soldiers and other career do-gooders of all political stripes to enter the political fray. Her nascent Boston-based political action committee, New Politics, has found some immediate success drafting service-over-personal-glory types. The idealistic mission has gotten her into some high places: She earned a Comcast NBCUniversal Leadership Award, and FEC filings show that she counts bigwigs like Joshua Bekenstein, founder of Bain Capital; billionaire Amos Hostetter Jr., CEO of Cablevision; and Michael Bloomberg, as contributors.
During the last election cycle, three of her five handpicked candidates won their races, including one historical upset. She’s now consulting with 20 more political aspirants across the country, from Vermont to Wisconsin to California. One big victory: Seth Moulton, an ex-Marine and Harvard grad who upset a nine-term congressman to win the 6th District seat in Massachusetts — the first time in 22 years a Democrat beat an incumbent congressman of his own party in a state known for political dynasties (think: the Kennedys). “She was the first person to talk to me about running for office,” says Congressman Moulton, who was handpicked by Cherniack as her test case in 2012.
For Cherniack, it’s an unforeseen calling. A lifelong sci-fi nerd (she counts Dune, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings as muses), she was raised in Minneapolis; she is diffident about childhood, making it seem boring, normal. She was no politico when she graduated from George Washington University with a psychology degree. Instead, she spent two years embedded with poor children in communities near Boston with the program City Year. Her first taste of politics came when she helped run the unlikely 2010 and 2012 U.S. Senate campaigns of Alan Khazei, City Year’s CEO. “It was like The Matrix. I swallowed the red pill and entered this entire political world that I never knew existed,” she says now. She decided she wanted more Khazeis in the game. She became what you might call “an energy agent,” says Thomas Whalen, a political scientist at Boston University. “Her organization has provided that.”
Service and politics have not been close bedfellows in recent decades; as mandated military service has ended, being a veteran has lost some political weight. In 2008, John McCain bucked the trend, but in this year’s party-bus presidential race, only three candidates ever wore uniforms (all three have dropped out). In recent years, according to the Pew Research Center, only one-fifth of Washington lawmakers have military experience; at the peak in 1971, the percentage was in the 70s. Which changes how you might think about Syria or, say, ISIS. Today, those who sign on for service are low-income; there are “fewer incentives for upper-class participation,” wrote Syracuse University’s Amy Lutz, in a 2008 study on the subject.
But things are still slow. “I thought candidates would start lining up” after Moulton’s victory drew headlines, Cherniack told OZY, but few realized her role in the ex-Marine’s upset. Her fundraising numbers are in the hundreds of thousands, nowhere near the millions many politicos possess. And as a registered Democrat, she’s also had difficulty getting bipartisan support: Only two of her candidates are conservatives. “We need to be more diverse,” she says, and not only in ideology. Her candidate roster to date is nearly all white men.
And it’s true, battling politics as usual with neophyte candidates isn’t easy. New Politics has to teach its recruits Campaign 101: filing forms, fund raising, getting on ballots. Even doing signage the right way: One candidate, Cherniack recounts, had a poster where the word team was bigger than her own name. “You have to explain it to them, that it’s about you and that’s part of the mission.” But Cherniack gets what it’s like to make it not about you: She’s got do-gooding in her genes; her father, a lawyer, once was an antipoverty volunteer with VISTA, and her mother served by ruling the home. Next? She faces the same challenge her clients do: Can she emerge from behind-the-scenes work and prove she can be the face of something?