February 24, 2014

New group offers free training and support

Mark Greene doesn't like the fact that "politics" is so often a dirty word.

"Politics are not an attractive thing and there's a reason for that," Greene says. "From an outsider's perspective, it seems that our political process discourages people from getting involved in the system -- especially the emphasis on fundraising. Access to money trumps ideas and, in the process, drowns out the voices of voters and would-be candidates."

Greene is an Air Force pilot who has flown 170 missions in the Middle East and Africa. He came to Madison in 2009 to attend law school. His ongoing service in the Michigan Air National Guard keeps him thinking about complicated issues of leadership and problem solving.

All of which brought him to the attention of the New Leaders Council. The national group was started in 2008 as a way of training and recruiting the next generation of liberal leaders, says Luke Fuszard, who went through the training in Boston after getting his MBA from Harvard. The idea is similar to a conservative training program called the Leadership Institute, which has been around since the '70s.

"I'd always been interested in politics, but I didn't really know what skills are important to have, whether as a candidate or just working on someone's campaign," Fuszard says.

When he returned to his home state, Fuszard started a Madison chapter of the program, and its first fellowship kicked off in January with 19 people. The program is free, but time consuming. Fellows spend a weekend a month for five months going through training sessions with local and national speakers, getting primers on fundraising, networking and other issues.

The first group of fellows ranges in age from 23 to 32. About 30 applied for the program, but some were turned down because they're still in college, Fuszard says. The group is looking for people who have ties to Wisconsin and expect to stay here.

"The idea is they'll go on to become the future leaders of Wisconsin," says Fuszard.

The first group is split about evenly between men and women, and Fuszard says there are several African Americans (including Greene). "We were very conscious to have a class that looks like Madison."

The class runs through May, and the plan is to have one every year.

In addition to fostering leadership skills, Fuszard says the goal is to help build a network that the fellows can turn to when running for office, raising money or tackling a particular issue. During the program, the fellows will be asked to identify an issue they want to work on and to develop a plan.

Greene says the first weekend session went pretty quickly. "It's a lot of introspection, taking stock of what your specific abilities are," he says.

Greene isn't sure whether he'll ever run for office himself. But he'd like to see the country's electoral system "brought into the 21st century."

Part of that, Greene believes, involves politicians taking risks. He says too many leaders today prioritize holding onto power above all else.

"Politicians have to be willing to lose their jobs to do what's right," he says. "A willingness to stand on principle and walk away -- I wouldn't call that 'failing.'"

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