It’s often said that success in politics isn’t about what you know, but rather who you know. While this may be true in certain instances, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Growing up across the street from a county legislator may have helped me land that meeting with the local party boss, but what did I say once I got in the meeting room, and how did I say it? Simply knowing that legislator wouldn’t cut it. I had to effectively convey what I knew and how I would incorporate that into a career in public service. My four years at Hamilton helped me do just that.
Right now I have the privilege of serving as the Chief of Staff to a member of the New York State Assembly, and as I sit in my office typing this out (don’t worry, it’s after 5 p.m. so I’m not blogging on the taxpayer’s dime), I can’t help but reflect on some of the opportunities granted to me at Hamilton that allowed me to get on the path to where I am now. On the Hill, I studied Public Policy and Government, and the substance of the courses I took certainly enhanced my understanding of American government and the policymaking process. I took a public speaking course and improved my confidence in front of big crowds. And I took a leap of faith and participated in Hamilton’s Semester in Washington program where I got to study and intern for a nonprofit in our nation’s capital. I attended committee hearings on Capitol Hill and prepared briefs for the lobbyists in my office. I helped lobby lawmakers to cosponsor our priority bills. I had an up-close view of the workings of our government, and I loved it. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
The supportive environment that characterizes the ‘Hamily’ extends far beyond the Hill, and I learned this while in Washington. On my commute one morning, I ran into a 2013 Hamilton grad who I knew was involved in government and politics. I was looking for advice on my next step. We grabbed coffee a few days later and we discussed her experience working on political campaigns, emphasizing that campaigns were a great way to connect with politically-passionate folks from across all walks of life. She was like so many of the Hamilton students and alumni I had come to know: supportive and willing to help. I was looking for something to do during the summer prior to my senior year; she suggested I connect with one of the congressional races near my hometown on Long Island, and that’s what I did.
I spent that summer working on then-Congressman Steve Israel’s re-election campaign. My role was pretty simple: I talked to people. I knocked on doors and made phone calls to Long Islanders and connected with them on issues that affect their everyday lives. I became a local Democratic committeeman and volunteered for local candidates. Walking up to the homes of complete strangers may seem daunting at first, especially when it’s not October 31st and you’re not asking for candy but rather their thoughts on taxes, guns, and immigration. But the butterflies go away after the first few doors. I had plenty of great conversations, even a few with Republicans!
The Congressman was re-elected that November and I take full credit for that, but beyond the thrill of the electoral victory was the reality that the experience allowed me to hone my interpersonal skills and connect with some of the big ‘players’ in Long Island politics. I’ve come to learn that success in the world of politics is contingent on your ability to connect with people. This is how you line up the ‘who’s’ in that classic phrase.
After Hamilton I moved back to Long Island and landed a job with a local government economic development agency. I spent about seven months building up community support for a brewery incubator. I was knocking doors again, but this time, to talk about beer. Surely not the sexy political job I had envisioned, but it helped with the first few months of student loan payments. Shortly thereafter I accepted a position as a communications aide for the local Town Supervisor, who also happened to be that local party boss I mentioned earlier. In this role, I learned how to deal with the press at a time when all levels of government on Long Island were viewed through a lens of skepticism, and perhaps that was well-deserved; as I write this, the former Nassau County Executive and Oyster Bay Town Supervisor are on trial for fraud and bribery, and the former Long Island-based Majority Leader of the New York State Senate was recently convicted on federal corruption charges. The bad apples can give government a bad rap, but I knew the public officials I was working for had their constituents’ best interests in mind and I did my best to properly express that to the local press. There’s a science to mastering press releases and the writing skills I acquired through some of those “writing-intensive” courses at Hamilton definitely helped me in that area.
In the summer of 2016, I was asked to be the Democratic candidate for my local State Assembly seat. I would be running an uphill race against a 12-year incumbent in a district that was drawn heavily in his favor. He was 55 years old, I was 23. Just a year prior I was on a steady diet of ramen while living in a dorm with three frat brothers. But I had been interested in eventually running for office, and I saw it as a great opportunity to learn about the issues and get my name in front of tens of thousands of voters. I went toe-to-toe with my opponent in our endorsement interviews and I even got a few endorsements. I lost the race (as did a few other noteworthy Democrats that night), but it was a fantastic learning experience. More than 18,000 people cast their ballots for me, which is a drastic improvement from my previous stab at electoral politics (in a heated student council race in 10th grade, I received roughly 15 votes).
For another eight months I continued my work in communications for the town government, and in my spare time I harassed my congressman on some of his votes. In July of 2017 I was recommended to fill the Chief of Staff position for one of the local State Assembly members, which is where I serve today. I handle all of my boss’s legislation, budget priorities and grant awards while overseeing the district office and the other staff members. It’s a responsibility I didn’t envision having this early in my career, but I firmly believe my time at Hamilton prepared me for a role like this, namely the time management and team-oriented components that came from being a varsity athlete.
Hamilton has a long history of connecting students with alumni and parents whose advice, expertise, and resources help talented young people achieve success for themselves and in their communities.
I love working in government because I recognize the critical need that it serves. It does the things that markets can’t or won’t do for themselves; the public benefits from building roads and investing in public transportation, and investing in quality education, affordable housing, and safe and reliable healthcare. I look forward to getting to work every day because the bills that we pass, the budgets we pass, and the grant funds that we allocate have a tangible effect on the lives of ordinary people. Before the legislative session ends, we’re going to try to lower the age requirement for annual mammogram screenings, because breast cancer doesn’t always wait until age 40 to strike. We’re going to give bail reform a try, because too many low-income folks waste years of their lives behind bars as they await trials for minor offenses. We may even pass the Child Victims Act, which extends the statute of limitations for child sex crimes. At a time when our federal government travels down a path that lacks any stability or certainty, it’s extremely refreshing to get a firsthand view of the progress that can still be made at the state level. I get to play a role in that progress largely, in part, because of the variety of opportunities that Hamilton provided to me which allowed me to grow as both a professional and a person. I’ll be forever thankful for that.
Having graduated in 2015 with a major in Public Policy and minor in Government, Brendan Cunningham was a player on the varsity football team and a member of the Brass Ensemble, Jazz Band, Delta Upsilon, and College Democrats. He completed a Semester in Washington D.C. and is currently Chief of Staff at the New York State Assembly.