By Lisa Jervey Lennox, CIPA Assistant Director for Communications
Last night, students participating in our CIPA Washington, DC off-campus externship semester discussed leadership experience and political strategy with Tom Perez, the Chair of the Democratic National Committee and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor. Our students on the main Ithaca campus were able to join the discussion –via- Zoom, but I was lucky enough to be in DC and enjoy the class “live.”
Chairman Perez was one of a series of instrumental leaders in the DC political arena that CIPA Visiting Lecturer Seth Harris, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, has brought into his Leadership in Public Affairs Course, which he’s been teaching at the Cornell in Washington campus this semester.
Seth interviewed Tom (as he asked the students to call him), about a wide range of topics. When asked who his most inspirational mentor was, he named Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), for whom he had served as a Special Counselor. He described how he would often brief Kennedy on a subject; Kennedy would be sitting on a couch smoking a cigar and not seeming to pay attention. The next day at a meeting on the topic, however, Senator Kennedy would be well versed, almost quoting from the previous evening’s briefing verbatim. He described Kennedy as a “great listener,” and said it was the hallmark of a great leader. He described President Obama in similar terms, adding that Mr. Obama was brilliant and always did his homework and read all of his briefings, regardless of how many meetings he had on a given day, so you never wanted to go into a meeting with him unprepared.
When asked about his strategy for tackling the challenges he faced in his new leadership position at the DNC, Tom said the first thing he had to do was change the mission statement for the organization. Instead of focusing on just getting a Democratic U.S. President elected every four years, he said the organization needed to look at the whole picture—and focus on getting Democrats elected at every level from school board positions, to state government posts, to national positions. He recounted meeting with a voter who said Democrats only reached out to them once every four years—and the rest of the time they were forgotten. Tom acknowledged that the Democratic Party had fallen down in this regard, which contributed to the 2016 election loss. But he was hopeful about their new strategy, pointing to the gains they had seen in the latest elections. In Virginia, for example, Democrats flipped 17 seats to take the Virginia House of Delegates.
This just barely scratches the surface of the discussion between Tom Perez and Seth Harris last night, and doesn’t cover the interesting Q-n-A between Tom Perez and the students. But, hopefully, it gives you an idea of the type of insider insight that our students in DC have been privy to over the course of the semester. (Note: I will get the Zoom video posted and linked here ASAP so you can watch the whole interview, if you’re interested.)
Our CIPA off-campus semester option allows you to earn academic credit while completing an externship. It’s a win-win proposition for anyone interested in getting their fingers on the pulse of the U.S. government and picking up additional work experience, all while earning a semester of academic credit. Sitting down with policy leaders like Seth Harris and Tom Perez is icing on the cake!
Note: Seth Harris served as the Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor from May 2009 until January 2014. During the last six months of his tenure there, Tom Perez took over as the Secretary of Labor and was Seth’s boss. The two have a long friendship, which was evident in the discussion between the two last night. A 1983 Cornell alumnus, Seth served as an Executive in Residence for CIPA last year, and we have been delighted to have him continue his affiliation with the program through the DC Externship semester.