Class teaches tomorrow’s pols to ‘just do it’

Community Engagement; Policy; Students

Like U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, Washington University St. Louis sophomore and three-time Democratic “Congressman” Meris Saric is fighting to win re-election.

Teacher leading class
Irwin, a veteran in Missouri politics and senior fellow in public policy for the Gephardt Institute, offers students an inside look at today’s electoral landscape. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

“My hypothetical constituents may feel like I’ve become out of touch, but I am in Washington representing their interests,” said Saric, a sophomore who is studying political science in Arts & Sciences. “My team will be working to establish my presence in the district and reaffirm my commitment in the community.”

Saric is not a real candidate for Congress; he just plays one in the class “Just Do It! Running for Political Office.” Led by Tom Irwin, senior fellow in public policy for the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, the one-credit course teaches students the skills to run for office. Each student is assigned the role of candidate, campaign manager or communications manager. They work as a team to identify the key issues, craft a campaign plan, hone their message and, of course, raise money.

“Those of you who are candidates have to answer the question: ‘Why me?’ You can have the best resume, but if can’t tell your voters who you are and what you stand for, then you will struggle,” Irwin told his class. “And your campaign managers have to answer the question: ‘How?’ You are the confidant, the strategist, the person who can’t be afraid to say, ‘This is a bad idea.’”

There is no course book for the class. What would be the point? Irwin asked.

“The world of politics is moving fast these days, so I assign readings that have been published in the past week or even days,” Irwin said. “If they want to read John Stuart Mill, this may not be the class for you. We keep everything in the present. And believe me, the present is a very interesting time.”

At a recent class, students discussed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story “Wagner is
no-show as rivals for her congressional seat debate healthcare, tax policy.”“The world of politics is moving fast these days, so I assign readings that have been published in the past week or even days,” Irwin said. “If they want to read John Stuart Mill, this may not be the class for you. We keep everything in the present. And believe me, the present is a very interesting time.”

One student argued that Wagner forfeited an opportunity to connect with voters. Fair enough, Irwin responded. But what, he asked, is the upside for the incumbent Wagner, the favorite in the race?

“She may be thinking, ‘There may be questions I don’t want to answer,’” Irvin said. “At this moment in a race, a campaign has to weigh so many competing factors. But, in general,  events like town halls and debates are really where you get the best experience. That’s where you sharpen your skills as a candidate.”

Irwin, a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has seen it all in his 45 years in politics. He served in senior policy and chief of staff positions to Boston Mayor Kevin White, St. Louis Mayor Vincent Schoemehl and St. Louis County Executive George “Buzz” Westfall. He also served for 12 years as executive director of Civic Progress, an organization composed of the region’s top businesses.

Along the way, Irwin has worked with countless politicians, advisers, pollsters, lobbyists and donors. For the class’ final assignment, the students will pitch some of those operatives for a campaign donation. Like real donors, this panel will ask the tough questions: who are your voters, what is your message, how much will the campaign cost, where do you stand on the issues that matter to our interests.

Sophomore Dorian DeBose, who is “campaign manager” for a vulnerable Republican incumbent, is ready for the challenge. This summer, DeBose campaigned for Tom Niermann, a teacher who lost the Democratic primary to represent Kansas’ Third Congressional District.

“I got to work closely with the campaign manager and found the dynamics of the job fascinating,” said DeBose, who is majoring in philosophy. “While the candidate is on the phone asking for money, the manager is thinking about strategy and issues. That’s the sort of role I want one day.”

Irwin will be there when DeBose launches his first campaign.

“I tell every class, and I will tell you — if any of you ever run, I will come and help,” Irvin promised the class. “There is nothing like running for office. You’ll have fun. You’ll make mistakes. And you’ll make your community better.”

Students who live on Danforth Campus can vote at The Athletic Center Tuesday, November 6. Visit WashU Votes to find your polling place, check registration and learn what ID to bring to the polls.