Emily Cherniack wasn't all that interested in politics until her boss at an education nonprofit decided to run for U.S. Senate in 2009 and she was "voluntold" to join the campaign. Although her boss didn't win that race, now, nearly a decade later, she spends her days encouraging veterans and public servants to run for elected office as the founder of New Politics, a political recruitment group. Rather than put her own name on the ballot, her organization helped four first-time candidates flip congressional seats from red to blue in the 2018 midterms.
"I’m really good at helping other people run for office, and I would probably be a terrible candidate," Cherniack, 40, tells Bustle. "I swear sometimes. It’s just not where I’m most comfortable."
Cherniack started New Politics back in 2013 as a bipartisan organization aimed at breaking down barriers that often keep people who have served in the military or programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps from getting involved in politics. During this year's midterm elections, phrases such as "country over party" and "servant leadership" that had filled the New Politics office for years suddenly became a part of the national conversation as New Politics' candidates and others used them to explain why they felt compelled to seek elected office.
The organization experienced some major wins, too; Military vets Mikie Sherrill (New Jersey) and Chrissy Houlahan (Pennsylvania) are among the four non-incumbent congressional candidates endorsed by New Politics headed to Washington in January. Together, the two women will increase the number of female veterans' in Congress by 50 percent and double the number serving in the House.
Cherniack thinks this is just the beginning.
Veterans' representation in Congress has seen a steady decline in recent years, as The Military Times reports. Although the 2018 election saw a surge of first-time candidates from diverse backgrounds throw their hats in the political arena, Cherniack says much of the service community is still somewhat hesitant to run for many of the same reasons that keep other working-class people from running: a lack of money, lack of ego, and fears about the potential negative impacts on their families.
But Cherniack believes people who have served in the military or national service programs are uniquely qualified to lead because of their boots-on-the-ground experience.
"You’re learning how to work with people from different backgrounds. You’re learning how to build teams. You’re learning how to bring people together to solve problems. And you’re learning how to think differently about problems," Cherniack says. "Those leadership skills are invaluable in political life."
Sherrill mimicked this sentiment when speaking to Bustle before she won her New Jersey House seat, explaining that she had to work with people from all over the country to complete missions when she served as a Navy helicopter pilot. That's why, she said, she plans to work with Republicans to get things done in Congress.
Cherniack says she realized more vets and public servants should be in office after joining City Year, a branch of AmeriCorps, straight out of college and providing extra support to underperforming schools in Boston. At a time when she didn't really know what she was doing with her life, as she put it, the program gave her a sense of purpose and taught her it's possible to make a difference when it comes to widespread issues like education and poverty. It was there, in 2009, that her boss Alan Khazei ran for the Massachusetts Senate seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Although Khazei lost the election, Cherniack starting asking herself why more people with service backgrounds weren't running. It turns out, it's actually pretty difficult to figure out how to run if you aren't already plugged into the world of political campaigns. That's where New Politics comes in.
Cherniack and the New Politics team guide potential candidates through the entire process — from deciding when to run for office, to figuring out how to hire a campaign team, to offering unbiased advice on the campaign's message. Recruiting first-time candidates and helping break down financial barriers inevitably means confronting the self-doubt that often keeps women from running.
"We talk to a lot of women, and they’re like, ‘I’m not ready yet. I’m not qualified yet,'" Cherniack says, adding that many women feel like they need 10 things on their checklist before they're "ready to go," whereas men often feel qualified when they have four. A 2017 Politico poll found that women from both parties are still significantly less likely than men to consider running for office, even as Donald Trump's presidential win inspired many Democratic women to become more politically engaged.
Going into 2020, Cherniack plans to keep recruiting men and women veterans and service leaders who she believes would put the country over party.
"The country needs you, and democracy is going to take all of us," she says. "So we need you in the arena, and we need you in the fight."