David Rancourt (UF/PC 1990) Founding Partner- Southern Strategy Group, Tallahassee, FL
David came from a family devoted to community service but averse to politics, so his choice of a career may seem surprising. He got an early start, registering students to “vote” in 6th grade, played the role of George H.W. Bush in high school debates, and befriended Florida Attorney General Jim Smith. These experiences led to volunteer roles in Smith’s first race for governor and Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. When he learned of the Political Campaigning Program, David said, it was a no-brainer for him to apply.
After completing his M.A., David became Political Director for Congressman Mike Bilirakis’ re-election campaign, then managed Bilirakis’ next race followed by Smith’s gubernatorial bid in 1994. He then made his way into government service, working as Florida’s Director of Elections, Deputy Secretary of State, and Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Jeb Bush. David co-founded the lobbying firm Southern Strategy Group in 2000, helping to grow it into the nation’s largest state-based lobbying firm. Along the way, he continued to pursue his passion for political campaigns in various capacities.
As is typical, David’s political career has seen some changes and taken a few surprising turns. He never thought he’d be a lobbyist, but having two children to take care of and having his passion rewarded far more in the private sector led him to leave state government. While he still does political consulting, he’s no longer engaged in daily management and works from his own office. David credits the Political Campaigning Program for con-tributing to his personal and intellectual growth. “My degree was more than just checking a box — it forced me to learn how others think and to appreciate differences between people and ideas as much as their similarities.”
Lee Concha (UF/PC 2000) Senior Vice President for University Enhancement Rosalind Franklin University
Right out of the gate after receiving her M.A., Lee took a position in the Office of the Governor of Illinois. She left briefly to work on the Victory 2000 presidential campaign, then returned to Illinois to join the Office of State Treasurer. “Illinois politics is as real as it gets,” Lee says. “Coalitions are critical, alliances run deep, all politics are local down to the ward level, and you need to strike the perfect balance between being careful and knowing your stuff.” She credits the Political Campaigning Program for being the best training ground she could ask for. After five years in government and a few statewide races, Lee joined the YMCA of Metro Chicago. One of the largest human services providers in the state, the Y was experiencing the simultaneous challenges of rapidly declining use of core mission services and rising property values. Lee headed up all PR and communications practices when it became apparent that there was a need for more precise and strategic messaging. Through careful navigation in Chicago politics, the Y was able to sell some properties and reinvest those dollars in areas of the city with a dire need for its services. All of this was accomplished under Lee’s leadership. Eventually she found her way into higher education, which was a path Lee never envisioned that she might follow. Change is a constant in her field and she spends the vast majority of her time in meetings. This might scare off many people, but Lee sees it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Lee believes that the most critical aspect of her job is relationship management. Fostering trust without overpromising is key, especially when dealing with faculty. All of her professional and educational training has equipped her to excel in this area. One lesson that particularly resonated with her was to “never stop thinking like the voter. . . . As strategic communicators and campaigners, it’s our job to balance persuasion and trust.”
Samantha Sexton (UF/PC 2013) Director of Governmental Relations at UF
Samantha grew up in a civically engaged family that is still regularly involved in their community. Like many individuals interested in politics, she volunteered on local and state races during high school and college, both partisan and nonpartisan. It was these experiences that allowed her to find her voice, passion, and the principles that kickstarted her career. Her varied career in politics has included direct involvement in both candidate campaigns and advocacy. Previous stops were as Regional Field and GOTV Director for congressional and presidential races, Director of Government Affairs for the PACE Center for Girls, and VP of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs for the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida. Samantha credits the Campaigning Program for equipping her with the foundational skills to execute a winning campaign, think like the opposition (a must for both campaigners and successful advocates), strengthen professional networks, and utilize academic concepts to better understand the political environment.
While Samantha herself isn’t surprised to be where she is today, her parents were surprised when she decided to forego law school. She knew that she wanted to make a meaningful difference for her community, state, and nation through her passion for advocacy, and this ultimately led to her current role as Director of Government Relations for UF. “Although some might say our work is seasonal, we’re advocates year-round,” Samantha said. “During committee weeks and session, we educate and engage stakeholders almost daily about UF’s priorities. During the off months, we work closely with the Board of Governors and agencies to implement the enacted laws and set our priorities for the following session.” Samantha sees UF eventually rising to become a top-five public university in the nation, with UF students, faculty, and alumni achieving great success in countless industries and conducting research that will benefit Floridians and the world.
Nikki Fried (UF/PC 2003) Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services
As with many program alumni, Nikki’s love for politics and public service came at a very young age, asking her parents to see the White House for her 10th birthday. A passion for service is clearly evident in her unconventional, varied career in politics. At UF, she became the first female Student Body President in over 18 years. She practiced commercial litigation at the Holland & Knight law firm, worked in the Public Defender’s Office in Alachua County, and protected homeowners in south Florida during the mortgage foreclosure crisis. Her passion for impacting public policy brought her back into the political fold to become a lobbyist, working for an array of clients.
