Seth Moulton, the surprise winner of 2014’s congressional race on Massachusetts’s North Shore, is carving out something of a reputation—a brand, almost: a former serviceman entering politics to put community and country above ideology and political party.
You might buy into Moulton’s self-portrait, or you might think he’s just selling a phony self-image. But you have to admit that it’s an appealing concept.
In fact, some might think that we’d be better off with more like him. That Moulton could be a prototype for a type of candidate who should populate political office at all levels, all over the country.
He is. Or, at least, he is meant to be.
Working out of Kendall Square in Cambridge, an organization called New Politics is trying to Moulton-ify politics. It’s the mostly one-woman effort of Emily Cherniack. She recruited Moulton to run for Congress; this year his re-election is one of 17 campaigns on the New Politics roster.
They are either, like Moulton, veterans of the military, or come out of service organizations such as AmeriCorps. Five, in addition to Moulton, are running for Congress; most are running for state or municipal legislative offices. One, running for alderman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, faces election this week. Another, in Baltimore, Maryland, is on the ballot later this month.
Cherniack came to politics from an AmeriCorps program, City Year. Its co-founder, Alan Khazei, persuaded Cherniack to work for his 2010 U.S. Senate campaign; she caught the political bug—and also realized the challenges facing well-intentioned neophytes like Khazei.
“I was kind of shocked in that campaign, about the whole political culture,” Cherniack told me in an interview last week. “I saw how counter-intuitive it was for somebody who didn’t come from the political world.”
That might be part of the reason that the number of elected officials with military and national-service backgrounds has shrunk so steadily in recent decades.
When Cherniack decided to start New Politics, to recruit and assist service-background candidates for office, she got help from Khazei and others in the Boston-area. Harvard-based political pro David Gergen suggested Moulton. Now, enough funding has come to add staff and expand the reach. There is a political organization to help campaigns, and a separate non-profit arm to conduct training.
Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Brookline, though not a New Politics candidate, spoke at one of those events earlier this year. Kennedy served in Peace Corps—a program inextricably linked to the Kennedy family, and John F. Kennedy’s call to service.
“Emily has dedicated her career to national service and this latest venture is no exception,” Kennedy said via email, about Cherniack. “Through New Politics she is continuing her mission to bring new, dynamic faces into government ad inspire the next generation of public servants.”
Not everyone in Massachusetts political circles is as helpful. Recruiting and backing Moulton against an incumbent Democrat, John Tierney, was seen by many as an unforgivable betrayal. A Democrat is just not supposed to challenge a Democratic incumbent—which is part of the problem, as Cherniack sees it. “I exist because of this culture of complacency,” she says.
Others refuse to aid her organization, because it backs candidates of both parties. Cherniack is adamant that doing so is a vital part of the organization’s mission of serving community and country over ideology and partisanship. “We are not beholden to anyone,” she says. “Parties, or interests, or anything.”
Maybe so, but it’s easy to see why some Democrats cringe at New Politics candidate Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL running for an open Congressional seat in Virginia. Taylor, a Republican, is author of a book called Trust Betrayed: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Selling Out of American’s National Security.
This willingness to buck the Democratic Party establishment may explain why New Politics seems to be having more recruiting success far afield than close to home.
New Politics has just two Massachusetts candidates this cycle: Adam Hinds, running for an open state senate seat in the Berkshires; and Jake Auchincloss, candidate for Alderman in Newton. They also have an Executive Council candidate in New Hampshire, and candidate for governor in Vermont.
Cherniack is looking for more Moulton-style successes wherever she can find them. Many of this cycle’s candidates were inspired by Moulton’s example, and if more of them win, they will presumably expand that network further.
And even if the ranks of New Politics officeholders do swell, it’s still an open question of whether that will add up to any major change in the political culture. It’s nice to think that pols with these backgrounds will be more effective, cooperative, and noble public servants, but that’s hardly guaranteed.
Heck, we don’t even know if Moulton will turn out to be any good. Are we sure we want to replicate him already?