The Making of a President

The Making of a President

Candidates lean on Colbians in bids for the White House

By Allen Lessels


Two Races, Similar Themes for Colby Candidates in Maine and Oklahoma

For congressional candidates Adam Cote ’95 in Maine and Andrew Rice ’96 in Oklahoma, the run-up to the 2008 primaries has focused on hot-button issues of climate change, the oil economy, and the war in Iraq.

Emily Boyle '06, left and Felicia Teach '07 work on Adam Cote '95's campaign.
Emily Boyle '06, left and Felicia Teach '07 work on Adam Cote '95's campaign.

Deciding to run for Congress wasn’t easy for Cote. As a U.S. Army reservist fresh from a tour of duty in Iraq (he was a platoon leader with Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion from March 2004 to March 2005), Cote returned to Maine and was met with lots of encouragement to enter the political arena.

“I did not reach this decision casually,” he said, “It’s a big step for me, getting out there in front of the public, but I was getting a sense that we need more people with real-world experience running for office.”

Real-world experience is something Cote has. A native of Maine, he grew up in a working-class family and learned about “working hard and paying bills.” He served in Bosnia in 1997 and 1998, returning stateside to attend law school at the University of Maine. He graduated cum laude and was hired by Pierce Atwood in Portland, where he has focused on real-estate law and renewable energy policies both here and abroad. He and his wife, Paulina, have three daughters under three years of age.

It won’t be an easy road for Cote, a candidate in the Democratic primary in Maine’s First Congressional District.
“You look at this race and it’s a Who’s Who of Maine politics,” he said. “Maine is like a small town and I’m coming into the race as an outsider candidate, a first-time Maine politician. The questions are, ‘Can he raise the money and get his message out there?’ I can’t just turn to a group of people and say, ‘Let’s do what we did last time.’”

Cote has built a smart and effective campaign team led by Emily Boyle ’06, and his messages seem to have some traction in an atmosphere of discontent stemming from the long, costly war effort in Iraq. Global climate change and the country’s reliance on foreign oil top his list. “I have a young, growing family and I’m frustrated with the course of the country right now,” he said.

“We need to step up to the plate with a fresh perspective.”

L. Sandy Maisel, William Kenan Jr. Professor of Government, hears echoes in Cote’s campaign. “The interesting thing about his campaign is that it has this sense of service and patriotism,” he said, “and it’s the same sense of service he had here as a student. He was a quiet and forceful leader here. That makes him attractive to a ton of people even though he is clearly not the favorite in this race.”

In Oklahoma, State Senator Andrew Rice ’96 (D-Oklahoma City) is running for U.S. Senate on some similar campaign themes. “Oklahoma is an energy state and an environmental state,” he said, “and the incumbent [Republican James Inhofe] here has a poor record in those areas. He also has somewhat rigid and misguided positions coming out of 9/11 and foreign policy issues.”

Rice, who lost a brother in the 9/11 attacks (see “From the Ashes,” Colby, fall 2005), is running in a race colored largely by the ongoing war in Iraq. “The climate is extraordinary,” he said, “and people are looking for new direction and different approaches. The incumbent is telling people it’s either his way or you’re not a good American.”

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“I have always believed that the best way to learn about politics is by actually doing it,” said Corrado, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Government, a widely respected expert on campaign finance and a veteran of four presidential campaigns (prior to his academic career) himself.

Maisel, Mackenzie, and Corrado are among the faculty who teach government courses that draw from real-life political experience—and ignite an interest in national politics, alumni say. Inspiration in the classroom is augmented by connections in the world of politics that lead to internships, Jan Plans, and in many cases jobs on campaigns.

And Colby alumni who work in national politics frequently turn to their former professors for students who are capable, enthusiastic, and interested in learning politics in the trenches.

“We just started building a network,” Corrado said. That network has resulted in “a strong tradition” of Colbians working to elect presidents and other national politicians.

Sandy Maisel, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government and director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, said that, unlike some colleges, Colby encourages students to join political campaigns. Not only does political work fulfill the mission of public service that the Goldfarb Center supports, it also offers students and young alumni experience that is hard to match in other work environments.

“It is very difficult to find a job where one year out of college or two years out of college, you’re given a huge amount of responsibility,” Maisel said.

When campaigners retire from what is acknowledged to be a young person’s game, they have a plethora of transferable skills.

