Captivated by Politics

Alumni and students take to the campaign trails

People have a hard time coming up with the definitive explanation on why they get involved, and stay involved in political campaigns. As articulate as they are in writing a candidate's speech, crafting a television commercial or speaking at a rally, they fumble with responses about what motivates them to work incredibly long hours for modest, and often no pay, while knowing their candidate could lose.

They exult about the energy and “buzz” in a room full of volunteers. They marvel at how chaos in that room magically coalesces into order. They talk about how much they resonate with their candidates’ mission and vision.

And to the person, they nod almost guiltily but with a big smile when they are asked if they have caught the political “bug.”

“I truly believe one of the great blessings of America is that people believe they can make a difference,” said Pat Forceia, a 1980 St. Thomas alumnus who has been involved in political campaigns for two decades. “Politics is one of the ways they can make a difference.

“I try to encourage young people to spend part of their college and post-college time in politics, working on a campaign or for someone who holds an elected office. There is a tremendous amount of work to do, and politicians never hesitate to give young people a lot to do.

“You can’t beat the experience. It’s something you’ll always remember.”

2002 has been a memorable year for many St. Thomas alumni and students who have become involved in Minnesota political campaigns. Two statewide races have attracted nationwide attention as voters prepare to elect the successor to Gov. Jesse Ventura and determine if Paul Wellstone should have a third term in the U.S. Senate.

St. Thomas magazine took a look at the involvement of alumni and students in three campaigns – the Democratic (Wellstone) and Republican (Norm Coleman) candidates for Senate and the Independence Party (Tim Penny) standard-bearer for governor.

For some, there is the opportunity to renew old friendships and dive headfirst again into the excitement that surrounds a political campaign. For others, there is the chance to try something that is new and totally out of character.

Penny campaign

Teresa McFarland (’88 journalism) and Amy Gromer McDonough (’93 French and international studies) worked for Penny in Washington when he represented the 1st Congressional District a decade ago as a Democrat. It was natural that they gravitated to his campaign for governor, although this time it would be as an Independence Party candidate. Both also played on congressional baseball teams with Penny – McFarland on first base and McDonough on second – so they knew him well.

“Tim is one of the good guys out there, and I wanted to help out,” said McFarland, who runs her own public relations business and works about half time on “message development” issues for the campaign. She was press secretary for Penny from 1991 to 1994 in Washington and previously worked for Gov. Rudy Perpich.

“Rudy was a maverick,” she said. “Tim was, too, in working with bipartisan coalitions on issues. What I saw was the chance to build consensus through coalitions, not through partisan head-butting. Tim has a common-sense approach to pulling people together and getting the job done.”

McDonough was an intern for former Rep. David Minge one summer and joined Penny’s staff after graduation. She worked again for Minge and later joined Ventura’s staff, first as director of his Washington office and then on policy issues in St. Paul.

Her campaign role involves policy development, which she loves because “I’m a policy nerd.” She was disappointed with how the Minnesota Senate and House, one controlled by the DFL and the other by the Republicans, handled budget shortfall issues with Ventura earlier this year and she embraced the chance to work for a candidate who she says won’t put partisan politics first.

She calls Penny an aggressive campaigner “who is really good in crowds, and on Main Street. He’s committed to the process and is willing to sit down at the table, roll up his sleeves and negotiate.” She has stayed involved with politics and government because of the positive impact that they can have on people.

“It’s meaningful,” McFarland added. “It’s real stuff – real issues. You don’t necessarily get that every day working for a company or pitching a product.”

Wellstone campaign

Sarah Markel was looking for a summer internship on the St. Thomas Career Services Web site one day and noticed an opening on Wellstone’s campaign. She applied for it, got it, went to work at the end of July and has stayed on this semester.

The Fargo South graduate and senior marketing major shows up every morning at Wellstone headquarters on University Avenue before heading to campus for afternoon classes. She works 20 to 30 hours a week on the campaign, including weekends, and also is a bartender one night a week.

One of her campaign jobs is to compile a report of “3 ups and 3 downs” that two-dozen volunteers throughout Minnesota submit to the campaign office every day.

“That gives me a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on around the state,” she said. She enjoys the assignment but admits the job can be stressful. “I don’t want to screw it up because they make decisions based on the numbers. I have to be careful. I don’t want to get anybody in trouble!”

Markel wasn’t sure what to expect when she started but she quickly became captivated by the “can-do” atmosphere in the office. “It’s chaos all day long,” she said. “I totally thrive on the fast pace, and the day goes by just like that (she snapped her fingers) even when I’m here 12 hours.”

