Moved to Run
Haverford alumni are stepping up as first-time political candidates, boldly challenging longtime incumbents and the political “machine” in their communities. For all, the decision to seek office is an effort to live their values. “If you feel something, don’t just throw your shoe at the TV,” says one. “Do something.”
For investment analyst Fritz Kaegi ’93, it was his stump speech that proved the challenge.
That was the early review for the first-time candidate running for Cook County Assessor. To be fair, the office charged with determining property taxes for Chicago and its suburbs—some 5.2 million people—is arguably not the sexiest of posts.
"It’s easy to get lost in the gobbledygook,” allows Kaegi, 46.
The Oak Park, Ill., candidate overhauled the speech. He “honed and tweaked” his message of improving transparency in how property values are calculated and fixing over- and under-assessments. “This job has a huge impact,” says Kaegi, most recently a portfolio manager for a $5 billion Columbia Wanger mutual fund. “The assessor’s office involves bedrock issues of equity and social justice, about who pays what. … We needed to be compelling in the media market.”
It was an important lesson for the political newcomer—and one that paid off. Kaegi won the March Democratic primary in an upset over powerful incumbent Joseph Berrios, the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, who was plagued by a pay-to-play scandal. The decisive win came in a contentious race marked by a legal effort by Kaegi’s team to knock another primary candidate off the ballot, and a suit filed by Kaegi over a sham website set up in his name by a company with ties to the incumbent. In Democratic stronghold Chicago, the primary was the real battle, and Kaegi’s victory—which has been hailed as a signal of the end of machine-style politics—all but assured his win in the November general election.
Around the country, Haverford alumni have stepped forward as first-time political candidates, part of a surge of outsiders joining races since the 2016 presidential election. Besides Kaegi, newbies include lawyer and philanthropist Scott Wallace ’73, the grandson of one of FDR’s vice presidents, who won the May primary in his bid for the U.S. Congress out of Pennsylvania’s First District; community nonprofit administrator Adem Bunkeddeko ’09, narrowly lost a June primary for New York’s Ninth Congressional District; and bioengineer Molly Sheehan ’07, who made a hard-fought run for Pennsylvania’s Fifth District seat, but lost out in a crowded field to attorney Mary Gay Scanlon. Meanwhile, analytical consultant Marsha Silverman ’92 won a seat on the Glen Cove, N.Y., city council and assumed office in January.
This is the year of the atypical politician. According to Emily’s List, an organization that helps elect Democratic, pro-choice women, more than 36,000 women— interested in positions from school board to Congress—have reached out to the group since the 2016 election. That number is unprecedented, says Emily’s List. During the 2016 election cycle, 920 women got in contact. In fact, Sheehan’s race had more women running in it—a whopping six—than any other House primary in the country, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Sheehan’s stump speech pointedly emphasized her scientist (read: outsider) creds.
"I recognize that I don’t have the standard background of people running for U.S. Congress,” the 32-year-old, who lives in South Philadelphia, told the crowd at one candidate meet-and-greet, trading her usual white lab coat for a bright blue blazer. “As a bioengineer scientist, I have an evidence-based approach to decision-making. My training allows me to put my ideology aside and assess the situation in a way that’s without anger. I can hear all perspectives.” Later, Sheehan passed out her Democratic blue business cards with the tagline, “Scientist. Mom. Proud Progressive.” The logo next to her name was a keystone that featured a weblike pattern of “nodes and connectomes”—her science side—that represented interconnectedness.
Sheehan, for one, had her work cut out for her. She ran in perhaps one of the more unusual races in the nation. Initially, she was a candidate in Pennsylvania’s Seventh District, infamous as one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country. The communities strung together across many counties favored Republicans and gave the district a shape akin to Donald Duck kicking Goofy.
Things got interesting when the Democratic front-runner, State Sen. Daylin Leach, ended his campaign after female staffers accused him of inappropriate behavior. Then Republican incumbent Patrick Meehan retired over a sexual harassment payout. Meanwhile, the state’s gerrymandered map was challenged, and the state Supreme Court ruled to redraw it.
With that, Sheehan was running in the Fifth, which took in Delaware County and a sliver of Philadelphia. That made many of the alliances she had built in other areas all for naught. Overnight, the race became a crowded field, and by primary day, 10 candidates were vying for the spot.
"I joke that it’s good I’ve never run for office before,” she says, “because I have no sense of normalcy. … I don’t think any amount of political experience could prepare somebody for what has happened through our race.”
