It’s been a long election season, to say the least, as the polarizing rhetoric of red and blue has stretched out in a blur over the last year. Amid the raucous hustle of the campaign stump, Cougars across the country – and party lines – have been working in earnest to shape the outcome of our political future.
The news coverage has been constant, unavoidable, and at times overwhelming. Never before has so much attention been paid to an election. And given the challenges facing the country and world, perhaps never has such scrutiny of the country’s future leaders been so critical.
Climate change, terrorism, war in Syria, illegal immigration, racial tension … these are just a few of the weighty matters awaiting the next American president and all the other public servants who will be elected this fall.
The stakes are certainly high, and passions can run even higher when it comes to politics. A number of Cougars know this firsthand, as they’ve helped constitute the machinery of modern politicking during this long election cycle. Whether raising money for political candidates, working on the frontlines of campaigns or offering strategy and media savvy, these alumni have given their blood, sweat and tears. A few brave Cougars are seeking office themselves, eager to steer their communities in new directions. And the faculty members, who worked with the Department of Communication to host a number of presidential candidates in the last year through the College’s Bully Pulpit Series, have kept close tabs on the seemingly interminable campaign season, regularly offering their insights to local and national media.
Unfazed by long hours, the chance of defeat, tired rhetoric and sharp words, these alumni and professors find the political grind exhilarating. Thick-skinned and determined, they live for the political battle of wits and ultimately that particular November currency: votes.
Every election cycle, in thousands of tiny towns and big cities all across America, campaign workers toil in virtual anonymity, knocking on doors and making phone calls for little or no pay. They do it, long day after long day, because they believe in their candidate’s message, because they have faith in the fairness of the electoral process, and because they recognize that ordinary individuals at the grassroots level are the lifeblood of every campaign.
Isaiah Nelson ’12 is one of these people. A former president of the College’s Student Government Association, he learned early on that a candidate or elected leader may be the face of a campaign or an administration, but it’s his/her staff who keep the machine moving forward.
Since graduating with a degree in political science, Nelson has been steadily working his way up through the world of Democratic politics. He cut his teeth as a student field worker with the 2012 mayoral campaign of Charleston Mayor Joe Riley before earning a spot on the reelection campaign of President Barack Obama.
In the fleeting and unpredictable universe of political campaigns, each job leads into the next, last-minute moves to unfamiliar cities are a given and the occasional pizza and beer with campaign co-workers is the extent of one’s social life.
“One of the most predictable parts of the political lifestyle is the unpredictability of your next professional move,” says Nelson. “Every few months, or at best every year, you are looking for a new job and most likely in a new city. In 2015 I lived in five different cities and moved six times.”
Over the past few years his nomadic existence has taken him across the Southeast. In South Carolina, he worked for the state Democratic Party on the Elizabeth Colbert-Busch ’88 for Congress campaign, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s gubernatorial campaign and other federal and statewide races.
He moved from Columbia, S.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., where he served as campaign manager for Mayor Alvin Brown, then back to Charleston to serve as a consultant to S.C. Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, who was elected to fill the term of the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney. He then moved back to Columbia to act as state director for the Draft Biden movement before moving on to Baton Rouge for a brief stint with the Louisiana Democratic Party and ultimately returning to the Sunshine State, where he is currently the campaign manager for congressional candidate Randy Perkins in West Palm Beach.
“I have been incredibly fortunate to move around the country, meet amazing people, experience different cultures and push myself every step of the way in this journey,” he says.
Despite television and movie portrayals of politics, Nelson says the behind-the-scenes work on most campaigns is more grind than glamour, more guts than glitz: “In reality, your average political staffer is working 15-hour days, oftentimes in rural and unfamiliar America, using limited resources to accomplish big and challenging goals. You grow professionally a lot faster in this world than you age in years.”
– Ron Menchaca ’98
Brady Quirk-Garvan ’08 was ecstatic. For six months he had put in long, exhausting hours as a field organizer in the swing state of Ohio. Thanks to his and others’ efforts, Barack Obama had just been elected the 44th president of the United States in November 2008.
