For four members of the Class of 2004, the 2016 presidential election was a turning point that led to profound changes in their work. Cortney Tunis ’04 left an executive search firm to become executive director of the nonprofit Pantsuit Nation. Michael Needham ’04, CEO of Heritage Action, is shepherding the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation through an unprecedented rise in influence. Hannah Fried ’04, who worked on voter protection for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, founded the nonprofit Access Democracy to address issues that impede voter participation. And Jon Lovett ’04 left TV writing and production to help launch Crooked Media, a news outlet that includes his podcasts “Pod Save America” and “Lovett or Leave It.” In the year and a half since the election, all four are influencing the landscapes in their respective fields.
By Josh Fischel
Making the Political Personal
Cortney Tunis ’04 joined the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation shortly after it formed in late October 2016. By election day, its membership—supporters of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign—had grown from a few dozen to 3 million.
Tunis says the community made her feel “excited and supported.” As the mass of content generated by members grew, she joined a team of volunteer moderators. Then, last summer, she was offered a job as executive director. She has since helped develop Pantsuit Nation into an action-oriented nonprofit with a book in print, a weekly podcast and a channel on the storytelling website Medium.
Tunis jokes that her career path “never once had a logical progression.” After majoring in English at Williams, she taught for a year at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., and then earned an M.A. in humanities at the University of Chicago. She returned to the Berkshires to work as an education coordinator at MASS MoCA.
In North Adams she got a taste of activism, volunteering for Massachusetts District Attorney Martha Coakley ’75, a Democrat running for the open seat left by the death of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. Coakley’s Republican challenger, Massachusetts State Sen. Scott Brown, won the special election in 2010. Tunis says she “got really into holding him accountable. That was the first time I saved one of my elected officials’ numbers in my phone.”
She moved back to her hometown of Boston in 2011 to work as an administrator at Wheelock College and then completed an M.B.A. at Boston University. In 2015 she joined the search firm Isaacson, Miller, where she focused on recruitment in nonprofit leadership.
Tunis spent the weeks before Election Day 2016 canvassing for Clinton. She says she found Pantsuit Nation to be “a place to focus my energy” at a time when the presidential race was becoming increasingly contentious. “This was something positive I could do.”
After the election, people turned to Pantsuit Nation to seek support from and encourage one another—and to figure out “What’s next?” The same question was on the minds of founder Libby Chamberlain, Tunis and other group administrators. Once the decision was made to launch a nonprofit, Chamberlain says Tunis was the obvious choice to lead it.“She has a capacity to connect with people really quickly and a really strong set of values that’s hard to find in digital organizing,” Chamberlain says. “She brought a competence and a way to cut through the incredible amount of frustration, anger and confusion.”
Now Tunis is one of four paid staff members working remotely from both coasts. She hosts Pantsuit Nation’s weekly podcast, writes posts for Medium and raises money to support the nonprofit. She also continues to moderate the Facebook group and is part of conversations with Facebook and 270 Strategies, a firm focused on grassroots campaigns that uses online strategies to create action offline. To that end, recent posts have included asking members to support hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico and to contact their representatives about fighting for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the Affordable Care Act.
Whatever the platform or project, storytelling remains at Pantsuit Nation’s core. The words “Your Voice Matters” greet visitors on the home page of the organization’s website, and its vision statement begins: “We believe that stories are an essential part of activism.” First-person narrative can create social change and empower people in ways that abstract policy discussions or data-driven approaches can’t, Tunis says, adding that her favorite posts on Pantsuit Nation are from women running for office. “Storytelling,” she says, “is one of the oldest communications tactics we have.”
In politics, storytelling traditionally has been limited to candidates or elected officials speaking on behalf of everyday people whose experiences illustrate a particular point or narrative, Tunis says. “It’s ‘Joe in Minnesota fits exactly into the point I’m trying to make,’” she says. “Joe” may even be recognized at a political rally or a State of the Union address, but he rarely has a voice of his own.
In Pantsuit Nation, though, members have the microphone and can post about the impact policy proposals and changes will have on them personally. But just as often, Tunis says, the stories members share with each other are “about celebrating the diversity of a progressive community, centering on narratives of people who have not been centered previously.”
Translating Anger into Action
Michael Needham ’04 was heading for a career in international relations when an introduction his senior year at Williams changed his trajectory. Just before commencement, then President Morton Owen Schapiro invited him and Grace Smith ’04—both Garfield Republican Club members and political science majors—to have lunch with Bill Simon ’73, a conservative politician and trustee of the college.