Sheehan flouted conventional wisdom and committed herself to a small-money campaign. That meant not enough dollars for television ads. Instead, she took her message of single-payer health insurance and reasoned policies door-to-door.
"I got into this to have authentic interactions with people,” she says, “and have them vote for me because I’m genuinely going to fight for them.”
In the end, Sheehan came in fourth with 10.3 percent of the vote. Looking ahead, she plans to pursue the civic tech company she began after the 2016 election. Called Civili, it aims to offer an open-source web platform to connect—Match.com-style—volunteers with campaigns in a bid to encourage grassroots efforts.
As she looks back on her own first-ever run for office, she says the experience opened her eyes to political machinations. “It’s just frustrating— how democracy works or doesn’t work,” she says. “I’ve learned the depths of political institutional power and how difficult it is to challenge those forces,” she adds. “But I’ve also met a lot of amazing people and feel that my campaign was a step forward to the progressive movement. We can lose the battle and still win the war. I will be using everything I learned and the connections I’ve made to help others win in the future.”
While a loss is never welcome, Mark D. Levine ’91 says it can help build political chops and eventually lead to victory. He should know. After a close loss for New York City Council in 2001 and then a 2010 loss for state senate, Levine, of Washington Heights, N.Y., made one more try. Three was the charm. In 2013, he won a spot on city council and was re-elected last year .
"You can lose a campaign and still push your political career forward,” says the 48-year-old, who majored in physics and worked first as a bilingual math and science teacher and later started a microcredit nonprofit. “By the time I put my campaign forward in 2013, I was a proven quantity. I’d proven I could get votes, raise money, get labor support, handle the press.”
The experience for any politician, let alone a newbie, can prove grueling. “It has a lot of parallels to the experience an entrepreneur goes through in launching a new company,” says David Thornburgh ’81, CEO of the non-partisan Philadelphia government watchdog group Committee of Seventy. “In a very short period of time, you have to raise money, make yourself and your ideas known, hire and manage staff, raise money, define your campaign against your competition, attract attention, and, oh, by the way, raise money.”
Add to that public scrutiny and ever-shifting political currents—not to mention negative ads— and no wonder Levine describes running for political office as “the toughest thing I’d ever done.”
Bunkeddeko, for one, was in the midst of just that experience last spring. He was one of many progressives around the country taking on Democratic incumbents. The 30-year-old Harvard MBA, son of Ugandan war refugees, faced Rep. Yvette Clarke in his bid to represent the district located in central Brooklyn, where he lives.
Like many Democratic political newcomers, he eschewed money from corporate PACs. “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a first-time candidate is how badly we need campaign finance reform in this country,” he says. “I feel that corporate donations do not serve the needs of the people I’m seeking to represent.”
Bunkeddeko has long worked with or in government to improve communities. Early on, he was a community organizer and has had stints at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., where he helped create a support network for low-income families, and the Empire State Development Corp., where he focused on creating jobs in distressed communities across Brooklyn. He also joined the 2010 Arkansas campaigns of U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (who lost the general election) and Gov. Mike Beebe (who won), and more recently, he was appointed to Brooklyn Community Board #8.
The former associate director of business initiatives at Brooklyn Community Services credits his Haverford education (political science with a minor in philosophy) for his keen interest in community activism and leadership that impacts society.
"Haverford provides you the training in how to move the world to where it should be from where it is,” says Bunkeddeko, who was president of the Black Students’ League and a member of Honor Council as a student. “My education at Haverford is the basis of the work I’m doing now. I didn’t know I’d pursue a career in politics, but those beginnings are helping to form this chapter in my life.”
His opponent, he argued, had not written a major piece of legislation and passed it into law over her nearly 11-year tenure. Bunkeddeko advocated a plan that would lead to increased home ownership in the diverse, immigrant-rich district—an “aggressive agenda on housing,” as The New York Times noted in an article about his bid for Congress. He also wanted to enact criminal justice reform.
"Folks in my community need a congressperson who has their back,” Bunkeddeko says. “Now, more than ever, I think it’s important for us to make sure our voices are represented in Washington, because there seem to be folks who want to drown them out.”
The same could be said about politics much closer to home. Marsha Silverman, 47, who earned her bachelor’s in economics, was happy in her career as a data analyst. Then an apartment building was proposed for land behind her house in Glen Cove. As they say, all politics is local. Soon she was attending city council meetings and questioning zoning and budget decisions.