As Quirk-Garvan savored the victory the next day, Obama made a phone call to his campaign staff, thanking them for their efforts. Some staff would be heading with him to Washington, Quirk-Garvan recalls the president-elect saying, but many others would be returning home.
And back home, Obama continued on that phone call, was where his supporters needed to create change locally.
It was a message Quirk-Garvan took to heart. Since returning home to Charleston, he has thrown himself into local politics, working as a consultant on assorted campaigns and serving as the chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party since 2013. This summer he briefly returned to the world of presidential politics as one of South Carolina’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
As chairman, which is a volunteer position, Quirk-Garvan helps potential Democratic candidates in the Lowcountry appreciate the rigors of running a campaign and serving in public office.
Oftentimes, he’ll take a potential candidate out for coffee or a drink, beginning a conversation concerning the candidate’s passion, the realities of the political district he or she will be attempting to capture, and, most importantly, what, exactly, it will take to win. In other words, how much time and money will be needed to claim victory.
More than anything else, Quirk-Garvan uses this first meeting to hammer home the reality of modern politics: “If you want to be successful, you have to spend a lot of time on the phone raising money and a lot of time out in the South Carolina heat, knocking on doors. Neither of those are the most glamorous or fun activities, but they’re the most efficient way of getting elected.”
Quirk-Garvan got his start in politics while a student at the College, being hired to work as a volunteer coordinator for Inez Tenenbaum’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2004.
After graduating in 2008, he co-owned his own political consultancy before joining his family’s financial firm, Money with a Mission, where he works as a business development associate. The Charleston-based company, he explains, seeks to align clients’ investments with their politics and values.
In 2012 he helped elect Peter Tecklenburg as the auditor of Charleston County – the first time a Democrat had been elected to countywide office in two decades. Quirk-Garvan interpreted the victory as a sign of even better things to come.
“It was the start of that pendulum swinging,” says Quirk-Garvan. “We have the opportunity to create some real, progressive change in Charleston.”
His next big challenge concerns the 2020 redistricting process in South Carolina and how new electoral boundaries will take shape. He hopes the redrawn lines will result in a more diverse set of elected officials and loosen the recent Republican hold on South Carolina politics (Republicans have controlled the governor’s mansion, statehouse and congressional delegations of South Carolina for more than a decade, while Democrats ruled the state for much of the 20th century).
“It does our state a disservice to have rule by one party,” says Quirk-Garvan. “It’s not healthy for democracy.”
If it might seem that Quirk-Garvan is fighting an uphill battle trying to get blue votes in a very red state, he takes solace in the fact that Charleston is more politically diverse than the rest of the state. He also draws strength from past successes, knowing firsthand that change can indeed happen if you work hard enough for it.
“To know that I poured in 18 hours a day, seven days a week for six months to help elect the first black president,” says Quirk-Garvan, “is something I will forever be proud of.”
– Jason Ryan
Ever since he was 8 years old, Lane Hudson ’01 has been hooked on politics.
Back then, in Hartsville, S.C., Hudson helped campaign for his second-grade teacher’s son, who was running to become a state representative.
Three decades later, he’s trying to help elect Hillary Clinton as president, volunteering as one of the former secretary of state’s top fundraisers.
Through August, Hudson helped raise nearly $200,000 for the Clinton campaign, making him a member of the Democrat’s national finance committee and a “Hillblazer” – one of nearly 500 people who have raised more than $100,000 for the 2016 election.
Hudson first crossed paths with Clinton when he was 18 years old, meeting the then-first lady when he interned at the White House. In 2008, he volunteered for her first presidential campaign, canvassing and organizing rallies in 15 states before Clinton was defeated by Barack Obama.
It was exhausting but exhilarating work, and this time around Hudson has campaigned on Clinton’s behalf in the battleground states of New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia: “There’s nothing like getting out and talking to voters.”
When it comes to raising money, Hudson employs one of two tactics. First, he’ll invite friends to special events organized by him or the campaign. It might be a dinner that includes Clinton or one of her surrogates. Or perhaps an “I’m With Her” concert or a special performance of the musical Hamilton. Second, he’ll appeal to potential donors via social media, often timing his pitch to follow major campaign events, such as the well-received speech made by Michelle Obama at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in July. After the first lady’s speech, the Clinton campaign grossed some of their biggest digital donations, says Hudson.
