When Emily Cherniack saw an ad for a job that read "Get up, get coffee and change the world" she took it literally. She answered a call to help underserved Boston public school kids through a program called City Year AmeriCorps. A few years later she was tapped to run the Senate campaign of her boss at City Year, Alan Khazei. Khazei lost. But Cherniack succeeded in finding her next calling. She formed New Politics to help national service alumni and military veterans get elected to office — in the tradition of John Kerry, John McCain and John F. Kennedy. "Before 1970, over 75 percent of congress had service backgrounds," says Cherniack. Today, she says, that number is at an all-time low. In 2014, New Politics supported 5 candidates in key states and federal races, winning 3, including the election of Congressman Seth Moulton in Massachusetts. In 2018, they hope to support 50 candidates from both parties.
Why do we need civil and military service people from either party to run for office and your organization New Politics to work to get them elected?
"We have the least productive Congress in history where things are not getting done and people have started to put their own party over the country or their own self-interest over the country. We recognize there are political parties. They play an important role in our democracy and in our system but we recognize that leaders come from both sides and, for us, it's about investment in leadership and it's about investment in people that put the country first and who have a framing of service. We want to solve problems and we want to figure it out together and we're not always going to see eye to eye on things but we're all in this for our community and our greater country and those are the kind of leaders we invest in regardless of political party. Right now we're at the lowest number of veterans in Congress in history. We had the Greatest Generation from World War II. Before 1970, over 75 percent of Congress had service backgrounds. We have a brand of a servant-leader that we support at New Politics. We support those who've done national service."
What is your brand of servant-leader?
"If you've put the country first in your formative years between ages 18 and 24, we find that you're more likely to be the kind of person that embodies servant-leadership: you put the country first and you embody values of courage, empathy and integrity. And so from that pool of people, we believe that recruiting them and getting them to run for office will be transformative for our democracy."
Besides military service, what in your mind falls under service?
"People who've done AmeriCorps, programs like City Year, Teach For America, Youthbuilds, the Peace Corps, and Jesuit Corps — any type of significant service wherein people have dedicated a year or more to full-time service. We recognize that military is a high level of sacrifice. But they all kind of embody the ethos of service. When Seth Moulton came back from serving in the Iraq war he had trouble connecting to civilians and he felt like no one understood his experience as a veteran. He ended up hanging out with AmeriCorps alums like me. I first met him in 2007, and he said it was the first time he felt connected to people that were not veterans and it was actually what inspired him to be a fan of the idea of national service. Of course, it's a different level of service — he was in combat — but that same sort of commitment to country and that service ethos comes through."
Why the need for a New Politics Academy?
"The idea of the academy came to light: how do we inspire and engage a group of people who are not engaged in the political space? And also teach them how to 'answer the call' and really give them a space of reflection and leadership development. Or to think, 'Is this my calling? Is this my political path? Or what is my political pathway?' Whether you want to be a candidate or work on a campaign or you want to work on the Hill or in the State House, what is your political pathway? We're taking people who are really not comfortable or haven't been engaged politically and we're saying, 'We want you to take a first step in this journey.' And that's the hard part. Our academy program is really a wide filter and it's for anyone from a service background who wants to think about a potential political pathway. In that filter some people decide, 'This isn't what I want to do but I want to be supportive of someone who's running or I want to take different routes.' We have 15 to 20 percent who then say, 'I want to be a candidate.' "
How many candidates do you support?
"In 2014, there were 5. In 2016, we had 23 candidates. This cycle, 2018, we'll have 50: 20 congressional and then 30 down-ballot."
What will you offer the 50 candidates?
"Everything from helping them decide what to run for and then helping build their teams, navigating the consultants, vendors, website systems. What's the infrastructure? How do you think about setting that up? And then we advise them on message, on fundraising, on being in the field. We help advise and help navigate that space for them."
Who funds you?
"We don't really have a traditional prototype of a supporter. The Hewlett Foundation supports our academy, which is great. We have individual donors that come from the private-equity, academia, nonprofit space and we are really lucky to have some individuals and a foundation."
Do you disclose what you have in the war chest?
"Every three months we file reports. This year, our budget is about $750,000. Last year we were about $300,000. We're still pretty scrappy."
Are you finding new voices? Are you encouraged?
"Yes. I call them the Captain Americas. They're amazing women and men. We had them all here recently for an event that Congressman Seth Moulton helped organize and they all spoke. There are 12 of them and people came up to us after and said, 'I have not felt this hopeful since before the election.' "
What positions are you helping elect?
"We do all segments 'down ballot' which means state legislature, city councils, school committee, mayors. We're really about the pipeline. If you look at data, we know that half of Congress comes from the state legislature; 20 percent are former mayors. Mayors become governors. Congressmen become senators. We believe that not everyone's ready to run for congress right away but a lot of people are amazing leaders and they're focus might not be federal."
Do you have a process for identifying these future candidates?
"The hard part is, how do we choose? There are so many great people and for us it's a commitment and it's a relationship."
How does one get funded today if you're building a nonpartisan vehicle or media company or non-profit?
"For us it's about stating that this is who we are; this is what we do; this is why. And we think we make a pretty compelling case. Not everyone's going to want to support us and that's fine. That's how we get to grow and build our organization."