Learning to Care About Politics

Hallie Balch, McCarthy Sacramento Fellow 2017

Something that I often hear from family members, friends, and teachers is, “The government doesn’t work.” Chances are, if you’re familiar with American politics, you have heard or even said something similar yourself. This was the mindset that I even had as I prepared for my internship with the McCarthy Fellows program. Pessimistic? Sure, but political inaction is prevalent within our society.

As a student at Dominican University, I have been surrounded by people with different political ideologies throughout my college experience. I came to the McCarthy Fellows program expecting liberal individuals with a streamlined theory on politics and little room for my own conservative ways of thinking. What I found in the Fellows was actually quite different – a unique group of people like me, eager to learn and better understand the ways of our government in California.

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This is the most important observation from my time in Sacramento is—just because someone holds different beliefs does not mean their reasons are not valid or that they lack a voice or passion. In my McCarthy Fellows cohort, we each study politics and government in our respective fields. To be a part of the process is eye-opening, to say the very least. For example, I comb through hundreds of bills every day that have an impact on my home district, my community, and people that I love. I study legislation that people may never see or notice. These are bills that legislators craft with teams of policymakers and spend months perfecting. This is a side of government that the public does not see.

I see policymakers in the Capitol working every day to negotiate across the aisle to craft policy that will benefit constituents. This is not what people outside of the Capitol see. They don’t see Assemblymembers buzzing around on the floor, lobbying to get votes from their colleagues for hours on end. They don’t see the effects that a seemingly monotonous bill on water consolidation will have on a community struggling to gain access to reliable, clean drinking water. They don’t see the countless staffers researching bill after bill in order to maximize the benefits for the state of California as a whole.  My greatest takeaway from the McCarthy Fellowship thus far—California’s state government is active. I just have not been staying involved with the politics that have the potential to impact my life.

It can be hard to stay up to date with the ins and outs of policies and procedures, but it is important to try and stay informed. The resources are there and the members of the California Assembly and Senate constantly try to reach out to the constituents of their state. Additionally, legislators are consistently working to pass legislation to increase transparency and open the lines of communication between government and the people. The next step is to use the tools and resources that our government provides us.  One can tune into the Assembly floor while they’re in session and listen to the debates taking place. One can get in contact with their district representative if they’re not happy about something in their community. Getting involved is not hard, one just hard to start taking action.

If we are not informed about what is happening in the world, how can we possibly expect to enact any positive change? I cannot express how important it is to understand what is going on in our government. Not only in Sacramento, with its fast-paced politics and savvy legislators, but also in our individual communities. So the next time you feel like throwing government under the bus, try researching it. Try learning about it. Try understanding it. After all, we’re all in the same bus and who says someone has to be thrown under it?

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On My First Year Of Grad School

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Jessica Lindquist, M.A., Public Affairs ’18

Last July I left my cushy job as an executive assistant at a financial technology company in Mid-Market to try something scary and exciting: graduate school.  I had been accepted into the Master of Public Affairs program at the University of San Francisco.  At my core, I knew it was time to take some risks and pursue the public policy career I had always dreamed about.

The first week of orientation was a whirlwind and admittedly I had a few moments of doubt, which I later realized is a classic stage of starting grad school. I found myself in a classroom of strangers feeling anxious about what the fall semester would bring. Yet, after a few weeks into the program, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I had adjusted to back to student life.

My favorite class of the semester was Applied American Politics taught by Professor Brian Weiner. Our small seminar provided us the space to have intense discussions, applying classic political literature to current events. The 2016 presidential campaign was a subject that we covered substantially in class and Professor Weiner wanted to afford us the opportunity to campaign in Nevada, the closest swing state to California. With a lot of time and coordination on his part, Professor Weiner was able to secure enough funding for anyone in the class who wanted to make the trip to Reno.

On an October afternoon I boarded a Greyhound bus with five of my classmates to persuade Nevadans to vote for the Hillary Clinton. Over the course of the weekend we door knocked in wet weather and unabashedly phone banked strangers. Many of the voters we spoke to were still undecided and it was insightful to talk through some of their concerns about the two candidates. Aside from the incredible campaign experience, the trip also turned my five classmates into five close friends. We spent time talking politics late into the night, swapped stories from the past, and discussed our dreams for the future. The bonds I made during the trip became even stronger when we were back in class.

A few weeks later on election night I watched in horror as Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania turned red. I woke up November 9th puffy eyed and feeling absolutely distraught. My only solace was knowing that later in the day I would go to class and be able to commiserate with my fellow classmates, who I knew were equally devastated about the election results. Together we tried to process the fact that Donald Trump would become the forty-fifth president of our country. In the days and weeks that followed, my closest support group became my academic community .  

Winter break provided an opportunity to reset and reflect. I had time to think about the direction I wanted to take my graduate career. Over the last semester I noticed I kept being drawn to policy topics that were related to how our financial system negatively impacted the lives of low-income consumers. I had a revelation that I wanted to focus on consumer financial protection policy.  I finally had clarity about my policy interests, which gave me direction and purpose.