Most online donors give from $5 to $200, making Hudson’s $200,000 total all the more impressive. He says he labors to help Clinton because he’s passionate about the candidate as a person and the significance of her potential election as the first female president.
“The prospect of being involved in something so historic is a major point of pride,” says Hudson, who regards his fellow activists and campaigners as family. “It will be some major history we all made together.”
He also thinks the election of Clinton, a former U.S. senator from New York, would possibly ease the gridlock that has paralyzed Congress in recent years.
“I’m really eager to get back to that place where we actually talk about issues and not sit on our hands and do nothing,” says Hudson, referencing assorted impasses and recent government shutdowns due to Congress’ inability to pass budgets in a timely manner.
Outside of campaigns, Hudson has had a prominent career in activism and politics in Washington, D.C. In 2006, he exposed U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, who had sent inappropriate emails to congressional pages. Since then, he has been a political consultant, focusing on crisis communication and reputation building. He has worked for major corporations that include Microsoft, Facebook and Airbnb. Most recently, he has operated his own agency, Boykin Consulting.
After the election, whomever wins, Hudson plans to take a break from the world of politics and will travel far from Washington, D.C. He and a friend will be starting their own charter sailing company, Trekr Adventures, inviting 50 or so guests at a time to join them in exotic locales where they’ll sail, enjoy top-notch cuisine and see the local sights. Already he’s planned trips in 2017 to the Bahamas, Greece and Thailand. He plans to document his travels through a blog on Out.com.
But before then, there’s still work to do. Hudson will spend the final weeks of this election season campaigning for Clinton in another battleground state: Ohio.
For Hudson, there’s satisfaction in returning to his political roots, pounding the pavement for a cause and candidate he believes in.
“It’s kind of going full circle for me,” he says, “and doing the kind of work I did in high school and college.”
– Jason Ryan
As competitive swimmers for the Cougars, Michael ’05 and Millard Mulé ’06 learned what it meant to work hard and sacrifice for a goal. Balancing athletics commitments with academics required dedication and fortitude.
And it’s those skills, the twin brothers say, that helped give them an edge as they forged careers as political consultants.
“Swimming and politics are very similar,” says Millard. “You have to set goals and you have to put in the work to
achieve those goals.”
The pair got their professional start in politics a decade ago. Michael got his first paid gig in 2006 as a staffer for a congressional candidate in Louisiana. Then the brothers helped Tim Mallard earn a seat on Charleston City Council in 2007.
A couple months later, they launched their political consulting firm, UPT Strategies – a nod to “Uptown” New Orleans, where they grew up.
In addition to running UPT, Michael is the public information officer for Berkeley County, S.C. Millard left his role with the firm in January to work full time as the communications director for Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, whom the brothers helped elect in 2015.
A life in politics came naturally for Michael and Millard. Their father served as an elected judge in Louisiana for 24 years. Their childhood neighbors successfully ran for local, state and federal offices. And their mom once represented Louisiana as a delegate at a Democratic National Convention.
Funnily enough, while the political world of their upbringing made an impression on the brothers – the Democratic affiliation of their parents and neighbors did not. The Mulé brothers are ardent Republicans, and UPT Strategies only represents Republican campaigns and causes.
“We learned how Democrats won and now we know how to defeat them,” jokes Michael.
Drawn to the conservative mantra of hard work and self-reliance, Michael and Millard, who both would major in business administration, were already confident Republicans by the time they arrived in Charleston. As College Republicans, they regularly engaged in political activities on campus – the highlight of which was debating Al Sharpton during a visit to the College amid his 2004 presidential bid.
“The diversity of the students and classes at the College and the respectful challenge by classmates and professors with different political perspectives shored up our political arguments,” Millard says.
In the eight years since launching UPT Strategies, the Mulés have represented a wide range of candidates, from local prosecutors and state legislators to members of Congress and state Republican parties from Texas to Maine to Arkansas to New Jersey. The firm offers a variety of services, including campaign management, telephone services, digital media, graphic design, mail and other print materials.