Five years ago, Katie Harris figured she’d someday take her degree in government to Washington. First she taught for a year in Colorado and Switzerland, then she started to network, chatting up Colby alums, friends, and others. “What kept coming back to me was, ‘If I was a young person right now and Democrat-leaning, I’d get myself to New Hampshire or Iowa and get on a campaign,” Harris said.

That was in late 2003, and soon, after checking in with Cuzzi, she was working in a Kerry field office in Nashua, N.H. When the senator won the nomination, Harris began doing advance work around the country, mostly with Teresa Heinz Kerry and Elizabeth Edwards.

“I can’t even tell you the emotional roller-coaster ride it was,” Harris said. “I’m such an advocate of getting on one of these. If you’re willing to put up with these hours, it’s totally consuming. And by the same token, if you’re willing to get paid the token amounts you get paid—we’re clearly not in it for the money—it’s such an incredible experience. But in the election we were going a hundred miles an hour. And you hit a wall at a hundred and it’s over.”

After Kerry lost the election, Harris took a good job with a communications firm in the Washington area and wasn’t sure she wanted to get back on the ride.

“But you kind of get the itch,” she said. “It sticks with you, and people keep coming back. A campaign is very addictive. ... I think I probably knew last summer [in 2006] that as 2008 was cropping up I probably had one more cycle in me. But do I think I’ll still be doing it in four years? I’d probably say no. But one never knows.”

These days, she works out of the Edwards headquarters in Chapel Hill, N.C., as the scheduler for Elizabeth Edwards.

Her charge: “Keep the trains running.”

She’s always trying to think 10 steps ahead and to consider the worst-case scenarios, which is difficult, she said, because she’s an optimist by nature. “There’s a lot of give and take,” Harris said. “Everyone wants a piece of her time. We get pressure both internally and externally.”

The press wants 20 minutes. The political team wants 20 minutes. Everyone wants 20 minutes. “And there are only twenty minutes so many times a day,” Harris said. “Someone needs to say, ‘We can’t give you the full twenty minutes, but you’ll get part of it. Yes, what you need is important, but this is also important.’”

As is typical in a campaign, Harris is basically on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “You have to be good at setting boundaries, taking an hour for yoga or whatever,” she said. “But believe me, I’ve been known to be on the treadmill with my BlackBerry in hand, which is so lame. So it goes.”

Katie Varney, ’07, thought about it. But she couldn’t get herself to jump into the presidential campaign this cycle.She didn’t look forward to the crazy hours. Didn’t look forward to eating fast food day after day. In short, she didn’t look forward to the life of a campaign worker.

“I had no desire to get into that again,” Varney said from the Washington area where she now works at The Reform Institute, the organization started by Senator John McCain. “I care a little more about my health these days. I enjoy eating and sleeping. [A campaign] completely consumes you. It’s everything you do, everything you think about. ... I’d be working at seven in the morning to two in the morning, doing anything I possibly could. That’s just the way it was. It was the way everyone was.”

Varney worked on the George Bush campaign in 2004 as a college coordinator for the Republican National Committee.

She took the fall semester off and received academic credit for traveling the state, starting and organizing Republican chapters of students on various college campuses. Later, she was promoted to field coordinator of Waldo County and organized its get-out-the vote effort. And don’t get the wrong idea. She doesn’t regret the experience.

“Absolutely not,” Varney said. “I just don’t think I’m up for it. I think I’ll always look back at that period as the time I lived off Mobil Speedpass.”
There were positives. She didn’t get sent off election night to help oversee a recount somewhere.

“We were at an election party at a hotel in Bangor and we sat there and desperately tried to keep our eyes open,” she said. “Everybody had their suitcase and was ready to be shipped off to whatever state had a recount. It was a huge relief. We didn’t need to go anywhere and could go to bed.”
Most importantly, her guy won. “We absolutely had to,” Varney said. “There was no other option. That was another reason I was a little hesitant this time. I only have experience winning. I don’t know what it’s like to lose. I don’t think that would be a lot of fun. I can’t imagine putting in all the effort we did and having an election day be that awful.”

So she’ll sit this one out and doesn’t know if she’ll ever get as involved again.

If she had gotten into this race, it likely would have been with McCain. Instead, she’ll continue working as a research and program associate involved in immigration, campaign finance, and election reform.

“I think my Dad would like to see me on some Republican campaign,” Varney said. “But he’s just as happy I’m working at a Republican think tank.”

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