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Government and Politics

A Capital Presence

By Sally Acharya and Mike Unger

The heart of Washington beats to the rhythm of politics. The pulse is quick and lively this campaign season, and inescapable on AU’s campus. Stroll the quad and you’ll recognize faculty who share their insights in the national media, or contribute their knowledge behind the scenes.

Meet alumni, and you’ll find many who were drawn to AU by politics, or drawn into politics by AU, and now are integral to national campaigns. Students are more than active; some work virtually full time for their chosen candidates. At AU, the passion for politics is everywhere.

Sarah Simmons, SPA/BA ’95, SPA/MA ’97

campaign strategist for Senator John McCain

When Sarah Simmons began working for John McCain’s presidential campaign in January 2007, she didn’t envision being out of a job by July. But with the Arizona senator’s run for the White House reeling and out of cash, Simmons was forced into a summer and fall hiatus before the latest Comeback Kid brought her back on board earlier this year.

“When I left here in July I think a lot of people had closed the door and written the obituary of this campaign,” she says, “ But candidates matter and ideas matter, and John McCain is living proof of that.”

As a strategist for the campaign, Simmons monitors poll data and makes sure money and message are doled out to the right places. Always a political junkie, she realized as an undergraduate that the policy route wasn’t for her. She got a charge from campaigns, however, and cut her teeth on Bill Graves’s 1994 gubernatorial run in her home state of Kansas.

“I’m an athlete—I like winning,” Simmons says. “Campaigns are energizing, and I’m partial to the pace. When it was bleakest, [McCain] was the one willing to fly commercial and carry his own bags. His tenacity has been his saving grace. McCain’s comeback is going to be one of the most amazing stories in American politics.”

Barbara Palmer

SPA professor and coauthor of Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling

Why is it taking so long for women to be integrated into Congress?

That simple question sparked Barbara Palmer’s life work. The women and politics expert recently coauthored, with Dennis Ross, the second edition of Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling: Women and Congressional Elections, which explores the differences in election rates between Democratic and Republican women in Congress, and dissects the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

The coauthors spent two years compiling data on women in elections that includes every primary and general election from 1956 to 2006—more than 30,000 candidates and 15,000 elections­—and drew interesting conclusions. First, incumbency is a huge obstacle for groups that have low participation rates in Congress, but once women get elected, they are as successful in being reelected as are men.

They also discovered that women in Congress are not randomly distributed across the United States. “One-third of the women in Congress right now come from California and New York,” says Palmer.

Redistricting is at the heart of this matter. Gerrymandering has created supermajority districts, making it difficult for women from both parties to get elected. “Looking at the demographic characteristics of the districts where women are successful,” the pair also found: “Women tend to come from the wealthiest districts . . . and from districts that are more diverse racially and ethnically.”

Eric Lohr

CAS professor and member of Russian Advisory Committee, Hillary Clinton campaign

Since cracking the pages of Russian literature and history in his father’s library, Eric Lohr has evolved into a foremost expert on Russia, so respected that he was asked to join the Russian Advisory Committee for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“You’re looking for campaign points, but you’re also thinking of long-run policy making and carving out and reinforcing [her] consistent world view,” Lohr says.

His own views began to take shape after his first trip to Russia while in college. After graduating in 1990, he started a nonprofit organization in Estonia, which he continued to run while a graduate student at Harvard.

In 2003, after teaching at Harvard for several years, Lohr came to AU.

Although Russia has not been a huge hot-button issue during the primary, Lohr believes its importance will grow during the general election run up.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about Russia going forward,” he says. “We’re all kind of watching Medvedev.”

Vladimir Skoric, SPA/BA ’08

student and regional coordinator, Students for Barack Obama

AU senior Vladimir Skoric wants to get to the White House. “That’s always been my one big dream. I’ll be a janitor for the White House, as long as I get to work in that building.” At this point, though, he’s working to get someone else to the White House: Barack Obama.

Since founding the AU chapter of Obama’s student campaign in March 2007, when few people were thinking of the primaries (it is one of the nation’s 10 most active chapters), Skoric has become regional codirector of Students for Barack Obama.

He works from his D.C. apartment and encourages tech-savvy students to do the same. These new campaigners use software that lets them make calls nationwide at their convenience. An hour’s break between classes can mean a dozen calls.

Offered a full-time post as a field organizer days before classes started, the Los Angeles native faced a tough call—“It’s a very addicting process,” but he decided to complete his degree.

He’s been in the campaign whirl anyway, and if his candidate wins the nomination, Skoric will get to work. “As soon as I graduate,” he says, “I’ll be jumping in somewhere.”