The brothers have made a name for themselves representing less traditional candidates, including state Rep. Samuel Rivers Jr., the only African American Republican in the South Carolina legislature, and state Sen. Katrina Shealy, who was South Carolina’s only female senator for several years.
In the summer of 2015, the Rand Paul campaign sought Michael’s political expertise and hired him to be the South Carolina consultant for the presidential candidate. Michael also organized volunteers and helped manage Paul’s visits and events across the state.
Amid such an unpredictable election cycle, Millard says it’s a great time to be in politics: “I think it’s been really exciting because what you see is a distaste for career politicians and an acceptance of quote-unquote outsiders.”
The Mulé brothers’ political prowess has earned industry kudos as well, including multiple Pollie Awards from the American Association of Political Consultants, dubbed by Esquire magazine as the “Oscars of political advertising.” Campaign and Elections magazine honored the Mulés last year for running the best “get out the vote” operation in the nation.
But the true reward, the brothers insist, is working with candidates they believe will make a difference.
“At the end of the day, we’re electing people who really will help the average Joe,” Michael says.
– Amanda Kerr
There have been a lot of early days, late nights and last-minute trips over the past year for Andrew Fink. The senior political science major found himself thrust into the world of presidential politics last fall, and he’s been riding the roller coaster of campaign highs and lows ever since.
A natural in the political arena, Fink served as co-chair of the Students for Rubio South Carolina chapter in fall 2015. He excelled at leading outreach among college students in the Palmetto State, earning more and more responsibility with the Rubio campaign, eventually landing duties for the presidential candidate in Virginia and Florida. That experience led him to a stint this summer as the digital director and field representative for New Hampshire Republican congressional candidate Rich Ashooh, before heading south to rejoin with Rubio on his re-election campaign as a senator for Florida.
And while pursuing his political aspirations has meant crazy hours, unpredictable employment hinging on election results and delaying graduation by a semester (he deferred the final semester of his senior year to join the Rubio campaign full time), Fink says he’s living the dream: “This is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
A native of New Hampshire, Fink says growing up in the perennially key primary state nurtured his love of politics. He remembers attending a George W. Bush rally when he was just 8 years old. And in high school, he worked as an intern for Jon Huntsman during his 2012 presidential bid.
“I was always around it,” Fink says of politics.
Fink enjoys the rush of competition and the challenge each day on the stump brings, likening it to the thrill of his glory days playing football, baseball and hockey in high school.
“This is the only thing I’ve found that gives me the same excitement,” he says. “You’re doing different things every single day and it changes minute by minute.”
As a field representative for Rubio’s presidential campaign, Fink led recruiting efforts and helped organize volunteers in South Carolina. The campaign then tapped him to spend 10 days in Virginia generating buzz ahead of the primary there. And then it was off to Rubio’s home state of Florida, where Fink said it was “kind of do or die.” Rubio suspended his presidential campaign in March after losing Florida to Donald Trump.
But the loss didn’t leave Fink gun shy. He joined the Ashooh campaign in May. And by September, he was back on Rubio’s team, helping the former presidential candidate seek re-election as a Florida senator.
According to Fink, the main difference between working with a well-known presidential candidate versus a political newcomer, like Ashooh, is scope and focus. A presidential candidate like Rubio generates more interest and volunteers and has name recognition. In a local race, Fink says, it’s “all hands on deck for everything,” whether it’s posting Facebook ads in the morning, editing a video and messaging materials at noon or making calls to potential voters at 3 p.m.
And while the adrenaline rush of the campaign trail is thrilling, Fink hopes to take his passion for politics to Capitol Hill alongside a winning candidate.
“I would like to work on policy and trying to get what the candidate’s running on done,” he says.
For Fink, ever the competitor, winning the election is just the beginning of the race.
– Amanda Kerr
As a varsity sailor at the College, Courtney Alexander ’14 regularly faced off against, and defeated, some of the top-ranked sailing teams in the country. That was a reward in itself, but the exceedingly stiff sailing competition proved beneficial in one other way for Alexander: It was the perfect preparation for the sharp-elbowed, winner-takes-all world of politics.