Simon was impressed with the students. A trustee of the Heritage Foundation, he contacted longtime president Edwin Feulner, who invited them to Washington, D.C., and offered them each a job—Needham as an entry-level researcher with the conservative think tank.
Within a year, Needham became the chief of staff and then head of Heritage’s international studies center. Today, Feulner calls him “one of the best hires I ever made,” adding that Needham had “an instant grasp not only of the immediate implications but the secondary consequences of any policy.”
In 2008 Needham returned to New York City, his hometown, to work as a special assistant to Simon, then policy director for former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in his run for president. After the campaign fizzled, Needham headed to Stanford Graduate School of Business and earned an M.B.A. in 2010.
He returned to Heritage, where conversations were focused on how to bring about real policy change. Conservative frustration with the Obama administration and entrenched Republican leadership stretching back to the Bush years was palpable. The think tank model, even for a think tank as well funded and influential as Heritage Foundation, wasn’t working. Says Needham: “If we could have gotten access to power simply by publishing white papers, we would have won by now.”
The solution was Heritage Action for America, of which Needham is now CEO. In an April 2010 Wall Street Journal essay, he and Feulner called the initiative “new fangs” for “the beast of all think tanks. This institution … will be able to spend money to push legislation we think the country needs without the obstacles faced by a nonprofit like the Heritage Foundation. Heritage Action, in other words, is poised to influence public policy debates in a way that no other institution in this country can.”
Heritage Action puts pressure on lawmakers by ranking them based on how often they support conservative principles in “key votes.” These include voting in favor of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act and the Tax Cut and Jobs Act and voting against a disaster recovery package for hurricane and wildfire victims. Based on the resulting scorecard, the organization encourages its hundreds of thousands of members to contact their congressional representatives and support or oppose legislation.
The 2016 election amplified another aspect of Heritage Action’s—and Needham’s—work: providing people who have long felt voiceless a way to translate their frustration and even rage into productive dialogue. Or, as Needham puts it, “statesmanlike solutions instead of demagoguery.” As an example, he calls birtherism—the theory that Barack Obama wasn’t a natural-born U.S. citizen and therefore was ineligible to serve as president—“nonsense.” But instead of rejecting birthers’ claims outright, he subtly refocuses them not on conspiracy but on a discussion of whether Obama’s first priority was to the global community or to American interests. “Obama is the first cosmopolitan president we’ve had—a citizen of the world,” Needham says. “So what’s the role of the nation-state and patriotic nationalism?”
While he says he’s pleased with the access Heritage Action has had to Trump and with the administration’s policies and appointments, “You have to bracket that with his Twitter account.” Needham is also troubled by what he calls the “civic coming apart of our nation.”
His level-headed, clear-eyed approach makes him a refreshing guest on shows such as Fox News Sunday, NBC’s Meet the Press and MSNBC’s Morning Joe, of which Williams alumna Mika Brzezinski ’89 is a host.
Needham himself provides an alternative to the incendiary politics and punditry that make dialogue difficult. Says Simon, “The most predominant characteristic that I saw continuously from my first meeting with Mike was his intellectual curiosity. He likes to understand all sides of an issue before he figures out where he stands.”
Says Needham: “The world is highly fragmented. So the responsibility falls on people with platforms to try and refine the impulses of our audiences. It’s about building consensus to solve problems and help people actualize their potential.”
Shaping the Electorate
Hannah Fried ’04 was in her third year at Harvard Law School when she traveled to Dover, N.H., to volunteer as a poll watcher in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
As she watched voters cast their ballots that January, she had a realization.
“I saw that day how elections are not only about issues or who’s the most dynamic and interesting candidate,” says Fried, who majored in American studies and political science at Williams. “The process has a profound impact on an individual voter’s experience. It shapes the electorate.”
She spent that spring working on voter protection as a volunteer for Barack Obama’s campaign and witnessed the impact of election administration issues, especially on disenfranchised communities. College students were given misinformation about whether to vote at home or school. People with disabilities had trouble navigating polling places. Voters of color, who are far more likely than whites to be asked to show photo ID, were turned away when they couldn’t produce one, even in states that didn’t require photo IDs.
