University News

Brown alums battle for political office nationwide

By
Senior Staff Writer

Brown alums will run in two of 11 gubernatorial races up for grabs in 2012 with Jack Markell ’82 running for reelection in Delaware, and Maggie Hassan ’80 P’15 making a first-time bid for governor of New Hampshire. If both candidates win, four sitting governors in the country – including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ’91.5 and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 – will be Brown graduates, more than any other college at this time.  

Ties to politics for Brown alums do not end with these high-profile elections. More than 20 Brown alums from 14 different states will seek federal and state positions next week. And while they vary across the board in their backgrounds and political beliefs, several candidates expressed that their experiences at Brown helped shape their path to Election Day.

 

New Hampshire: Governor

As the Democratic candidate in a battleground state, Hassan is currently ahead in the polls by four points over her opponent Ovide Lamontagne, giving her a wider margin than President Obama’s slim two-point lead in New Hampshire over Romney, according to data released by Public Policy Polling last week. 

But Hassan is familiar with how quickly public opinion can change in her state. After three terms in the state senate, the former senate majority leader lost her bid for a fourth term in 2010 to Republican challenger Russell Prescott, a candidate she faced in two of her four previous campaigns. 

“New Hampshire is a fiercely independent state,” Hassan said. “People really decide candidate by candidate and issue by issue, and (with) the challenges this country has faced over the last decade, people have voted in different ways and in different circumstances.”

Both candidates have focused mainly on differences in their tax and fiscal policies during the campaign season. Hassan said her opponent Lamontagne has aligned his campaign platforms with policies supported by the Tea Party, which has been “dominating the legislative branch” of the state for the past two years.

Lamontagne’s campaign has focused its offense around Hassan’s tax policies and voting records, releasing more than 40 press releases as part of a daily series called “Maggie’s Tax of the Day.”

Hassan has stated during her campaign that she will veto any raises in personal income tax and overall sales tax, but said she aims to reinstate a 10-cent cigarette tax, the state’s minimum wage law and will repeal the budget cuts to public schools and universities implemented by legislators over the last two years. 

“People need a strong university system because we obviously need a strong and skilled workforce,” she said. 

“The Brown community has been terrific,” Hassan said of campaign support from fellow alums. Hassan has also received widespread support and media attention from outside of New Hampshire. In addition to an endorsement from President Clinton, Hassan’s campaign raised, as of August, a record amount in campaign contributions for a first-time candidate, with 70 percent of funds made up of individual donations of $100 or less.

Part of that support may stem from the uniqueness of her candidacy, Hassan said. She is the only woman running for governor nationally this year, and if elected she will be the only Democratic female governor in the country. “People believe all enterprises are better served when you have diverse leadership,” she said.

 

Kansas: State Senate

With no opponent in the general election, Sen. Jeff King ’97, R-Kansas, of the state’s 15th district is all but guaranteed to start his second term in office next year. But when he lost 73 percent of his constituents and faced a four-term incumbent in the primary election due to redistricting, he faced the very real possibility that his first term in office would be his last. In a debate before the primaries, King said he was asked if, as the less experienced candidate, he would be able to stand up for his constituents and hold his own in disputes with colleagues in the Senate. His answer, he said, was simple – “I was an outgoing Republican who went to Brown for four years.”

But King credits Brown with more than sharpening his skills in political confrontation. King said he enrolled at Brown after applying to several schools exclusively in the northeast. 

“My freshman year was very difficult,” he said, adding that in his first semester he received Cs and below in all four classes. “I didn’t know how to write papers,” he said. Without the individualized attention he received at Brown, King – who has a M.S. from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Yale  – said he believes his disadvantages would likely have gone unnoticed at peer institutions with less undergraduate focus. “I had professors that realized that I didn’t know how to study for the material,” he said. 

Brown’s opportunities for public service and political involvement were also substantial in developing his future pursuits, King said, adding that he did not anticipate being so involved before coming to Brown. Just missing the cutoff for the varsity men’s tennis team was “in retrospect one of the best things that happened to me,” he said. King went on to found club tennis at Brown and coached at local high schools. He also participated in various community service projects and served as vice president of the Brown Republicans, where he said he was initially one of three members.

“When you’re willing to engage in spirited but fact-based debate, folks at Brown were very accepting,” he said. “Brown is one place where we can disagree amicably.”

Working politicians could learn a thing or two from the atmosphere of discourse at Brown, King said, and success of recent pension reforms in Kansas and Rhode Island state legislatures might be a step closer in this direction. 

“I have a lot of respect” for the Democratic legislators who pushed pension reform in Rhode Island, King said, adding that – as a leader of similar efforts in his own state – he could empathize with the difficulties of drafting an overhaul. “You don’t win friends by reforming the pension system,” he said.

But so far, elections continue to take a turn for the worse in their contentiousness, King said. “Tough elections are good in the democratic process, (but) I believe civility in campaigns and civility in government is slowly diminishing, and that may be the biggest tragedy in our political system. Our democracy suffers.”

 

Rhode Island: U.S. House of Representatives 

As man
y Americans grow weary of increasing partisanship in federal and state government, some candidates are just as weary of the parties themselves. Abel Collins ’00 is running on an independent ticket for U.S. Representative of Rhode Island’s second district against incumbent Jim Langevin and Republican challenger Mike Riley. 

