By Katharine Webster
Working for the underdog – a Republican candidate in a Democratic-leaning district – has its advantages.
Just ask Justin St. Louis, a junior political science major in the Honors College. In 2016, he was knocking on doors and phone-banking in New Hampshire as a field representative for then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte. Now he’s deputy political director for Rick Green, the Republican running for Congress in Massachusetts’ 3rd District.
St. Louis is helping to plan events and constituent meetings, creating all of the campaign’s graphics and crafting much of its email and social media messaging, all while learning about fundraising. If he were working for an incumbent with an existing political organization, he wouldn’t have gotten such an opportunity, he says.
“I’ve gotten to see the whole campaign from start to finish,” he says. “It’s like being on the ground floor with a startup that grows into a significant company.”
In the year leading up to this week’s midterm elections, political science students who want campaign experience have had loads of opportunities on both sides of the political aisle. And after the midterms are over, some will hop across the border to New Hampshire, a swing state that’s already getting visits from presidential hopefuls because it holds the nation’s first primaries.
Students are talking to voters, working on social media outreach and serving as debate panelists. One or two are even running for office themselves. And they’re connecting their classroom learning to their experiences in the field every day.
“I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned in the campaigns and relate it back to what I learn in the classroom,” says Curtis Boucher, president of the UML College Republicans. “The media stuff, public opinion – I’d learn it in class in the morning, and in the afternoon I’d live it.”
Boucher started as a field representative for the New Hampshire GOP in 2016. Now he’s campaign manager for John MacDonald, the Republican candidate for state Senate in the 1st Middlesex District, which includes Lowell.
“Seeing campaigns up front gives students a chance to apply the research we show them in the classroom, but also think about the limits of that research,” says Assoc. Prof. John Cluverius, associate director of UML's Center for Public Opinion. “Some students will even apply their campaign experiences to new research projects, based on what they’ve observed.”
For members of the UML College Democrats, the contest for the 3rd Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas offered tons of internships – and plenty of friendly rivalry, since 10 Democrats were on the primary ballot.
Several women in the club campaigned for Lori Trahan, now the nominee. Other members campaigned for Rufus Gifford and Juana Matias before the Sept. 4 primary.
Sophomore Jack Bove worked in Haverhill for Matias over the summer. He was brought on board by field director Paul Hurton, a Model United Nations teammate who is double-majoring in political science and peace and conflict studies. Bove says the experience brought everything he’d learned in class to life.
“I learned how the political machine works, how fundraising money flows and how to convince voters,” he says.
Madhav Sampath, a junior majoring in economics, interned during the primary for Gifford, the former ambassador to Denmark and finance director for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Now he’s interning for the state Democratic Party in support of Trahan, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and candidates in state races.
“After the primary, I took a week to grieve – and then I started working for the Democrats’ coordinated campaign,” he says. Sampath has picked up a minor in political science. He hopes to become a political aide or an economic advisor.
“After nine months of campaigning for Rufus and other Democrats, I realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he says.
Hannah Casey, a sophomore double-majoring in history and political science, signed up to work for Gifford over the summer after he came and spoke to one of her classes. She knocked on 2,000 doors and made 2,000 phone calls to voters on Gifford’s behalf. She loves making that personal connection.
“Conversations are the most critically important thing we can do,” she says. “You need to be able to talk to people with completely different points of view, listen to them and understand where they’re coming from.”
Andrew Sciascia also “loves the doors.” A junior majoring in political science and criminal justice, he’s interning for MassVictory, the Republicans’ coordinated campaign. He enjoys listening to people’s stories – and practicing his powers of persuasion.
Sciascia and UML College Dems President Julie Lawton also got to quiz candidates in the 3rd Congressional and 1st Middlesex Districts during debates co-hosted by the university and The Lowell Sun.
Alex Leighton Williams, a 21-year-old Amesbury resident who’s in the History Department’s five-year bachelor’s-to-master’s program, is the Republican candidate for state Senate in the 1st Essex District.
He’s running as a social liberal, a civic reformer and a fiscal hawk, trying to bring attention to issues that affect young people. He supports treatment instead of jail for people addicted to opioids, and he’s a strong advocate for public higher education. He says his professors are as good as those at private colleges. The same goes for his friends in UML’s engineering and business programs, who are helping him knock on voters’ doors from Methuen to Salisbury Beach.
“If UMass can offer the best plastics engineering program in North America at one-fourth the cost of a private university, why does college cost so much?” Williams asks. “I’m really proud of UMass.”
Boucher, who’s out knocking on doors with MacDonald whenever he’s not in class, is another UMass Lowell fan. He says his political science professors are always pushing him to learn more, both inside and outside the classroom, from doing campaign work to volunteering at SayDaNar, a nonprofit that aids Burmese refugees.
“This university has opened so many doors that I’ve never dreamed of being opened,” Boucher says. “This university has put an emphasis on making sure we get out there and learn hands-on, in the field, so it’s not total culture shock when we leave the classroom – that we actually know what we’re doing out there.”