In the tempestuous weeks leading up to the 2016 election, Dan Moy hunkered down in a seminar room on the Harvard campus with more than a dozen others — Republicans, Democrats and independents — to discuss what it might be like to run for office.
Moy had enrolled in a master’s program at the university’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. But one of the most important parts for him, a weekly course called Answering the Call, wasn’t part of the official curriculum.
The conversations in that room were changing lives. And they might just change our politics.
Everyone gathered around the table had served in some capacity, whether it was in the military, the Peace Corps or the nonprofit sector. Each had an itch to run for office, and this was a safe space to “talk and share back and forth what we were thinking about our futures,” Moy said.
Moy, a retired Air Force colonel, had served in the Gulf War, taught at the Air Force Academy after September 11, earned a Ph.D. in history and commanded counterinsurgency forces in Afghanistan.
But running for office was always at the back of his mind, and he felt that he had skills to offer. After he retired from active duty, he wanted to find ways to apply that skill set to keep improving the world.
The 54-year-old said he feels discouraged at what he sees as politicians’ inability to solve the country’s “mounting problems.”
Graduates are taking office across the country
Those interested in the program can be nominated by friends or colleagues for the course online. If selected, they can join courses each year in dozens of cities.
At each session, they move through exercises in a workbook. Moy and his classmates had to mull over a number of penetrating questions such as “What core values are at the heart of my commitment to service?” They also draft personal mission statements and write alternative visions for their lives if they run for office or choose not to.
In one exercise, they’re asked to consider whether public service might mean something other than running for office: working on a politician’s staff, being appointed to a government position or just being an engaged citizen volunteering in the community.
Of the 15 or so who gathered in that seminar room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, four have now run for office, Moy said. One of them, Steve Watkins, was elected to Congress and represents the second district of Kansas.
Since the program’s inception two years ago, 850 former service members have graduated from Answering the Call programs in 33 cities, according to the New Politics Leadership Academy, the nonprofit group that runs the courses.
Of those, six grads ran for US Congress, and 30 more sought down-ballot seats. Two of them, former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw in Texas and former Army Ranger Watkins, won their races. And 19 other grads have won office across the country.
Emily Cherniack, who founded New Politics, is bullish on the program’s track record, making a mark in the first election cycle that graduates could run in.
“My vision is that every potential candidate go through these exercises,” she said.
A sharp drop in veterans in office
Cherniack believes that there’s something unique about veterans and national service members that makes them well-suited for elected office. And she’s devoted herself to “convincing these leaders they need to run for office,” she said. “Proactive recruitment can build a movement.”
Cherniack, an alum of the AmeriCorps volunteer program, believes that engaging in national service imbues people with a team-oriented “mission-first” mindset that celebrates unifying teammates from all walks of life. It brings a clarity of vision that can cut through the chaos of politics, she says.
Her message to service members is, “your country needs you.”
In 1971, no less than 72% of members of Congress were veterans. But that percentage has fallen sharply and languished around 20% for the past decade. After the 2018 midterms, despite an unprecedented number of female veterans joining Congress, just 96 veterans overall were set to be sworn into office.
That total is six fewer veterans than at the beginning of the previous Congress, the Military Times reports.
But the goal isn’t just to elect people to public office but to get them thinking about their life purpose. If they could live out this purpose and serve in a place other than elected office, all the better.
They explore whether running for office is aligned with their life purpose
Moy says he’s attended numerous other courses about running for office. “Most are really pragmatic,” he said. “They talk about creating a strategy, raising money or finding a campaign manager.”
But Answering the Call asks a more profound question. “It’s not about how to run,” Moy said, “but why to run.”
Most important, Answering the Call is a conversation about deep personal values.
Looking into one’s own soul like that “is hard to do,” Moy says, except in group that sees the world the way you do. The cohorts build a special bond.
“This is a mission that isn’t just optional but is so rooted in your core that to not do it would be to miss out on your core reason for being in the world,” Moy said.
A mission focus to accomplish what others can’t
Massachusetts state Rep. Nika Elugardo is an Answering the Call alum who took office this year after defeating 16-year incumbent Jeffrey Sanchez, one of the most powerful Democratic politicians in the state, in a primary campaign.
Though she’s not a traditional veteran or national service member, the lawyer was accepted into a cohort because she brought decades of experience working in local community advocacy organizations to represent the interests of working people.
Before joining the course, she knew that she wanted to run for office, but based on the feedback from her cohort, she decided to run for the Massachusetts state House rather than the Boston City Council.
“I wanted to run for City Council because I thought it would be an easier way to start,” Elugardo said. But members of the course told her that her stated personal mission included a commitment to do difficult things. So she decided to swing for the fences in her first at bat.
One key issue for her campaign was the danger that her predominantly immigrant community felt from the federal government. “It was a life or death issue for many people,” she said. Voters agreed that she was a better fit for the district than her opponent, a more centrist Democrat.
She and colleagues in the Legislature are working on measures that would restrict local law enforcement from cooperating in immigration enforcement operations funded by federal dollars.
“We have momentum toward immigration justice now,” she said.
They want to keep serving but in a new way
Rep. Matt Wilhelm, who worked for AmeriCorps after college, is now serving in New Hampshire’s House of Representatives. He took an Answering the Call course in Boston in fall 2017 and said that going through the weekly exercises with a handful of other service alums was a turning point for him.
“Was it something that I could with young kids and a career? I always thought I’d do it after I retired.” As the 37-year-old father of two asked the members of the cohort and to his family, he was surprised that he kept seeing an open door.
He decided to dive into the arena. “There’s a low bar for entry. You can get your name on the ballot pretty easily.” He was the first in his cohort to run.
Wilhelm, a Democrat, said that political ideology never came up during the course. Many of his classmates came to his fundraising events and helped fund his campaign, including some he thinks are Republicans.
The class, and his lifelong service background, made him “more intentional about working with folks across the aisle,” Wilhelm said.
He cosponsored a handful of bills in his first year, but the one he wrote himself was rooted in his service background. It had a Republican cosponsor and sought to create a commission to enhance the state’s ability to hire those coming from full-time service year programs.
For Wilhelm, serving in elected office isn’t too much different than life before. He still puts in about 50 hours a week in his job as a nonprofit consultant. He has to be in the state Capitol one day a week when the Legislature is in session and for an additional morning each week for a committee meeting.
“What it means is, I’m working a lot,” Wilhelm said.
Ready to run
About 600 miles south in Charlottesville, Virginia, Moy is doing a lot of listening and learning for the time being. He got married two years ago, and late last year, he and his wife welcomed a son into the world. He’s adapting his doctoral dissertation on the American Revolution into a book, and he’s part of a statewide leadership development course called Lead Virginia, which is plunging him into many of the policy issues the state faces.
He’s looking for an opening to run, which could be at the local, state, or federal level. He’s not quite sure which office he’ll seek, but he is sure of one thing: that to not step up and lead in some way “would be a devastating loss and a denial of my core values.”