“I’ve always thought I would eventually run for this office,” Collins said, who spent several years as a lobbyist in the state, most recently as project manager for the Sierra Club’s Rhode Island branch. “I didn’t think it would be this soon,” he added.

As a first-time candidate for a federal position, Collins said he is often asked if running for the State House would be a more sensible starting place. “To me I can already do all those things that state senators and state representatives do,” he said. “I really think the next step is to go and address the major problems I see on the federal level. And they are major.”

Collins said one of the main reasons he entered the campaign stemmed from the desire to revisit issues addressed by the Occupy movement. He served as an ally to members of Occupy Providence, assisting in writing literature on behalf of the group and negotiating with officials in city government. 

“All those efforts really didn’t result in the change we needed to see,” he said, “I think it’s important to take Occupy’s messages and cause into the political realm.”

In a poll conducted by the Taubman Center for Public Policy last month, only 4.7 percent of a sample of 235 voters in the second district said they would vote for Collins while 49.4 percent and 31.5 percent would chose Langevin and Riley, respectively. 

“I have been competitive,” Collins said, adding that his campaign has spent between 25 to 50 times less than his opponents. “I think that proves the theory that a good message appeals to people.” Collins is scheduled to join Langevin and Riley in a televised debate tonight on WJAR, though both candidates allegedly withdrew from previously scheduled debates on word of Collin’s inclusion.

Collins said if he was eligible to run in the first district instead of Langevin’s, he likely would have stayed out of the race. “I would be much more likely to be a spoiler in the district one race,” he said, adding that his priority would be keeping Democrat incumbent David Cicilline ’83 in office. “I am not a fan of the Republican agenda,” he said of a possible Doherty win. “It’s atrocious.”

Collins labeled Langevin’s political leanings more problematic than Cicilline’s, Collins said. “He’s a pretty conservative Democrat” on issues such as abortion, Collins said.

Collins, who plans to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the presidential election, said both Langevin and President Obama have proven to be “very much a part of the Democratic machine,” especially through lenient attitudes toward the banking industry. 

Though the Republicans are more “dangerous” to put in power, he said, both parties have lost sight of the “longer view” on politics, a concept he said he was introduced to as a student through exposure to thinkers like John Rawls in political science classes.  

“Nobody’s thinking, ‘What’s the world going to look like in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years or more?’” he said. “We need to think about those things because the activities that humans are doing these days are having such a huge impact, and if we lose sight of that we just won’t have a future at all.”

 

North Carolina: State House of Representatives

Rep. Deborah Ross ’85, D-N.C., got a taste for political life working on a campaign before entering the political arena herself. Though Ross started out practicing law in the private sector after graduating from the University of North Carolina Law School, she said her interest in public service began when she started working for Harvey Gnatt, former mayor of Charlotte, in an historic and racially-charged senate race against Republican incumbent Jessie Helms. 

She then worked with women’s rights organizations, judicial campaigns and the American Civil Liberties Union before running for North Carolina’s state legislature – an unexpected diversion from the focus of her studies of International Relations at Brown.

“Brown was my destiny,” Ross said, who applied early decision. “I liked the idea of intellectual freedom,” she said, adding that its smaller student body compared to other Ivy League schools was also a big draw. 

Ross was president of her class in high school for several years and “extremely involved” in local politics, but after arriving at Brown she said she discovered she “wanted to try a whole bunch of things.” Attending college before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ross’ academic interests gravitated from medicine to international relations and arms control. 

“IR just expanded my world,” Ross said. “I wish I could do more with what I studied at Brown, but sometimes I think reminding people at the state level that we live in a global economy … makes a big difference.”

But some areas of domestic policy Ross focuses on in Georgia’s state capitol still draws from her other interests at Brown, she said. An active supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment when she was a student, Ross helped move forward women’s issues concerning equal employment, domestic violence policy and access to contraception when the Democrats in North Carolina were in control of the House before losing it in 2010. “Now in the minority, I play a lot of defense in those issues,” she said.

Ross is unopposed in her district this year, but as the minority whip, she assists in party fundraising and other aspects of individual campaigns in the state. “It’s a different kind of pressure,” she said, having experienced competitive campaigns in the past. “Some of the people who I’m helping are going through very difficult elections.”

North Carolina is considered a swing state nationally, but Republicans will likely keep their majority in the state in the upcoming election cycle, Ross said. Since the party turnover last election, contention has been high, she said. “When people are not in power and then they get in power, sometimes there’s a lack of graciousness. Things are very hot – politics isn’t a tea party.”

Ross said the environment of Brown fostered skills of individual responsibility and adaptation to instability characteristic of today’s political atmosphere. 

“When you go to Brown you have to know how to chart your own course,” she said. In government, “circumstanc
es change all the time and virtually everybody who wants your ear is really only coming from their own perspective. … If you want to respond to a changing state and political environment, you have to use the great skills of critical thinking.”

  • Reality Check

    ” She is the only woman running for governor nationally this year, and if elected she will be the only Democratic female governor in the country.”

    And yet there are four (4) female Republican governors currently. Remind me again which party has a problem advancing women?

  • Anonymous

    Jeff King is class of 1997 — if I could, I’d vote for him in any election despite his party affiliation!

  • Anonymous

    @Reality Check:
    Both of them!