According to Alexander, in politics, just like varsity collegiate sports, everyone is constantly pushing the limits and trying to outdo one another. “If you haven’t worked at least 16 or 18 hours each day, you probably haven’t worked hard enough,” she says. “You always have to know in the back of your mind that someone is working harder than you and you need to outwork them.”
Lately Alexander has been putting in long hours for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, working as a deputy press secretary for his 2016 re-election campaign in Florida.
Despite graduating only two years ago, she’s already a political veteran, having four different jobs since receiving her communication degree. Her first job started three days after graduation, and it’s been nonstop ever since, which is the norm for those helping elect candidates to public office in Washington, D.C.
“It’s definitely fast-paced,” she says. “It’s never boring.”
Alexander caught the political bug at the College, crediting Professor Michael Lee’s Campaign Communications class
as inspiration. Also while a student, Alexander volunteered for U.S. Rep. and former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford as he campaigned in a special election to again represent South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. Sanford won the special election, and Alexander found an eventual career helping elect assorted Republican politicians.
“I’ve been in love with campaigns since,” she says. “Every day is a different day, every day is a new day.”
As exciting as campaigns can be, they routinely present challenges. In 2014, while working as the field director for U.S. Senate candidate Bill Cassidy in Louisiana, Alexander was tasked with finding a venue to hold the 1,000 people expected to attend a last-minute rally featuring former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the Robertson family of the television show Duck Dynasty. The solution was an airport hangar.
“We pulled it off in 48 hours,” Alexander says with a laugh.
Alexander also worked as press secretary in the congressional office of U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham of Louisiana, enjoying the non-campaign side of politics, too.
Wherever she heads after the 2016 campaign, Alexander plans to continue to rely on the lessons she learned at the College. Among the maxims she lives by is advice told to her by the coaching staff of the College’s sailing program: No matter where you are, whether in the classroom, on the water or out in the world, they said, always put your best foot forward.
– Jason Ryan
There are more than 950 miles, eight states and countless obstacles between Charleston and Boston. It’s a haul that by land, air or sea takes time and planning to complete. As a candidate for the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Dylan Fernandes ’13 hopes his journey from the Cistern Yard leads to the steps of the Bay State’s capitol.
A first-generation college student, Fernandes is used to setting goals and going the distance. During his years at CofC, he was actively involved on campus. He sailed J22s, played on a championship-winning intramural volleyball team and worked on a few political campaigns, including Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 campaign for the U.S. Senate and alumna Elizabeth Colbert-Busch’s 2013 bid for Congress.
After earning degrees in political science and economics, Fernandes headed back to his native Massachusetts, where he aimed to make a difference. He took a position as the political director for Maura Healey’s campaign as the state’s attorney general. After Healey’s successful election in 2014, Fernandes served in her office as a civil rights mediator and then digital director.
A fourth-generation resident of Falmouth, Fernandes is passionate about giving back to the people of his native state, particularly the residents of his potential House district – Falmouth, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket: “I grew up in the district, and I absolutely love it here. It would be an honor to serve the community I love. It’s also the most beautiful district in America – and I can even say that after living in Charleston for nearly three years!”
And his dedication to his hometown isn’t just lip service. For the young political candidate, it’s personal. Fernandes’ father grew up in abject poverty among a family of nine brothers and sisters. His dad worked hard to start a landscaping company in the Falmouth area and has grown that business for many years. It’s the tireless toil of his father and other small business owners in Massachusetts that motivates Fernandes to serve through elected office.
“I’ve always felt a strong commitment to causes that help vulnerable people and working families,” he says, “because that’s where I come from.”
Fernandes credits his time at the College with shaping his goals and political aspirations, particularly political science professor Jordan Ragusa, whose American government course was one of his favorite classes. Education, Fernandes believes, is the foundation of a democratic society and it is an essential element for improving peoples’ lives: “It is the most powerful tool in lifting people out of poverty, expanding opportunity and preparing people from all backgrounds to live up to their full potential.”