A few days before spring semester, I traveled to D.C. to attend the Women’s March. The day after the inauguration, I joined hundreds of thousands of people to protest the hateful and discriminatory values of the Trump Administration. The energy in the city was electric and as I marched alongside a few of my friends I began to feel resilient.  I saw so many different walks of life join together in solidarity for a common cause.  At the risk of sounding trite, it was one of most beautiful experiences I have had in my life and it made me feel recommitted to use my voice to stand up for justice and equality.

Spring semester felt different in several ways. I had more confidence as a student and I knew what level of effort was required to get the most out of my classes. The coursework was incredibly demanding and I spent even more time studying. However, each of my professors was incredibly supportive and made themselves available whenever I reached out to them with questions or guidance.

Urban Public Finance was a class that I looked forward to every single week. Ed Harrington was the San Francisco Controller for twenty years and he has an impressive level of knowledge about the inner workings of City Hall. He brought in many guest speakers from the City that spoke to our class on a range of topics including local budgets, economic development and municipal debt. Not only were the speakers experts in their field, they had an obvious deep commitment to public service.  After discussing career prospects with Ed, I became very interested in working at City Hall in the future.

By the middle of the semester my cohort began looking for internships.  Having a full coursework load, working part time, and trying to secure an internship placement all at the same time was daunting. However, my program made sure I felt supported throughout the entire process. Kevin Hickey, one of our faculty members, used his expansive network to connect me to my top choices. Our program manager, Kresten Froistad-Martin, provided coaching on how to navigate the interviews and assess what placements would be best suited for me. References from faculty like Ed Harrington and Professor Weiner helped me secure my top two choices for my summer internship: the Office of Financial Empowerment at City Hall and the California Reinvestment Coalition. The internship search highlighted to me the connections this program offers its students.

The last week of finals, I found myself in the same room as orientation with the group of strangers that over the course of year had become dear friends.  As each of my classmates presented on a research question that they had spent weeks preparing for our Research Methods final, I was struck by how much we each had evolved as students of public policy. My cohort has a diverse set of policy interests, and I’m grateful that I’m able to learn from them about issues that are outside of my focus. Their passion for social change and commitment to challenge the status quo has motivated me to work harder so that I can become a compassionate policymaker.  

People say graduate school is not what you expect, but it is everything you need. This insight has been true thus far in my own experience. In the pursuit of my graduate degree, I’ve deepened my knowledge of public policy, become more open to perspectives that differ from my own and feel a renewed sense of purpose.  I’m incredibly grateful for the strong support of the McCarthy Center, my graduate program, the dedicated faculty and my inspiring cohort. I’m looking forward to what the next year brings.

 

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Contributing from D.C. and Common Sense Media

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Ayah Mouhktar (’18)
USF in D.C. Fellow

 

Ayah Mouhktar is one of our not-so-secret weapons in D.C.  As a Student Communications Assistant for the McCarthy Center, she took on the mission of serving the Winter semester as a participant in the USF in D.C. Fellows program. We are thrilled to report that she is applying her skills in an internship at the national office of San Francisco based, Common Sense Media, a non-profit education and advocacy  organization promoting safe technology and media for children.

Ayah has wasted no time in jumping back into her blogging. She shared her first blog post focusing  on a policy campaign called the FAMILY Act, 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Click here to read.

Ayah is a Newmark Scholar and recipient of the Betty L. Blakley Scholarship. Read her earlier blog post at http://bit.ly/2lktCut. Meet our other USF in D.C. Fellows at http://bit.ly/2l8Vxet

Life is Not Linear – Learning to Fight for Equity, Diversity, and Democracy in San Francisco

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David Woo
Master of Arts in Urban Affairs candidate ’17

I decided late last summer to apply to the Master of Arts in Urban Affairs program at the University of San Francisco (USF) in a move to change my career path. As an undergraduate at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), I studied both chemistry and sociology. While I was passionate about both fields, upon graduating I ended up working with the Environmental, Health, and Safety department at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) in the chemical safety department. While the work I was doing was important, I was not doing the type and scope of work that I truly wanted to do – that is work that addresses issues surrounding social justice. After moving back home to San Francisco after graduating UCSC, there were apparent differences brought about by the technology boom. Increased displacement, skyrocketing housing prices, and a general feeling of unease as trendy boutiques went up in the place of longtime neighborhood serving establishments.

After leaving my job at UCSF I took some time off to reconsider what I wanted out of my career. The serious crisis in San Francisco brought about by rising economic inequality was in full force and my desire to get involved in social justice work ultimately led me to the Urban Affairs program at USF. While I was unsure if I was too late to apply, the staff at the USF McCarthy center took the time to respond to all my questions and helped me get an application in very quickly, well past the official deadline to apply to the program. Having previously been interested in sociology, political activism, and social change movements in college, the interdisciplinary focus of the program seemed like a great fit. Continue reading

Jumping Back into the First Semester of Graduate School

Jeno Wilkinson - Master of Public Affairs at USF

Jeno Wilkinson
Master of Public Affairs candidate ’17

As I look back on my first semester of graduate school, I remember how I felt starting the Master of Public Affairs (MoPA) program back in August. It had been about a year between finishing my undergraduate work and going back to school, so my chief concern entering the fall 2015 semester was if I would be able to get back into the same routines that had yielded success for me in undergrad.

