Ken Harbaugh campaigns in 2018. Photo courtesy of Ken Harbaugh.
On a recent Tuesday night, nine strangers from all over the country logged into Zoom, meeting for the first time in a two-hour workshop that could help change the trajectory of their lives.
Each of the participants had thus far dedicated their lives to public service, either in the military or through programs such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, and were there because they wanted to continue serving — this time in politics.
Enter Answering the Call, a five-week nonpartisan program by New Politics intended to help participants craft their mission statements, identify their core values, and eventually decide how they want to serve in the political sphere, whether as candidates, as campaign staff, or in other types of leadership positions.
Answering the Call is the flagship training program of this 5-year-old nonprofit organization with a mission to revitalize American democracy by recruiting, developing, and electing servant leaders — from local school boards to the US Congress — who put their communities and the country over their own self-interests.
“I think people who have served, especially in the military, they have demonstrated courage and they have demonstrated how to work with other people that are different from you, how to build bridges, how to solve problems, and how to put the country over yourself,” said Emily Cherniack, New Politics founder and executive director.
And in an era marked by widespread division over the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests, and a contentious election season, the group recently saw a big surge in applicants for its fall programming.
“I think that framing of ‘country first’ is really powerful,” Cherniack said. “I think it is the thing that can bring us back from the brink.”
Cherniack founded the organization in 2013 after working on two congressional campaigns for Alan Khazei, co-founder of the AmeriCorps program City Year. Through that experience, she identified significant barriers to entry for people to get into politics; it seemed almost exclusive and counterintuitive.
“I was really around people who had served — so whether they had done AmeriCorps or military or Peace Corps, that was my community — and none of them were thinking about politics,” she said. “These are the leaders we need in political life, and they’re not running. And even if they are running, they’re not winning because the system is broken.”
Cherniack later recruited Marine Corps veteran Seth Moulton to run for Congress, piloting what would become the New Politics model. Rep. Moulton, D-Mass., was elected to the House of Representatives in 2014.
New Politics Leadership Academy programming starts with Answering the Call, which is currently being offered virtually in 20 different sets of small groups.
“These are the leaders we need in political life, and they’re not running. And even if they are running, they’re not winning because the system is broken.”
“We’re very sincere. We’re just inviting you to get clarity, and if your clarity is you don’t want to run for office, we honor that,” said Max Klau, chief programs officer. “But our hypothesis that has definitely been proven true is that some percentage of these folks are going to look within themselves and realize, ‘I won’t have integrity with myself if I don’t get into politics.’ So we have next steps for those folks.”
Subsequent workshops, such as Foundations and Staffing School, get into more specialized skills and training based on a person’s calling, whether that be running for office or working behind the scenes. Participants are also taught to identify their shadows, or the darker side of themselves, in order to tackle these head on.
“It’s a program around leadership development, around values, and getting people to be really clear and centered on who they are so that they have the tools to go into this really potentially dark space and stay like a Jedi,” Cherniak said.
“There’s two parts to every service journey: There’s outer work and inner work,” Klau said. “And one of the things we needed to do was create a space to focus on the inner work while they are engaged in the outer work of trying to create change.”
New Politics’ focus on the why, not necessarily the what, was attractive to Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a Marine Corps veteran who leaned on the organization for help during his initial campaign in 2016 to eventually become one of a growing number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Congress.
“Emily [Cherniak] and I had a long discussion early on about my background and why I wanted to run. But at no point was it, ‘What do you feel about this policy or that policy?’” he said. It was more about servant leadership — an approach he found refreshing.
“I trust her opinion, and I know it’s a nonpartisan opinion. I know she genuinely wants what’s best for the country and, by extension, the candidates that she’s supported,” he said.
Gallagher said he was motivated to run for Congress because he disliked foreign policy decisions made by the Obama administration and wanted to do something about it.
“I think it’s fair to say that there’s probably a mirror image of that with a lot of veterans right now who perhaps disagree with some of Trump’s foreign policy decisions and are now motivated to serve, but I think there’s just a genuine passion to trying to modernize the military and our foreign policy to be effective in the 21st century in the age of cyberthreats and a growing threat from Communist China,” he said.
While the number of elected officials in Congress with military ties has gone down significantly since the 1970s, when more than 75% of the Senate and House of Representatives members were veterans, the number of veterans running for Congress is once again on the rise.
A Military Times analysis shows a record number of women with military experience and a total of 181 veterans are running this year, compared with 173 in 2018, which saw a wave of post-9/11 veterans get on the ballot for federal races.
One of those was New Politics alum Ken Harbaugh, a former Navy pilot and co-founder of the veteran service organization Mission Continues, who was motivated to run as a Democrat in Ohio after President Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.
“When you pledge your life to support and defend the Constitution, in some ways running for Congress is a heck of a lot easier than shipping off to Iraq or Afghanistan or flying combat recon patrols,” said Harbaugh, who lost the race but considers it a “worthy fight.”
“It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that people who swore that oath decided to live up to it by running for Congress,” he said.
Military-spouse advocates say there’s been a recent boost in the number of military spouses getting involved in politics as well.
“I think people are paying more attention,” said Libby Jamison, a Navy spouse and organizer with Homefront Rising, an initiative of the Military Spouse JD Network that helps military spouses run for office. Candidates include Lindsey Simmons, who is running as a Democrat in Missouri and would be the first active-duty spouse in Congress, if elected.
Jamison, who is also the past president of MSJDN, said especially over the last year, there’s been more interest in civic engagement from the community — from writing op-eds to volunteering on campaigns and even voting.
She said military spouses have a unique perspective on government, both local and federal, that they can provide to their communities.
“We’ve lived in all different corners of the country and possibly the globe. We’ve seen what works and doesn’t work when it comes to schools and garbage collection and the DMV,” she said.
And they’re also among the first impacted by decisions on foreign policy, said Kate Marsh Lord, content manager for the Secure Families Initiative, a new military spouse-focused initiative of Foreign Policy for America that also focuses on getting military spouses involved in politics and advocacy work.
“Our spouses or family members are the ones that deploy, they’re the ones that are dealing with the current wartime ops tempo, and we feel the impact in a very different way than other people, other nonmilitary folks in the US do,” said Lord, an Air Force spouse. “So, we think that our voices are particularly important and relevant to those decisions about whether or not to go to war or to participate in combat.”
Gallagher said more military voices could help bring back a model of disagreement and debate without demonization, with people working toward principled compromise without compromising their principles.
“I think just a general frustration with the lack of bipartisanship in Washington, DC” motivates veterans, Gallagher said. “[There is] just a seeming tendency among leadership in both parties that have been there for a long time to only care about getting reelected and not actually care about solving problems on behalf of the American people, and I think that rubs veterans the wrong way and I think it probably motivates them to get involved.”
Cherniak said that’s a shared sentiment among the veterans her organization has worked with.
“A lot of our veterans will say, ‘You know it didn’t matter. I didn’t turn to my left or to my right to be like, hey, are you a Democrat or a Republican? Like, we just flew the mission, right? It didn’t matter who on my team believed in what. We just served together because we had to get something done,’” she said.
And by permeating politics with servant leaders, she hopes that won’t only be true of the military someday — but of the country as well.
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