"It would fall on deaf ears, and they would vote whatever they wanted to do,” she says. “I just realized that if I was in a position to vote on things, I could help make the city a better place for the community. … Since finance is my area, there were so many ways I could help.”
Others in the community noticed Silverman’s outspoken ways and urged her to run for council. “I never thought I would get involved in politics,” she says. “But then I realized, if I don’t, who will?”
Initially, Silverman volunteered for a mayoral candidate, managing the many details. “I learned how a campaign works,” she says. Next, she became the treasurer for the local Democratic Committee.
Before long, Silverman says, she considered herself better qualified than some on the party-endorsed slate for council. She decided to run against the establishment. “I had to build up an entire grassroots campaign,” she says, adding that she took vacation time from her job at a consumer credit reporting agency. Her wife, attorney Roni Epstein, ran the campaign.
"It was fascinating,” Silverman says of the experience. She put her innate competitiveness, which she usually directed at tennis, toward politics. “I was waking up at 5 a.m., going to the train station and meeting every person getting on the train, going door to door in the drizzle. I really pounded the pavement and met as many people as I could.”
Campaigning requires a thick skin, Silverman says, but she stuck to the issues—refusing to go negative—and to her platform of fiscal discipline and responsibility. She won, the only Democrat to make it. “It is exhausting at times and frustrating,” she says. “As one person, I can’t do as much as I would like to get done.”
As Silverman was beginning her new position, 66-year-old Scott Wallace was weighing his options. For the last two decades, he and his wife, Christy, have run the Wallace Global Fund, a nonprofit foundation that works to empower women, fight climate change, and expand voting rights.
Wallace was keen on seeing the First District flip blue. Who had the best chance to defeat incumbent Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in the general election? The newly drawn district was slightly more favorable to Democrats, but no sure win. Two other candidates—veteran, young mom, and Emily’s List-endorsed Rachel Reddick and progressive environmentalist Steve Bacher—were battling for the win. But both were first-time candidates with little name recognition or money, and Wallace had doubts either could succeed against Fitzpatrick.
It was late in the game, but he moved from the D.C. area, where his foundation is based, back to Doylestown, Pa., and into his childhood home in the district. On Jan. 25 of this year, Wallace declared his candidacy, winning the backing of the Bucks County Democrats.
"We need to win that seat and take back the House as a whole,” he says, adding that he saw no choice but to jump into the race. “I came to grips with reality. I really had to do it … to help restore America’s sense of sanity.”
Even though Wallace, too, is a first-time candidate, he had something his primary opponents lacked: money. The multimillionaire inherited his wealth through his grandfather’s seed company, which was bought by DuPont for several billion dollars. During the primary, he outspent Reddick, his nearest competitor, by a 7-to-1 margin, and because he has rejected corporate PAC money, much of the $2.4 million as of the end of April came from his own pocket, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"Corporate money is the root of all evil in Washington,” he says.
But the ability to self-fund is not his only attribute. Wallace has an impressive political pedigree. His great-great-grandfather served President Teddy Roosevelt, and his great-grandfather worked in the administrations of Presidents Harding and Coolidge. His grandfather, Henry A. Wallace, appointed Secretary of Agriculture under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the architect of New Deal programs. When FDR sought a third term in 1940, as war clouds brewed on the horizon, he insisted on Henry A. Wallace as his vice president.
FDR’s pick was not immediately embraced at the Democratic convention, because he was not an elected politician. The president sent his wife, Eleanor, to make his case. In her famous speech, she declared, “This is no ordinary time.”
Wallace was nominated and went on to serve. Now the grandson has made “no ordinary time” his campaign slogan. “That’s why I am doing this,” he says. “This is no ordinary time. … I offer an alternative. It’s not just anti-Trump. I think it’s something much more fundamental and deeper. It’s pro-decency, rationality, and sanity.”
After Wallace graduated from Haverford with a music degree, politics was far from his mind. But when his attempt to make it in the music industry did not go much beyond selling pianos, he began to volunteer in Congress. Wallace liked it, got a law degree from Villanova University, and eventually worked on the staff of two Senate committees.
"I do feel like I have one foot in both camps,” he says. “I am a first-timer, and I am an experienced Washington hand. I’ve written a lot of bills and conducted a lot of hearings. I come in with a packet of experience most first-timers don’t.”
Throughout his life, the values reinforced at Haverford have informed his choices, Wallace says.
"Live your values,” he says. “If you feel something, don’t just throw your shoe at the TV. Do something.”