To serve and elect
Emily Cherniack wants to get more people with military or civilian service backgrounds into public office
Photograph by Frank Curran
The organization you founded, New Politics, is committed to finding and helping elect candidates for office who have backgrounds in the military or civilian service organizations such as AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. Why is it important to have people with those backgrounds in public office? We’re about people who are country first, community first. People who have done service, they’ve learned how to work with diverse people. They know how to bring people together to solve problems. We think those are the kind of leaders we desperately need in political life.
Seth Moulton, a decorated Iraq War veteran who defeated a longtime congressman, John Tierney, in 2014 is certainly the most well-known example of your efforts so far. He says you’re responsible for him running. How did that happen? It was very karmic. I did a meeting with David Gergen. He’s a big fan of this idea. He served [in the Navy in the Vietnam War era] and has advised four presidents, and he talks a lot about an earlier time when a majority of people in Congress had served. Even if they didn’t get along or agree on everything, their attitude was, we’re all patriots and we served together. He said, Seth Moulton should run for office one day. I have no idea if he’s a Republican or a Democrat, but he’s amazing. He’s the kind of person you’re talking about. Seth was a fellow in one of Gergen’s programs [at Harvard’s Kennedy School]. I called him. He said no. A few weeks later, I said, can we sit down and talk about it. If you’re going to tell me no, at least look me in the eye and tell me. People like him want to serve their country again; they just have to be asked. I just think he never would have thought, oh, I’m going to run for Congress.
How high was the percentage of members of Congress who had served in the military during earlier times? 75 or 80 percent in the 1970s. That wasn’t that long ago. I don’t think it’s coincidental that we now have the lowest number of people in Congress who have served in the military in history—less than 18 percent—and we also have the least productive Congress. You have to have leaders to do big things. If we don’t change the kind of leaders that we have, I just don’t think we can solve the most pressing problems in our country.
I’ve thought for a long time that City Year and AmeriCorps and these service efforts seem closely related to politics or public issues, but it seems like a lot of people who have gravitated toward those kinds of things have shunned politics. Maybe it’s because it looks impossibly gridlocked, but politics hasn’t been seen by some as a place to make a difference or to make change. People have felt instead, I’m going to make a difference by working with a group of kids and by directly impacting people. So there’s been this sort of divide. Are you trying to break down that divide? I think it’s a false choice that you have to do one or the other. But the political world is a closed ecosystem, let’s be honest. I mean, no one is actually inviting anyone to join into this ecosystem because it’s about power. If you actually invite new people in, you say, well, this person might run against me. So no one is actually recruiting or thinking about engaging these communities in the political space.
That was certainly the case with Congressman Moulton, who was not exactly welcomed when he challenged an incumbent in a Democratic primary. No, he certainly wasn’t. They told him to wait his turn.What sort of impact has New Politics had in recruiting or working with candidates? We beta-tested it in 2014. We had five candidates. We had three wins, two losses. This year we have about 22 candidates. We have city council, we have state leg, and we have Congress. And we have one governor’s race. So we do all the pipeline.
You have the sort of background in service work that your group is looking for. Could you ever be a candidate yourself? People ask me all the time: Aren’t you going to run one day? And I say never. It’s just not my jam. I’m more like a Bayard Rustin, who made the  March on Washington happen, the logistics of it: The buses are going to drop people off here. Don’t bring tuna fish, bring peanut butter and jelly because it’s going to be hot out. He created the infrastructure so that Martin Luther King could have a dream and set that vision. That’s my strength. That’s my role. To support people like the Seths of the world and others to help them run for office.