According to Fernandes, a CofC education certainly affords its recipients many opportunities in life and career. He hopes to capitalize on those opportunities and give back to the community he loves so much. And like all candidates come election season, Fernandes knows that he is ultimately at the mercy of the voting public – for only they get to choose who will serve. But that’s a journey with a reward that’s worth the risk.
– Michael Adeyanju
If you were at the Wilton Blueberry Festival in Maine in recent years, you may have seen Blaine Richardson ’72. And if you happened to drop in on the Moxie Festival in nearby Lisbon, you might have spotted him there, too, helping celebrate one of the world’s first soft drinks.
Richardson would have been hard to miss: an affable, silver-haired gent glad-handing the crowds as two Pembroke Welsh corgis trotted behind him, each sporting harnesses emblazoned with “Blaine for Congress.”
In the last six years, Richardson has twice tried to become a congressman representing Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, once as a Republican and once as an independent. He’s fallen short of his goal each time, but this year he’s set his sights on a statehouse seat, hoping to represent the district that encompasses his home in Belfast, located halfway up Maine’s coast.
He’s running once again as a Republican, though he prefers to identify as a “constitutional libertarian conservative.” On the campaign trail, he’s calling for reduced government. If he wrote the laws, Richardson says, there would be less regulation of business and the environment, and no government role in defining marriage.
“We have a federal government that has found a way into every aspect of your life,” says the 66-year-old home builder, who is winding down his construction business and soon set to retire. “Leave people alone!”
An early member of the Tea Party and a staunch Second Amendment advocate, the U.S. Navy veteran began to agitate for change during the recent Great Recession, when small businesses faced acute hardship.
“When they started the bank bailouts, that’s when I became politically active,” says Richardson, who was also bothered by Maine’s once-thriving manufacturing industry continuing a long slide. Lamenting the disappearance of canneries, shoemakers and mills, he says, “Our state’s greatest exports now are our kids.”
That’s not all he’d like to fix. Despite being a naval aviator for seven years of active duty and being deployed overseas through the U.S. Navy Reserve to Haiti and twice to the Persian Gulf (Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom), the retired captain is critical of the country’s decisions to go to war.
He compared the 2003 American invasion of Iraq to “opening Pandora’s box.” Of Vietnam, where he served as a flight instructor in the Navy, he bemoans the massive loss of life: “There’s 58,000 of my peers on a wall, which is a real tragedy.”
Looking back, Richardson believes his preparation for politics began at the College. He became comfortable speaking in front of crowds by playing rock n’ roll at Folly Beach. Tough biology exams and papers, on which you might be flunked for a grammatical error, taught him to take care of the details and assume responsibility for his work.
Now he’s trying to put those experiences to good use in Maine, hoping his ideas, and two cute corgis, will help propel him to public office.
– Jason Ryan
During this presidential race, political science professors Jordan Ragusa and Gibbs Knotts logged hours in front of cable news television cameras and garnered plenty of ink in dozens of national and international newspapers.
Such is the life of a political expert.
From MSNBC and CNN to The Washington Post and The New York Times, Ragusa and Knotts have been talking with numerous reporters about the 2016 election for more than a year.
The No. 1 topic dominating the discussions this election: Donald Trump.
“I’ve answered a lot of questions about how Trump has been underestimated,” says Knotts. “I was certainly one of the people who thought he would not be the GOP nominee. He ran a disorganized and very untraditional campaign, but won the nomination over some very talented Republicans.”
Ragusa agrees and says the amazing thing is that Trump was able to do it without a lot of backing: “The year 1952 was the last time either party nominated a candidate who hadn’t held prior elective office. Since then, political parties and political campaigns have become very professional and costly. Yet Trump won the Republican nomination despite the opposition of many party elites and despite being outspent by his opponents. It’s hard to overstate: these are remarkable facts.”
Both Knotts and Ragusa think this has been a unique election cycle.
“This election cycle is noteworthy for the high negatives for the two major party candidates,” says Knotts. “A lot of people don’t like Clinton and Trump.”
And the political landscape will likely never be the same.
“I think this cycle will be remembered as ushering in a major transformation within the Republican Party,” says Ragusa. “Whether Trump wins or loses, the GOP will emerge significantly changed.”