My Democratic Senate Campaign Won by a Vote

My political career took off in the second year of my undergraduate college life at Princeton. As a 22-year-old second-year politics major I ran for class president. For a first-time candidate, this was a tough race. But I won my race. I secured a spot on a majority of student ballots. But when the time came to submit the actual votes, I was disappointed to learn that I had lost by less than 100 votes.

My jaw dropped. I’d not only come close to winning, but had lost, to a blank slate on the voting ballot. How could this be? No one knew who I was. I was an unknown quantity. Who knew where I lived? None of my college friends knew who I was. I wasn’t on the local student newspaper. Maybe I should have spent a little more time campaigning, but instead I was fearful that if I spent a whole lot of time campaigning, I wouldn’t have time to read a newspaper. So I tried to hide the fact that I was running for class president by saying I was a senior studying Asian studies.

And that, I thought, was that. But it wasn’t.

But that lost election was only the beginning of my career. And it was because of that loss that I ultimately decided to enter politics as a registered Democrat. That brief defeat sealed the deal. Looking back on that contest, I can see now what it was about that race that so attracted me to elective politics. Running for class president was a test of my ability to articulate ideas that were admittedly compelling and connect with my peers. But in the real world, the year off my junior year of college provided no teaching moment that would transform me into the future political leader I would become.

In fact, the “political amateur” moniker will have to wait a few more decades. When I entered electoral politics, it seemed like the first step down a long and winding road to stardom — a path of high recognition and accomplishment, but just as likely to lead to obscurity and disgust with politics. Fortunately, I failed that initial “political novice” test. Once I began to find my voice, I continued to hone my skills. Over the next 30 years of elected office, I think I steadily improved on those skills. After being elected to my first statewide office in 1996, I can honestly say that I was just a couple of years into my first career before the second career truly took off.

And now, Jake Sullivan, a second-year political science major who used to run for class president, is in the White House, advising Vice President Joe Biden and other members of the Obama administration. His time as a major figure in the Obama White House has been too brief to contribute anything substantial to the current cycle. Yet that time in his youth has now turned into almost a generation of notoriety.

I know that isn’t the case for Mr. Sullivan. The funny thing is, I bet he didn’t appreciate this at the time. He spent a year-and-a-half as a lowly legal assistant in the law office of Ted Kennedy. He was able to build a strong relationship with Senator Kennedy, making him the one person outside of the family who could actually point to Ted Kennedy’s role in “having nothing to do with this.” Jake had no impact on “winning the war in Afghanistan,” or the “war on terror.” What he did do was find someone that he trusted to “do something about” my class president defeat. And maybe that was his true calling.

As for me, I started my second semester of business school at Harvard Business School this week, which marks exactly the same anniversary of that campaign I ran against a blank slate on the election ballot 20 years ago this week. I remember days and weeks in the year I spent working for a political machine. And even though those years were fleeting, each day that I spent working on that campaign set me on the right path toward full-time employment in a very competitive field with a very powerful boss. My first brush with the win didn’t connect to me that deeply, but after a decade of post-Obama political and policy work, I’m convinced that my second brush with electoral politics did. It set me on the path to figuring out how to have a role at the highest levels of government.

And for Jake, it sure sounds like a job he likes a lot better.

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