Many retired congressmen and -women join the United States Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC) so they can continue doing what they love to do—serve the public. Founded in 1970, the association is a nonpartisan, educational, research, and social organization that initiates programs highlighting the importance of public service. On July 1, 2016, former U.S. representative for Florida’s 6th congressional district Cliff Stearns, SEAS, BS ’63, began his two-year term as president of the association.
“The FMC is a prestigious organization,” says Cliff. “We have about 600 members from the House of Representatives and about 100 former senators, and we do outreach at high schools, colleges, and foundations.” The organization’s mission is to educate the public on the American political process, motivate individual citizens to get involved, and strengthen representative democracy domestically and abroad.
Back when Cliff was a student at GW, he never even considered a career in politics. As an ROTC scholarship recipient, he remembers looking forward to joining the U.S. Air Force. “We used to march three days a week at the Lincoln Memorial,” he says. “It made you think of the military aspect of everything you were doing—the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Vietnam War, which was just starting. I remember my final march there—saluting the commanding officer and commandant. The backdrop was special.”
Reflecting on his time at GW, Cliff now appreciates the influence it had on his political career. “Looking back, I realize I did have an interest in politics—and a certain political savvy.” One year he waged a successful bid for a seat on the student council, and the following year he managed a campaign for the student who won president. The flame was lit, but it would be quite a few years before the young man’s interest in politics would inspire him to run for office.
Upon graduation, Cliff joined the Air Force where he served four years as an aerospace project engineer. After leaving the Air Force, he ultimately chose the entrepreneurial path, developing a chain of motels and restaurants in North Central Florida. During this time, he also became a well-known leader in his hometown of Ocala, FL.
“When an open seat came up in the House of Representatives, some of the local business people approached me and asked if I would think about running,” says Cliff. “I thought I would only be there six terms, but six turned into 12.” Cliff had a natural aptitude for the fast-growing telecomm industry and its associated regulatory concerns. “I had a predilection for telecomm,” he says. “I got absorbed in the job because of the technical issues we were working on—cybersecurity, internet privacy, FTC oversight of the internet. The House of Representatives is such a powerful body, it makes you humble and appreciative to be there. I couldn’t have been anywhere else with such satisfaction.”
Besides his newly appointed position at the FMC, Cliff is also a representative to GW’s Campaign Steering Committee and is on the Graduate School of Political Management’s (GSPM) Board of Advisors. “Being an alumni and former congressman, [the GSPM] was something I wanted to support,” he says. “I was a natural fit. I’ve been able to introduce people to other members of Congress and help figure out ways to try and raise money.”
Cliff goes on to say that “in any organization, you want a leader who has a network and connections that can support the overall mission”—characteristics he brings to each of his current roles. He also shares his passion for affecting change and motivating disparate groups to work together, a value he hopes to instill in others through his involvement with the FMC.
“At the FMC, you see politically savvy people working together in a bipartisan fashion,” he says. “If we can do this after we leave, why can’t we do it while in Congress?” Cliff points to our founding fathers as role models: “If they could compromise for the survival of this country—to get everyone to agree and sign the Constitution—we should be able to solve some of the problems we have now. This type of spirit has got to prevail in Congress today, which is why we talk to students, educate them, and try to bring people together.” —Mary Follin