Putting Service Back in Public Service
Fifty years ago, the majority of members of Congress had served in the military. Today, that figure is below 20 percent, and President Trump notably avoided serving in Vietnam with five draft deferrals. Boston-based political recruiter Emily Cherniack is trying to change that. “More than ever, we need proven leaders with courage, integrity and empathy to fix our politics,” she says.
Her first recruit was a charismatic Iraq War veteran named Seth Moulton; in 2012, he was working on a high-speed rail project in Texas, but today the Massachusetts congressman is talked about as a potential future presidential candidate.
Cherniack’s organization, New Politics, which targets not only military veterans but alumni of civilian service programs like AmeriCorps, helped to elect a dozen other candidates nationwide in 2016, and the group is hoping for more wins this year, backing about 20 congressional candidates, mostly (but not all) Democrats. It also launched an academy that now operates in 23 cities, offering lessons that include how to get duty-focused public servants to feel comfortable talking about themselves.
An AmeriCorps alum herself, Cherniack ultimately believes service-minded politicians could change government priorities. “Their frame is country and community first,” she says.
Q & A
What’s surprised me most about Donald Trump as president is… Nothing. The president is exactly who he promised he would be. But the challenges facing our country are bigger than one person.
Is America in 2018 still “a city on a hill” for the rest of the world to look up to? I am hopeful about our country, and I always have been; it is why I do this work. I also recognize that we are a country with a complicated history, a history that includes championing democracy and freedom, yet also includes genocide and slavery. But I am consistently reminded of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s words: “We are the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose.” I believe it’s that purpose, that constant striving toward our highest ideals, that makes us extraordinary.
Ten years from now, what issue in American politics will we regret not paying more attention to today? We must knit a new social fabric. I’d like to see a new G.I. Bill, one for the 21st century, where young people could complete a year or more in national service or military programs and have access to college without being saddled with extreme debt. After World War II, the G.I. Bill helped build a powerful middle class, a thriving economy and a tighter-knit America as it gave returning servicemembers access to education and economic opportunity. We need to do the same thing today with expanded service opportunities.
If you could singlehandedly repeal one constitutional amendment, what would it be? And if you could ratify one? I’d love to see the voting age lowered to 16. Our young people are going to be the ones who will have to grow up and raise families in the world our leaders are creating now, and they should have a say in that. We’ve seen incredible youth movements this year with amazing young people doing effective political work, and yet many of them are still too young to vote. They have a stake in the decisions our leaders make, and we should bring them to the table.
Who’s your 2020 dream presidential candidate? Matt Santos (from “The West Wing”). President Santos was the first Hispanic-American to be elected president, was a lieutenant in the Marines, and was elected mayor of Houston and then to Congress. Most importantly for me, though, his character exhibited the values that a dream presidential candidate would have: kinship, honesty, integrity and service. And I also loved that he reached across the aisle for his secretary of state choice.
What’s your favorite Twitter account, and why? @ClintSmithIII is my favorite poet. His tweets are a combination of brilliance, heartbreak and laugh-out-loud humor.
What’s the best book you read this year? The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela. This book is a brilliant testament to the resiliency of the human heart. It is also heartbreaking in its timelessness.
Photograph by Jason Grow for Politico Magazine. Portrait illustration by Cristiano Siqueira.