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JMU Richmond politicos

Leadership and responsibility in the state capital
By Chris Bast ('04)

From Spring 2010 Political Currents, the newsletter of JMU's Department of Political Science

Political science program graduates Melissa Laughner ('05), Matt Gray ('05) and Dawn Hillard ('05) hold key political positions within the Democratic and Republican parties in Richmond. JMU graduates have created JMU Richmond Politicos, a networking group for alumni and students. The group also plans to serve as an advocate for JMU in Richmond.

Political science program graduates Melissa Laughner ('05), Matt Gray ('05) and Dawn Hillard ('05) hold key political positions within the Democratic and Republican parties in Richmond. JMU graduates have created JMU Richmond Politicos, a networking group for alumni and students. The group also plans to serve as an advocate for JMU in Richmond.

During the past decade Madison alumni have stormed the halls of government and political power. They have reached the highest levels of executive and legislative decision making, guided political parties and campaigns, and worked for the most prestigious of lobbying and advocacy groups. All the while, they have been in positions to hire fellow Dukes and multiply their numbers and influence.

This story is not about JMU alumni following their university's eponym to our nation's capital. Rather, this group of alumni echoes an earlier time in young James Madison's political life, following in his footprints in service to his native commonwealth.

Carrying on President Madison's legacy

Richmond has attracted a flurry of recent political science graduates eager to carry on President Madison's legacy of public service. These graduates have found opportunities to rise quickly to take on leadership opportunities and establish successful and fulfilling careers.

Dawn Hillard ('05)

Dawn Hillard ('05)

Dawn Hillard's ('05) experience is representative of this group of Dukes. "I remember trying to find a job in Washington, thinking that was really the only place I could end up," Hillard recalls. "I thought taking a job in Richmond would be a temporary move, but four and a half years later I'm still here." Hillard came to Richmond to work on then-Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine's 2005 gubernatorial campaign. She has moved up through a series of political jobs since then and currently works as operations director for the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Matt Gray ('05) originally found himself in Washington but has since moved to Richmond. "Richmond's a smaller town and carries all the lifestyle benefits associated with that," Gray explains. "It also provides countless opportunities to set oneself apart from the pack, because there aren't as many political jobs to fill and far fewer candidates interested in filling them."

Gray worked in various positions with the Republican National Committee and national campaigns before settling in Richmond, first as director of development for the Republican Party of Virginia and now as a member of the government and public relations team with the Alliance Group, a nonpartisan consulting firm in Richmond.

Matt Gray ('05)

Matt Gray ('05)

"Richmond is a great town for work, no matter your concentration," Gray says. "There are jobs to be filled in policy, campaigns, state party work, nonprofits and more. You can make a greater difference here because there aren't as many people specializing in the same thing as you."

Opportunities to make a difference

Richmond-based alumni say this ability to make a difference is one major advantage Virginia's capital city offers. The opportunities for leadership and responsibility early in a career can bring major benefits later on. The relative lack of competition compared to Washington, D.C., is a contributing factor, as is Virginia's unique political system. Hillard says, "With governors limited to serving a single four-year term, there is a staggering amount of turnover from administration to administration."

Former JMU student body presidents Dave Mills ('02) and Levar Stoney ('04) are two examples of alumni taking advantage of opportunities for career advances in accepting responsibility in political parties and campaigns. Mills quickly worked his way up through local and congressional campaigns before working as a regional fundraising director for a statewide campaign in 2005. That experience led to his hiring as the director of fundraising for the DPVA in 2006 and eventually as finance director for Brian Moran's recent campaign for governor. Stoney's career path in politics is similar. He began with an entry-level organizing position in Richmond for Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and reported directly to Eric Payne ('89). Just a few years later, in early 2008, Stoney was appointed executive director of the DPVA, a leadership position that put him in charge of the state Democratic Party. "Being in Richmond allowed me to be in the right place at the right time," Stoney explains, "and I was able to take advantage of some really great opportunities."

A number of Madison alumni found success within the Kaine administration. Assistant Secretary of Education Doug Garcia ('02) got his start as then-Lt. Gov. Kaine's personal assistant. The constant political turnover in Richmond creates many opportunities for graduates affiliated with both major political parties.

Melissa Laughner ('05)

Melissa Laughner ('05)

After graduation, Melissa Laughner ('05) landed a job with the RPV and later for Bob McDonnell when he served as Virginia's Attorney General. She was a member of McDonnell's recent successful campaign for governor. "I moved to Richmond right after school because I had worked in D.C. during an internship at the federal level," Laughner says. "I wanted to make a bigger impact, and I thought working at the state level would be best for me. I have loved it ever since."

Laughner worked alongside David Clementson ('03), who quickly worked his way up the ladder to press secretary and eventually communications director for the Office of the Attorney General. "You meet people involved in Richmond politics everywhere," Laughner says of the Richmond political experience. "It's such a small world that, once you get involved, it's easy to move up if you work hard and do your job well. I believe people really look out for you and have your best interests at heart."

The JMU Richmond Politicos

Recognizing the growing influence of Madison alumni in Richmond, Dr. David Jones began work in 2008 on the JMU Richmond Politicos. JMU Politicos is an alumni organization that started in the national capital region for JMU graduates working or interested in politics, policy and related fields. Because of the influence that Madison alumni have gained in Richmond and their close working relationships with legislative and executive decision makers, the Richmond Politicos hope to serve as not only a networking group for alumni and current students, but also as an advocacy group for JMU. "Because of our access and the increasing number of local alums, we have an opportunity to help the university engage key state leaders and promote the great things that are happening on campus back in Harrisonburg," Lucy Hutchinson ('06) says of the effort. Hutchinson currently works as director of appointments for Gov. Kaine.

All of these alumni are enthusiastic about Richmond and would relish the opportunity to help current students find their place in the state capital. "We always look out for fellow Dukes," Hillard says. Gray and Hillard say getting involved while still in school is a way to network for a good job in Richmond. "For many students it's easier to get an internship in Richmond than in Washington, D.C., and if you're looking at politics, get involved in the College Republicans or Young Democrats. JMU's chapters are highly regarded in Richmond," Gray says. Laughner agrees, adding that, in Richmond, "If you work hard, you stand out, but it's a little easier because in Richmond you are a fish in a river as opposed to an ocean."

About the Author: Gov. Kaine appointed Chris Bast ('04) as confidential policy adviser to the State Board of Elections. He began his career with the governor as a special assistant in the Constituent Services Office and was promoted to deputy director of that office and most recently was an analyst in the governor's policy office. Bast and his wife live in Richmond.