It’s Election Day, and in races all over the country the outcome will be shaped by Illinois State alumni working as campaign operatives, fundraisers, news reporters, or even the candidate themselves.
Two alums who have worked on presidential campaigns past and present are Lisa Wagner ’93 and Pete D’Alessandro ’86, who both share a competitive passion for politics.
When U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan came to Uptown Normal’s Marriott Hotel and Conference Center to raise money for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in July, it was Wagner who helped make it happen.
Wagner is Romney Victory’s state director in Illinois and Indiana. The former Massachusetts governor has been a client of Wagner’s since 2007, during his first run for the White House.
Wagner graduated with an English-teacher education degree from Illinois State and started teaching at Willowbrook High School in the western suburbs of Chicago. During her breaks and after school, she would work odd jobs on the side to put into practice everything she was asking her students to do.
One of these jobs included working for U.S. Rep. J. Dennis “Denny” Hastert in 1998, before he became the speaker of the House, raising money for him at the local level. After he became speaker, she left teaching to work for him full time.
Wagner says she and Hastert, a fellow teacher and coach, clicked instantly.
“Sometimes life hands you a great adventure, and you have to choose to take or not to take it,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, this’ll be a two-year gig.’ I worked for him for 11 years.” She later became the influential Republican’s national finance director, putting together fundraisers all over the country.
Today, Lisa Wagner and Company Inc. has about 30 corporate, nonprofit and political clients – including Romney – specializing in fundraising and project and event management services.
Ryan’s summer fundraising tour through Illinois included a stop in Quincy, where Wagner had cheeseburgers and cold beer with the soon-to-be vice presidential pick. “He’s just very real, very genuine,” says Wagner.
In the weeks before Election Day, Wagner has been working 24/7 with meetings, phone calls and outreach. There’s no shortage of cynicism out there about politics, but Wagner sees through it.
“This great American experiment called democracy deserves to be preserved and promoted. There’s a responsibility and a right to engage in it,” she said. “It’s something I’m passionate about, something I believe in. I love our country, and I’m very proud to be part of the Romney campaign.”
A few days after Romney’s notable performance in the first debate against President Barack Obama, STATEside asked Wagner to describe her favorite part of the job.
“That we’re winning,” she replied.
D’Alessandro has worked countless races in his years as a political operative, including five Democratic presidential campaigns. One of his first races was his own run for Illinois State student body president in 1985.
“I got absolutely destroyed,” D’Alessandro said.
But that’s OK, he says, because it taught him there are two types of political people – those who are the behind-the-scenes operatives, and those who can stand in front of the camera and (hopefully) govern. Then there are those who are good at both – the Bobby Kennedys or Rahm Emanuels of the world, he says.
“But those are the exception to the rule,” the Berwyn native said. “I lost because I deserved to lose.”
D’Alessandro studied political science at Illinois State, setting him on a career path he knew he’d travel since fourth grade. He loved sports as a kid — strategizing against an opponent who was doing the same to you.
“You’re trying to get to the finish line first, but at the same time, in politics, maybe you’re doing some good for society too,” D’Alessandro said. “It was really a way to mold two passions.”
D’Alessandro is now CEO of PAD Consulting, his 11-year-old political and public affairs consulting firm based in Des Moines, Iowa. He came to Iowa in 1996 to a work a congressional race, coming back two years later as field director for Democrat Tom Vilsack’s successful campaign for Iowa governor – an upset.
Now carrying some Iowa bona fides, D’Alessandro briefly joined Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone’s short-lived 2000 presidential campaign, before becoming political director for New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley’s unsuccessful presidential bid. He then started PAD Consulting, and four years later worked for former Missouri Rep. Richard “Dick” Gephardt’s presidential run, later doing some “get out the vote” work in Florida for Americans Coming Together, a political action committee. D’Alessandro also did some limited work for Obama’s 2008 campaign but is not directly involved with any presidential campaign this year.
And those are just the presidential races. D’Alessandro says he takes greatest pride in victories in local, often nonpartisan, elections, even mayoral races or smoke-free initiatives.
And even when he loses, he’s left campaigns with lifelong friends, or the pride of getting to know someone like Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash in 2002.
“Obviously, the wins are better than the losses, but even some of the losses I’m really proud of,” he said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at email@example.com.