Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation

Political careers can be a roller coaster ride of victory and defeat, but students willing to choose this path found veteran advice at the 2012 Careers in Politics Conference on Saturday.

Students were invited to workshops with former and current members of national political campaigns, including staffers for former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The all-day event took place at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, hosted by the New Politics Forum of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation and the Hatton W. Sumners Foundation.

Events included three panels with staffers in active political careers, a networking lunch with Sherri Greenberg, the director of the Center for Politics and Governance and a keynote address by Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Joe Straus.

More than 100 graduate students attended the conference, attracted by the ability to bring positive change to the political sphere, said Emily Einsohn, program coordinator for ASICP.

“I think young people are hungry for knowledge,” Einsohn said. “They want to know what the insider perspective is, and they want to understand what a career in politics looks like. Who better to hear that from than the active professionals?”

Students must think about the value of their time in school, and how they spend it if they choose to get into politics, former ASICP president Mary Dixson said, who moderated a panel with political consultants Kevin Burnette and Shamina Singh. She also said an only academic background was not suitable for a political or business career.

“Be careful about digging yourself in a graduate school hole — many academics have never written a resume,” Dixson said. “There’s astronauts and astronomers, and academia is full of astronomers. If you want to be an astronaut, go hang out with the astronauts.”

Singh, who is a former senior advisor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said the skills involved in good political careers would carry over to every aspect of a person’s life.

“The same skill set exists in politics and campaigns as in relationships, business and everything else,” Singh said. “It’s challenging and exhausting, but it’s so rewarding.”

A good sense of business and a spirit for impacting politics as a member of society is also important, Burnette said.

“The star of the hour is the entrepreneur, especially given the economic situation we are in,” Burnette said. “It would be so great if everyone in America was a true entrepreneur.”

At a later panel, former Bill Clinton campaign member Ashley Bell and former George W. Bush campaign member Matt Mackowiak spoke on political communication and the direction of their careers.

The emergence of mass social media continues to play an important role in campaigns, Bell said.

“You can’t believe the world of contacts that come out of politics,” Bell said. “Social media is an enigma. We use social platforms to drive interest, [public relations] and marketing back to the websites where we park our information.”

The first step into the world of politics is always the most important, Mackowiak said, a 2003 UT communication alumnus.

“I didn’t know what it was going to be like getting from the University of Texas to Washington,” Mackowiak said. “You have to take the first step, even though you don’t know at all where you’re going to and where you’ll end up going.”

Mary Dixon listens to students from Akin High School present a community issue at the Speak Up, Speak Out Civics Fair Thursday evening at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. The event was organized by Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation.

Photo Credit: Batli Joselevitz | Daily Texan Staff

Future Longhorn Joe Ramos said the community service skills he learned through a state-wide competition at UT will be tools he brings onto campus as a freshman at the McCombs School of Business next year.

The Stony Point High School senior was one of 150 students from 11 high schools and middle schools from across the state that participated in the 10th annual Speak Up! Speak Out! competition, hosted by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at UT on Thursday.

She said Speak Up! Speak Out! is a civics fair where teams of students identify an issue they have researched within their communities and present a solution to judges at the fall event.

Ramos presented his team’s plan for reducing the number of teens engaging in at-risk activities such as substance abuse and violence by increasing extracurricular engagement.

“We identified that extracurricular activity decreases the risk of engaging in destructive behaviors,” Ramos said.

He said his team formulated an incentive program that would reward extracurricular organizations that increased outreach to students in the summer and winter breaks.

“Above all we’re trying to create opportunities for students that might not otherwise be able to participate,” he said.

Ramos said he believes the experience will benefit him as he enters the McCombs School of Business next year.

“I think it will definitely help in McCombs because McCombs, and the entire Austin community, has such a strong value of community engagement,” Ramos said.

The teams make three rotations during the competition, spokeswoman for the Annette Strauss Institute Erin Geisler said. The first rotation consists of two speeches, one informative and one persuasive. Judges then question students about the speeches, Geisler said. In the next round students present a tri-fold display in a style similar to a science fair presentation. In the final round judges evaluate students during a session where they are asked to personally reflect on their findings, she said.

The top three teams win a $300, $200 and $100 cash prize to put towards their community issue, Geisler said.

Deborah Wise, program coordinator for the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation, said the entire goal of Speak Up! Speak Out! is to give students the capability to change their communities in the future.

“Our hope really is that students learn skills they can use for the rest of their lives,” Wise said. “The goal of this is to equip them with the basic skills to make a difference in community.”

Pflugerville High School counselor Sarah Mullin said she believes the program is an innovative way to get students involved.

“I think it’s really helpful to have students step out from themselves and think about the community as a whole, and how they can make a positive impact,” Mullin said. “I like seeing students getting involved and thinking of solutions to community issues and not just talking about the problems.”

Printed on Friday, December 2, 2011 as: UT hosts state-wide service skills competition

This month, the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation will begin managing Project Vote Smart’s Key Votes program, a free online database that provides citizens with access to congressional and state legislative voting records.

Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization, chose the institute instead of applicants from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University and the University of Southern California. The center will begin compiling data and research in January.

Republican and Democratic national leaders such as Gerald Ford, Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich, founded Project Vote Smart in 1992. The organization, which is funded by foundation grants and individual contributions, researches the voting records, backgrounds, issue positions, campaign contributions, interest group ratings and public statements of more than 40,000 candidates and elected officials.

The institute is seeking 20 to 30 undergraduate students with an interest in government, journalism or political communication to intern 10 or more hours each week researching and compiling the voting records of elected officials.

“In order to be an engaged citizen, one must have access to high-quality information about their government,” said Rod Hart, director of the institute. “Our partnership with Project Vote Smart to manage the Key Votes program dovetails nicely with our mission of creating more voters and better citizens through high-quality, nonpartisan information.”

The project will pick the votes by Congress and state legislators that they believe are important based on five criteria. They will determine whether the vote is helpful in portraying how a member stands on a particular issue, clear for the public to understand, has received media attention, passed or defeated by a close margin, and sometimes, whether a specific bill is consistently inquired about on the project’s Voter’s Research Hotline.

Undergraduate researchers, along with Key Votes staff, will then write descriptions based on information included in the Congressional Record, and in the state house and senate journals. Additional background information will be pulled from newspapers, magazines and other media.

“All of this will come together and allow an individual to be able to pull up on an online database to see how their own representative is voting,” said Chuck Courtney, associate director of the institute. “This will simplify the language of legislation so that voters have a chance to understand the issues.”