Virtual happy hour connects Online Executive MPA

Executive M.P.A. students, faculty and alumni toasted each other during a recent virtual networking happy hour as they listened to three current students share insights about pursuing and working in elected office.

At 25 participants, turnout for the late summer event was a bit higher than the typical 15, said Nell Silva Bartkowiak, program director. Several students and one of three panelists Zoomed in from the West Coast, and one alum from Madagascar was on the video call.

Bartkowiak, program director, has hosted the online discussion—BYOB, of course—since the spring of 2018, shortly after the program launched online. The quarterly event nurtures networking among participants in Maxwell's 30-credit, online program for professionals with at least five years’ experience in management. It also encourages members of different cohorts to exchange ideas.

Lucas Frerichs (January ’21 cohort), who is amid his third four-year term as vice mayor of Davis, California, kicked off the panel discussion. He previously worked in the California state legislature but was drawn to working on local issues.

“If I can survive the politics of the Davis food co-op, pretty much anything after that is a piece of cake,” he joked, speaking about his decision to run for a city council position in 2012. He counts lowering city taxes and supporting a water infrastructure project as accomplishments of his council work.

Nily Rozic (July ’20 cohort), is in her ninth year representing New York’s 25th Assembly District. “I was always into public service,” she said. Her high school’s “ethos was 'leave your city better than you found it.’”

She was elected to New York’s Assembly in 2012. She serves on the Assembly’s Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection and has worked on workforce development programs and chaired the Task Force on Women’s Issues and the Assembly’s Office on State-Federal Relations.

The third panelist, Michael Rathbun (July ’21 cohort), served one term on the Franklin Borough, New Jersey, council. He worked on the city’s public safety, ordinance and budget committees.

Panelists talked about building coalitions, finding common ground and navigating political polarization — even on local issues. Frustrated and angry constituents; hate mail; and stress go with the job, they agreed.

Elected officials “need a strong backbone or strong moral code or set of norms that you were elected with that you have to stick by,” Rozic said. “For better or worse, the voters trusted you, to make the rest of judgment calls and you have to do that.”

Despite the typical challenges of public office—compounded by today’s hyper-partisanship and the COVID-19 pandemic—Freirichs remains optimistic about democracy and public service. “I think there’s a lot of hope for the future,” he said. “I’m fundamentally a believer in the power of government and what it can do. I just try to be a good role model and be responsive to concerns and try to make a difference where I can.”