After the first couple weeks of finding my stride in class, as well as at home, I was able to dive headlong into the courses and materials in front of me. The courses offered in the first semester of the MoPA program were a great way to reground myself on the core pillars of what makes our political system move. Having majored in political science during undergrad, this first semester allowed me to reengage with many of the foundational documents and ideas that guide the political conversations of our day.

As the semester progressed, these foundational steps allowed me to better grasp why things are the way they are today and how looking back at the genesis of these problems and issues can be a tremendous asset in developing how to best proceed forward. By taking this approach, I was able to bring in some of the topics and issues that are close to my heart and use that skillset to help develop possible solutions.

This set the stage for me to be able to write my semester research paper on a topic I care deeply about; politics and sports. By looking into local economic development policies of both Oakland and San Francisco over the past forty years, I was able to see this as at the core of why the two cities have had similar yet very different outcome for seeking new stadiums for their professional baseball teams. Without the great ability, encouragement, and guidance of the MoPA faculty, I would not have been able to draw such conclusions while also writing a research paper that can be used for professional development as well.

My first semester in the MoPA program has showed me that the program has a great ability to take topics I care about and use the courses offered to help further those causes. And while I’m very much enjoying winter break, I do look forward to getting back in the classroom.

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Elections and Democracy – San Francisco Style

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Corey Cook 
Corey Cook, Professor of Politics is currently on leave but is still a critical observer of local, state and national politics. Professsor Cook regularly contributes to the McCarthy Center blog while he establishes the School of Public Service at Boise State University.

As my friend Jon Bernstein pointed out in a Bloomberg View piece last year, the timing of our elections can have a profound consequence for policy and governance. For instance, the specific timing of the economic crash in 2008 had important implications for President Obama’s agenda. Had the recession started sooner, unemployment would have likely bottomed out before the president assumed office (rather than in October of his first year). In that scenario, the Tea Party summer might have never occurred and John Boehner is still Speaker, if not Nancy Pelosi. Alternatively, had the recession started just a few months later (unemployment began rising in May of 2008 before spiking between the election and inauguration) most certainly the 2008 election would have been closer and the Democrats would likely have gained far fewer seats in the Congress. In other words, a later recession, and there is probably no Affordable Care Act or second Obama administration, an earlier recession, and there is likely no Tea Party revolt. In either case, Obama still wins the 2008 election, but the meaning of that election – the size of the mandate, the context in which the new executive takes office and governs – is quite different.

So what does this have to do with San Francisco?

Next week, somewhere between one third and two-fifths of San Francisco registered voters will participate in a municipal election. It’s a sleepy election. Of the five citywide races, three involve incumbents running unopposed, the mayor will win re-election easily against underfunded challengers, and one race, the election for county sheriff, is considered competitive, though it likely won’t be close. Instead, most of the attention on election night will be focused on a single supervisorial district (which will reportedly exceed $1 million in campaign spending) and a handful of hotly contested ballot measures. You might suspect that San Franciscans overwhelmingly approve of the job that Ed Lee is doing as mayor and endorse his policies, and surely his supporters will make that claim next week, but that would ignore the context of the election.

Make no mistake, Ed Lee will win handily and his supporters will declare it a clear affirmation of his policies. But the reality is that San Francisco voters remain conflicted. While the mayor is credited for presiding over a sustained economic boom (unemployment fell from over 9% to a shade over 3% during his five years in office), San Franciscans remain deeply troubled by the skyrocketing cost of living, the displacement of lower and middle income residents, and a general loss of community. They are dissatisfied with the state of transit and infrastructure and the failure of the city to adequately address homelessness.

Just over ten months ago, when leading contenders to challenge the mayor contemplated taking the plunge, the mayor’s solid poll numbers and extensive (some might say excessive) campaign war chest dissuaded entry into the race. He was coming off a successful fall election and about six months of good press. But since that time, it’s been anything but smooth sailing. One of the unforeseen consequences of the shift from a majority runoff to a ranked choice election is that a late insurgency (like that waged by Tom Ammiano against Mayor Willie Brown in 1999) are all but precluded. It’s not enough for someone to hold the mayor under 50% and take a shot in a runoff. Instead, an insurgent candidate would have to win outright in November, a tall task. But were the election six months from now, I wonder if the mayor would face a far stiffer challenge. And, as is always the case, his detractors are likely to claim some victories of their own in down-ballot contests and on some of the ballot measures.

“Elections Matter”

To quote president Obama, “elections matter”. But our interpretations of election results are typically vast overreaches that depend too much on the randomness of the timing of an election. And if history is any guide, the battle over which faction “won” is likely to be as hotly contested after the results are announced as before. As Bernstein writes, “if we see (election outcomes) as registering the preferences of voters on the issues and regard them as definitive, then we weaken democracy.” While those candidates who emerge victorious on election day have earned the legal mandate to govern, let’s not presume that voters have endorsed the victors’ positions on every issue and embrace the simplistic notion promulgated every four years that we have effectively “handed over the keys of the car.” Democracy demands much more than that.