Candidates Balance Harvard Connections

Congressional candidates embrace, downplay alma mater to prospective voters

This past spring, Mitt Romney made an odd accusation of Barack Obama.

“We have a president who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard perhaps,” Romney told supporters at a rally.

But so had Romney. Like the president, he graduated from Harvard with a law degree; in addition, he received an MBA from the Business School. Nevertheless, Romney was expressing a skepticism and disdain that is representative of much of the country’s opinion on degrees from elite institutions.

While there are many proud graduates of Harvard running for office, around the country some Harvard alums jockeying for a seat on Capitol Hill are doing their best to avoid “the H-word.” Sometimes an asset, sometimes a liability, a degree from Harvard has proved to be a touchy subject on the campaign trail.

THE H-BOMB

Joseph A. Selvaggi, the Republican challenging incumbent Stephen F. Lynch in Massachusetts’ 8th District, was strolling the paths of Harvard Yard only a few months ago.

Selvaggi graduated from the Kennedy School of Government this past spring and immediately entered the Republican primary.

While Selvaggi acknowledged that “the ink might still be wet on my diploma,” he’s not exactly quick to reminisce about his Harvard days, at least not on the campaign trail.

“I don’t lead with it,” Selvaggi said of his Masters in Public Policy. “I keep it, in a sense, close to the vest.”

Even when people ask directly about his time in Cambridge, Selvaggi says that he often deliberately refers to HKS as “the Kennedy School,” dropping the Harvard affiliation. “If you can avoid the H-word, and just say ‘the Kennedy School,’” he said, “that solves all your problems.”

The negative associations with Harvard can come from both sides of the aisle, according to Selvaggi. “As a Republican coming from the Kennedy School, some people are suspicious, like I’m a Manchurian candidate if I’ve even set foot in Cambridge,” he said.

There is also a concern from Republican Party leaders, that a candidate with a Harvard degree might not be conservative enough on certain issues. “[People worry] that you’re not willing to beat the drum of partisanship if you’ve spent enough time in Cambridge, [that it might] soften your perspective.”

Paul Heroux, another Kennedy School graduate who is running for Congress, has found that while many supporters have no problem with his Harvard connection, his degree can rub opponents—and perhaps undecided voters—the wrong way.

“I think my supporters like the fact that I went to Harvard,” he said, “and [I think] my opponents don’t like the fact that I went there…they take cheap shots about it.”

But even though he lists his Masters in Public Policy along with his other education on all mailings and campaign literature, Heroux said he leaves his Harvard spirit behind when he is on the campaign trail.

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