Yale has always inspired its graduates to seek political office, and although student interest in politics may have declined since the heyday of activism in the late ’60s, alumni show no sign of leaving the public sphere anytime soon.
While alumni of both the college and the graduate schools reasserted their presence in national politics on Tuesday, many Yale students disagree on what, if anything, about Yale encourages the level of political service seem among graduates. Despite student skepticism, a predominately Democratic group of candidates showed Tuesday night that Yale alumni are still a force to be reckoned with, as incumbents retained their seats and newcomers swept into office.
Six Yalies won Senate elections, including key races in Rhode Island and Ohio, allowing the Democrats to reclaim the Senate if Jim Webb’s apparent victory over Sen. George Allen holds. While control of the House shifted dramatically on the national scale, alumni House candidates maintained the status quo as incumbents reasserted their power and challengers in Indiana and Virginia were defeated.
While Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 and Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 were the biggest Yale names running for office this year, their victories were nearly forgone conclusions, and on election night neither created much political tension. Instead, relative unknowns in Ohio and Rhode Island claimed the national limelight. Democratic senators-elect Sherrod Brown ’74 and Sheldon Whitehouse ’78 both won clear victories — a 56-46 margin for Brown, and a 53-47 margin for Whitehouse — boosting Democrats’ hope that the party might be able to retake the Senate along with the House.
But despite the overwhelmingly Democratic bent of the alumni candidates and the strong showing by the Democratic party in the elections, Republican House candidates Lamar Smith ’69 and Tom Cole GRD ’74 held their own, easily fending off Democratic challenges to their incumbencies in Texas and Oklahoma.
Not all Yale graduates were so successful. Democratic House candidates David Sanders ’83 and Al Weed ’68, who challenged incumbents in Indiana and Virginia respectively, both lost by large margins in Republican-dominated districts, with Sanders picking up only 37 percent of the vote and Weed doing only slightly better with 40 percent.
In a show of alumni solidarity, candidates from Yale can often rely on the support of fellow Bulldogs, even when they are not of the same political party.
Jonathan Hertz ’74 said he noticed last spring that Brown — whom he knew of through mutual friends — was running for Senate and decided to inform his classmates using the Association of Yale Alumni network. Although one person complained that the announcement was political spam and AYA later told him he could not use their services for political campaigning, he said the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“We feel strongly about Yale, and so we feel good about [classmates] when they succeed in their chosen field,” Hertz said. “[Brown’s campaign] struck a chord with me and with a lot of other people, and there was a lot of enthusiasm.”
Hertz said that many of his classmates, regardless of political leaning, supported Brown’s campaign and saw his success coming, since Brown won a Democratic nomination to the Ohio state house before he even graduated from Yale.
But the Yale tag on candidates’ resumes may not always be an asset during election season.
Dara Lind ’09, whose home state is Ohio, said she was sure that Brown’s campaign avoided any mention of his Yale education.
“It’s a tricky topic,” Lind said. “There are anti-intellectual parts of the state, and it’s not something anyone would want to make known.”
But she said both major parties in Ohio have a history of Yale alumni in their ranks, so that while it might not be a benefit, it could not be used as a liability either.
Lind is a columnist for the News.
Whatever the case, Brown, who was a seven-term Congressman before he ran for the Senate, now has the opportunity to work with a politically divided government, since the executive branch remains under Republican control. According to his communications director, Joanna Kuebler, Brown does not mind the division and is ready to make the federal government more responsive to Ohio constituents’ needs.
“It will make it that much quicker if the Democrats win [in Virginia], but by no means, if [the Senate] turns out to be shared, will it prevent him from being able to get work done,” Kuebler said.
The election night was both exciting and a relief for alumni candidates. Smith had to deal with new redistricting in Texas that allowed anyone to enter the general election, regardless of how they fared in the primary, resulting in a field of six other candidates, including two Democrats.
Smith’s press secretary, Beth Frigola, said everyone on the campaign was very happy with the outcome.
“The district was redrawn in August,” Frigola said. “The district became more Republican, which was good for us, but we had to get 50 percent to avoid a run-off. That wasn’t the case, and instead, he got a solid endorsement.”
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Whitehouse’s campaign team was equally satisfied with the vote, communications director Alex Swartsel said.
“We knew we were coming into a tight race, but the energy and the enthusiasm of the people of Rhode Island who the senator spoke with gave us every reason to expect a strong victory, and that is what we got,” he said.
Back at Yale and in New Haven, students were generally proud of Yale alumni’s record of public service, but they offered differing perspectives on what causes so many graduates to run for office.
Kirstin Dunham ’07, speaker of the Yale Political Union, said the YPU attracts engaged students who are likely to pursue politics later in life.
“The YPU encourages people to have an awareness of what is going on around them,” she said. “The people who are willing to debate the relevant, pressing questions of the day are the ones who want to seek answers, to have an effect on policy.”
Others were not so sure that the YPU was a primary source of public servants at Yale. Darrow Vanderburgh-Wertz ’07 said she thought many students who will eventually seek public election are involved in myriad activities during their undergraduate years, many of which are not explicitly political.
“I’m not sure that the alumni who decide to run for office are generally the same people who participate in the YPU,” she said.
A YPU member who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed that the organization holds no monopoly on creating public servants.
“There is nothing in the values of the YPU that encourages public service,” the member said. “However, the YPU teaches a lot of skills — from public speaking to how to build coalitions without anyone knowing — that would be useful later in politics.”
Hertz said the liberal arts education promoted by Yale is at least partially responsible for graduates’ interest in pursuing politics. He said students leave Yale attuned to government and public service.
“The great discussions get people thinking on a larger scale,” Hertz said.
Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05 said he thought the large number of graduates who eventually enter politics reflects a strong community spirit at Yale.
“So many students get involved in Dwight Hall,” he said. “And there is an entrepreneurial spirit where students look to solve problems — social, economic — so students look to politics to do public good.”
The many Yale alums who have gone before may also help convince students to pursue politics, he said.
“The long tradition [of public service] perpetuates itself,” Shalek said. “It helps them feel there is a possibility of doing something.”