Mo Elleithee, GSPM MA ’96, serves as the director of communications for the Democratic National Committee. We were able to catch up with Elleithee to ask him about advice for aspiring political operatives, how he communicates his party’s story, and his thoughts on college basketball:
GW: You’ve been incredibly successful in your career working on campaigns and Democratic organizations. How did the Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) help you achieve this career?
ME: I’d always been interested in politics, but had no idea that you could actually make a career out of it until I got to the GSPM. The school helped me in three key ways. First, it helped me identify a possible career path. I went in not knowing much about how campaigns actually worked, and got a chance to learn about every angle. It was through my coursework at GSPM and early internships that I realized communications was the path I wanted to take. Secondly, it helped me learn and focus on the skills needed to pursue political communications as a career. Third, it opened my first few doors. My first political job came to me through a friend that graduated a couple semesters ahead of me at GSPM; my second, through a professor. The network of students, alumni and faculty is remarkable — I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve met over the years that have been through the program.
GW: Having just been named the most politically active school in the nation, it’s safe to say that our students want to eventually be where you are. What long term advice would you give them?
ME: Three pieces of advice. First: Learn to deal with this fact — not every campaign is sexy. I know a lot of people who got inspired by the Obama campaign (or whatever the Republican equivalent is) who jumped into this field to experience that. They’re in for a let-down. Especially early in your career, you might be working on a down-ballot Congressional or Attorney General race, with no money, very little media attention, and a small staff. Those races are some of my favorite because you really get to learn, get to test what you’re made of, and those races matter! Second: Be prepared to lose more than you win. All the top operatives have. Losing sucks. But the lessons learned from each loss set me up for the next victory. Third: Get into this for the right reasons. Politics can get messy and gross at times. It’s easy to get jaded and cynical. But if you are in it for the right reasons, and committed to something bigger than your individual career, you can last a while and maybe get a few people elected to office who end up doing some good. And that, ultimately, is what this is all about.
GW: What about short term advice for current students and young alumni? What can they do in the next 3 to 6 months to make them attractive candidates for jobs in politics?
ME: Get involved. Now. However you can. Got some time over the next few months to volunteer in the Virginia Governor’s race? Go do it. Got an opportunity to go help out on a state legislative race in NJ? Go. You’re just getting started. Expect to do the grunt work. Every single press secretary I know once had to do the morning clips. Just get your foot in the door somewhere, have no ego, impress a few people, and you’ll be shocked at how quickly you can advance. But go in there with an ego, without having done the grunt work but expecting your graduate degree to make you the next David Axelrod or Karl Rove… well, let’s just say you’re not going to have a lot of folks eager to move your resume around for the next cycle.
GW: In your new job as communications director for the DNC, you’ll be the guardian of the Democrat brand. What’s your strategy for doing that, especially when Democrats range from Chuck Schumer to Jim Matheson?
ME: All political communications is about telling a story. And I believe that the story of the Democratic Party is the story of America — a story of extending a hand to all Americans, regardless of background, and giving them an opportunity to crawl up the social and economic ladder. Yes, we are a diverse party. But fundamentally, that’s what we’re about. It’s how we’ve been able to save the economy from going over the cliff, how we’ve been able to pass the most monumental health care reform in history, why we’ve been able to successfully promote marriage equality, and why we are so vigilant in fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare. Every single one of those issues is about expanding opportunity for more Americans. I think it’s fundamentally different from the Republican story, which is about expanding opportunity for some Americans, particularly economically. And on some issues (such as women’s health, marriage quality, etc), actually restricting opportunities for some. That difference is why I got into this fight, and finding new and creative ways to tell that story is what I’m going to try to do every day I’m in this job.
GW: You did your undergraduate work at a school up the road from GW. Word on the street is you are a big Hoyas fan. You have to admit though, GW’s new court is pretty awesome, right?
ME: Sorry… I love the GSPM, but I bleed Blue and Grey!
–Colby Anderson, SMPA BA ’11, GSPM MS ’13