After law school, Fried returned to her native Washington, D.C., to join the Democratic National Committee as deputy director and deputy counsel for voter protection. Obama’s campaign recruited her in 2012 to run a statewide voter protection program in Florida. She and a team of volunteers worked with local election officials to broaden access to early voting and relocate staff and equipment—including machines and privacy booths—to under-resourced polling places. Despite the efforts, the Orlando Sentinel estimated that 200,000 people walked away from their polling places as a result of long lines.
Fried saw many of the same problems during the 2016 presidential election as Hillary Clinton’s national director and deputy general counsel for voter protection. Nationally, an estimated 955,000 registered voters who tried to vote couldn’t because of election administration problems, including lack of voter identification, inability to find their polling places, long lines and registration problems, according to the “2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections,” published in June 2017 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Charles Stewart III. In an election decided by just 80,000 votes in three states, Fried knew much more was needed than what she calls Election Day “triage.”
So, in January 2017, she and Alexis Prieur L’Heureux, whom she met during that first presidential primary in Dover, launched the nonprofit Access Democracy.
Their mission: to use the time between major elections to improve practices and procedures strategically rather than reactively.
“When you work on a campaign, your ability to change these issues is limited by time,” Fried says. “That makes it harder to make the systemic change that is necessary.”
Access Democracy has set up pilot programs in Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—states with significant gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests in 2018 or 2020—and is measuring the impacts of their interventions. In Florida, Fried and L’Heureux are advocating for secure and effective implementation of a new online voter registration system, paying particular attention to accessibility for voters with disabilities and those who don’t speak English. In Pennsylvania, Fried says, they’re analyzing voting machine logs and voter wait times recorded in 2016 “to demonstrate the connection between old machines and long lines and lost voters.” In Wisconsin, they’re looking at whether placing early voting sites near public transit, for instance, improves access and increases turnout. They plan to share the data they collect with local election officials in all three states, with the aim of increasing efficiency and equity.
Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager in 2016, says of Fried, “It’s rare to find anyone in politics who really understands voter protection law, but it’s especially rare to find someone who has the organizational prowess to pull off a successful program.”
While many Democrats and progressives belong to Access Democracy’s advisory board, Fried says voting administration is and should be a nonpartisan issue.
“These are good governance principles,” she says. “If you are a person who cares that your elected officials be accountable to voters and that your government runs efficiently and effectively—and that everyone has equal access to the ballot—we should all agree.
“You want to make sure you instill confidence in the election—that people’s votes will count.”
Modeling New Media
Jon Lovett ’04 may be more politically influential today than he was in the White House, where he served as a speechwriter for Barack Obama.
As co-founder of the online platform Crooked Media in January 2017, Lovett hosts two podcasts. “Pod Save America” is an informal, weekly political review with fellow Obama administration alumni Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor. “Lovett or Leave It” was tagged by comedian Aparna Nancherla as “a cozy salon for discussing the apocalypse as it happens.”
After Williams, where he was a philosophy and math major, Lovett spent a year doing “some average standup” comedy before “falling into politics” by applying to write for then U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton. When she entered the presidential race in 2008, he wrote for her campaign. After the election, he joined the Obama administration, where he and Favreau collaborated on speeches including discourses on fiscal policy and sweeping State of the Union addresses. They and Vietor helped write Obama’s roast of Donald Trump at the now-famous 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
Lovett departed the White House in 2011 to write for HBO’s The Newsroom and develop a short-lived White House comedy called 1600 Penn. A column in The Atlantic that year described him as “Barack Obama’s funniest speechwriter.”
But to label him as purely comic relief belies his policy chops. When health care came up during an April 2017 episode of “Lovett or Leave It,” he described “this divide inside the Republican party. You have the House Freedom Caucus that says, ‘We don’t want any requirements; we want Thunderdome out there, healthcare-wise.’ And then you have the moderates in the Republican caucus saying, ‘We don’t want to lose re-election.’”
Crooked Media’s influence extends beyond podcasts into politics. It has partnered with Swing Left to raise more than $1 million for challengers to House Republicans in the fall and with Indivisible to flood GOP lawmakers’ offices with calls to preserve the Affordable Care Act.
Lovett says he was influenced by longtime Williams math professor Frank Morgan. “He was a big advocate for positivity, hard work and taking joy in solving tough problems,” he says, adding that math—which required him to “take complicated issues and explain them in a linear, digestible way”—was a great foundation for his career.
Josh Fischel is based in Cambridge, Mass. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer and Bean Soup.