It’s easy to put in those kinds of hours, she said, because she believes in Wellstone and his message and agrees with his brand of political populism. The longer the campaign goes on, the less surprised she is that she identifies so closely with it.

“People around me are more surprised,” she said. “My roommates can’t understand why I’m putting this amount of time into something and not getting paid. I enjoy it – I take pride in feeling that I’m making a difference in the campaign. The actual experience of being here is great. I’m absorbing so much information and learning so much about people and politics.”

Coleman campaign

Several miles away in an Energy Park building, three St. Thomas alumni are scurrying around Coleman headquarters tending to nitty-gritty issues – finances, publicity and policy – that consume a campaign’s time and energy.

Paula MacMullan (’93 mathematics education), Jamie Nilles (’99 communications) and Ben Anderson (’02 business management) had no previous political experience but found their way to the campaign earlier this year.

MacMullan met Coleman when she worked in the University of Minnesota Athletics Department for eight years and was involved in hockey tournaments at Xcel Energy Center. Even though she had “no visions of ever working in politics,” she joined the campaign in January to work on finances and fund-raising projects.

She typically works 12-hour days six or seven days a week and has found the atmosphere to be “all consuming” because of the “stress, the hours, the commitment, the isolation from friends and family.” That’s okay, though. “There is great camaraderie among the staff. Everybody is the best at what they do, and they’re fun people to be with. We’ll be friends for life.”

Nilles worked as a publicist for a Stillwater publishing company and the Mall of America before joining the campaign in March as a media assistant. She had worked with the St. Paul mayor’s office on Snoopy and Charlie Brown promotions at the mall and says “The West Wing” is her favorite television show, so her involvement in the campaign isn’t too out of character.

“Working with the media in this kind of an atmosphere has been a great experience,” she said. “The campaign is in 100 articles a day around the country.” While she gets discouraged about the negative aspects of campaigns, everyone’s commitment on issues ranging from welfare reform to flood relief – “for making a difference in people’s lives” – motivates her. “There’s a real common purpose.”

Anderson agrees. A friend tipped him off about campaign internships and he started last February during his final semester. He stayed on through the summer and fall, working on policy issues, and has found the work to be demanding but rewarding.

“You have to be on top of your game all the time,” he said. “Everything is eye-opening to me. I never had an interest in politics, but it just fell into my lap. I love it.”

Pat Forceia would smile if he could sit and listen to people like Markel, Nilles and Anderson – young adults in their early 20s who stumbled across politics during 2002 and have been captivated and captured by it. He was, too, when he was their age.

The Iron Range son of two Republican parents remembers his defining moment, sitting in a journalism class in 1979 and listening to St. Paul Mayor George Latimer.

“I was absolutely enthralled with him and his view of public service,” Forceia said. “I decided on the spot that when I graduated I would get involved in politics.”

He worked as a summer intern in Washington for Rep. James Oberstar ’56, intending to return to Minnesota in September to work for Cargill. But a job opened on Oberstar’s staff and Forceia stayed for four years. He moved back to the Twin Cities to work for Miller & Schroeder, an investment firm, for six years and took two leaves of absence to work for Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign in 1988 and for Wellstone’s Senate campaign in 1990.

Forceia ran that campaign, introducing elements such as the famous green bus, and Wellstone defeated Sen. Rudy Boschwitz. Forceia became a partner in a marketing communications firm and did marketing work for University of Minnesota sports throughout the 1990s. When “an old friend,” Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, decided to run for governor earlier this year, Forceia agreed to run the campaign.

He left in August because he didn’t feel it was in Moe’s best interests to have a DFL “outsider” run the day-to-day campaign of a party “insider.” He also said others were more skilled on technology and database issues, and he didn’t want to get in their way.

Forceia’s firm, Agenzia, remains involved with politics and government, having helped 15 school districts pass levy or bond referendums in recent years and working with others to develop revenue sources through promotional and sponsorship projects. He has acquired Dairy Queen franchise rights in Naples and Sarasota, Fla., and hopes to open 14 outlets over several years.

He will keep his eye on the political scene, too. He has no interest in running for office, “but I’m getting to the age where friends are running for office, and I like to help them.

“I have great respect for people who run for office – whether it’s mayor of Coleraine, the St. Paul School Board or the U.S. Senate. If I can be of value to them, they know where to reach me.”