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Jessica L. Diaz ’05 spent four months working for Robert B. Reich’s gubernatorial campaign this year.
A veteran of the election trail, Diaz found the spirit of the Reich campaign refreshing. She was working alongside young people—many of them volunteering for a politician for the first time in their lives—and older volunteers working for a candidate for the first time since their youth.
“It was a lot more grass-roots oriented,” she says. “That’s the type of action I haven’t really seen in other campaigns.”
During that time, Diaz worked to help her candidate defeat Shannon P. O’Brien. But for the last month, she’s been volunteering two days a week in O’Brien’s campaign headquarters.
When Reich faltered in the primary, Diaz made what she said was a difficult decision to close party ranks and work for the Democrats’ winning candidate.
Diaz joins a score of fellow Harvard students battling on the front lines of the Massachusetts gubernatorial race. In fact, seven of O’Brien’s roughly 25 Boston-based interns come from the College and Harvard’s graduate schools.
They write letters, call voters, transcribe speeches and hold signs at rallies, known in the trade as “visibilities,” putting themselves in the thick of one of the tightest gubernatorial races in the country.
Fallen Leader, Wayward Followers
Reich was the most visibly supported candidate at Harvard during the early stages of the Democratic race, but after he finished second in the September primary, Reich supporters on campus were left to find another candidate.
Diaz decided to work for O’Brien but the switch has meant making some major adjustments.
For one thing, O’Brien’s headquarters in South Boston is a significantly longer hike from Diaz’s Lowell House room. The Reich campaign had been based just down Mount Auburn St.
And used to wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes when she worked for Reich, she felt awkward when she arrived for her first day at the O’Brien campaign.
“I was kind of surprised when I walked into the office and 80 percent of the people were wearing suits,” she says. “That was something I wasn’t used to.”
Dorie Clark, Reich’s former press secretary, says the campaign had prepared to transfer the support of people like Diaz if Reich lost the primary.
“Throughout the course of the campaign, he exhorted his supporters to get behind whomever the eventual democratic nominee was,” she said.
Following Reich’s concession, the campaign e-mailed 14,000 supporters, encouraging them to get behind O’Brien.
But Harvard students who worked for Reich during the primary say O’Brien’s efforts to recruit them to her campaign met with limited success.
Peter P. Buttigieg ’04, who headed the Reich subcommittee for the Harvard College Democrats, says interest in the gubernatorial race faded after the emotional letdown of the primary season.
“It doesn’t seem that the spirit is quite the same,” Buttigieg says. “A lot of the enthusiasm that we had during the primary campaign didn’t last after the primary.”
He says many former Reich supporters have shifted focus to the key U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire, where the Harvard College Democrats have been making regular weekend trips since late September to support Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in her race against U.S. Rep. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.).
Eliot J. Rushovich ’03, who spent part of last summer driving the “Reich Reform Express,” the campaign’s bus, will be among those riding a yellow school bus up to New Hampshire this weekend.
Rushovich is writing his senior thesis on party politics in Massachusetts, but though he supports O’Brien he says that after committing so much to the primary he could not bring himself to work on her general election campaign.
“When you work on a campaign for months, the campaign and candidate becomes a part of you,” he says. “It’s psychologically difficult to spend several months talking about why one candidate is so great and then go out on the front lines a day later and switch.”
Rushovich says in the aftermath of the primary he became more involved with the College Democrats and helped the party in New Hampshire.
Front Lines of the Face-Off
While former Reich supporters have not flocked to the O’Brien standard, Harvard is still well represented among her supporters.
“I think we’ve actually been pretty successful with the Harvard campus,” says Travis L. Small, an official for the O’Brien campaign.
But he acknowledges Reich’s pull with students.
“I think Reich definitely connected with students in a way that a candidate hadn’t done in a while,” he says. “I think we’ve had a little bit of a leaner, meaner machine.”
On the other side of the ballot, members of the Harvard Republican Club are joining Mitt Romney’s effort to continue the party’s 12-year lock on the Corner Office.
Members have attended rallies and debates, in addition to working the phones two days a week at Romney’s Cambridge headquarters, according to Brian C. Grech ’03, the club’s president.
“We have a small set of people who are really hard core,” he says. “Virtually any Romney event, we have someone there.”
Felix Brown, a Romney campaign official, says students from Harvard and other colleges have made a “huge impact” in alleviating huge workloads.
For many student interns, from veteran campaigners to political rookies, the work of a political campaign involves long hours and often menial tasks.
Meredith J. Chaiken, an O’Brien intern in her first year at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), says many of her tasks at the campaign are mundane, but she says she enjoys the political atmosphere at headquarters.
“It’s a totally different experience being on the flip side of a campaign,” she says. “It’s just so chaotic and I love it.”
But she says the most fun is to be had at visibilities—waiving signs and cheering for her candidate at public events.
“It sounds ridiculous but it’s so much fun,” she says. “It’s all about getting your people excited for the candidate.”
One of the most common tasks in the O’Brien office has been transcription work, typing up speeches made by Romney and other Republican leaders so the campaign can keep tabs on the opposition.
“A lot of it can be kind of entertaining in itself because you don’t really get the nuanced insults unless you listen to them about five times,” Diaz says.
Some of the student interns say the average 10-hours of campaign work each week wears on their school schedules.
Joshua B. Aronovitch, a student at Harvard Law School, says he’s not concerned.
“I probably wouldn’t be spending that time on law school work anyway,” he says.
But Brooks E. Washington ’06 says he is grateful the campaign has been flexible in working the intern schedule around his academic commitments.
“It’s definitely very hard to wake up some mornings,” he says, adding that “it’s kind of a nice break from school.”
Like the other interns, Washington says his experience this fall only makes him more interested in working on future political campaigns.
“I went into the campaign knowing that I was interested in politics,” he says. “I definitely want to get involved in other campaigns.”
—Staff writer Christopher M. Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.
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