These experiences helped to shape Nikki’s decision to enter the 2018 race for Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Her election victory was historic in several respects. In addition to being the only Democrat elected statewide that year, she also became the first woman to be elected Commissioner of Agriculture and the first Jewish woman ever elected to statewide office in Florida.
Although she always knew she wanted to run at some point, she wasn’t sure when, for what office, or from where. “I certainly didn’t dream of being Commissioner of Agriculture when I was a little girl,” Nikki said, “but now I get to inspire young girls to be Commissioner. It’s why I get up each morning.”
Nikki’s keys to success were simple: Work hard and be yourself. With agriculture being such a critical component of Florida’s economy — the second largest economic driver in the state with over two million jobs — her goal is to make sure that it continues to thrive for future generations. She lists a variety of policy goals, including growing the agricultural sector, giving farmers alternative crops like hemp, inspiring the next generation of agriculture providers to protect consumers, combating food insecurity, providing affordable access to medical marijuana, and bringing new energy technologies to protect the environment. “I have a lot of work to do in my 4 years, but I am up for the challenge.”
Elizabeth Sena (UF/PC 2004) Partner, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner
Elizabeth likes to say that she grew up on politics and CNN. There is nothing better to solidify an early interest in politics than running a good friend ’s high-school student body presidential campaign, which she did. That’s when Elizabeth decided that she was destined for a career in politics.
As a 19-year-old student at the University of Toronto, Elizabeth’s interest centered on polling and political survey research. She remembers watching the news and listening to consultants discuss polls, and decided that polling was her calling. Elizabeth went on to attend the Political Campaigning pro-gram, which led to an internship with a polling firm headed by fellow UF/PC alum Dave Beattie. She was later offered a job with the firm after completing the Program. That internship was the launching pad for what has become an impressive career in polling and campaign strategy.
While Elizabeth always wanted to be a pollster and help good Democrats get elected, her exact career path was not what she originally expected. In the end, though, it worked out better than she ever could have hoped. She attributes this to the Campaigning Program, as well as to the amazing mentors and fellow pollsters that she has worked with. Today, Elizabeth is a Partner in the Washington-based firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. She spends her days reviewing data, advising clients, pitching to prospective clients, conducting focus groups, and doing lots of traveling. The best part, she says, is getting to work with amazing people and being able to give back. Elizabeth is also an adjunct professor of Survey Research at UF.
Scott Laster (UF/PC 2006) Managing Partner, Kairos Government Affairs
Scott got his start in politics by working as the campaign manager for former state Representative Doug Holder of Sarasota 2006 and 2008. Those experiences led to an interview with the North Carolina Republican State House Caucus for a position as Political Director going into the 2010 elections, after which he was named Executive Director for the North Carolina Republican Party in the 2012 cycle. Scott subsequently decided that he wanted to go into lobbying. Many of the opportunities that have opened up for him were unexpected as Scott originally did not see himself transitioning into policy work, and certainly never imagined that he might end up pursuing a career in government affairs. After making sure that his three children are pre-pared for school, Scott usually begins his mornings with a check of the national and state headlines. A typical day includes responding to emails, strategizing with his team, speaking with clients, meeting with legislators and staff, attending committee meetings, and occasionally checking some polling or district data. Looking back on his days at UF, every so often Scott will find himself “recalling what Dr. Craig said about Gerber and Green’s classic studies on voter mobilization.” He describes his career path as a “steep incline” that began with Doug Holder’s campaigns, moved to the oversight of GOP House races in North Carolina, and today has him as Managing Partner for an award-winning lobbying firm. Scott is happy with the way things have turned out. He sees his firm and the industry at large as strong, and is confident that this will continue to be the case.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz (UF/PC 1990) US Representative and Former Chair of the Democratic National Committee
“The Political Campaigning Program gave me a strong foundation upon which to build a career in public service. My degree certainly caught the eye of elected officials when I first looked for a job. And the experiences I had as a student, particularly the opportunity to wage a mock campaign, helped give me the confidence I needed to run for office myself.”
David Beattie (UF/PC 1997) Former President- Hamilton Campaigns, Washington D.C.
“The Campaigning Program at UF helped to expand the knowledge I had gained earlier as both a campaign manager and a candidate. It greatly enhanced my understanding of voting behavior, partisanship, and the impact of communications, while providing me with a useful theoretical framework for making political decisions.”
David Rancourt (UF/PC 1990) Founding Partner- Southern Strategy Group, Tallahassee, FL
“The UF Political Campaigning Program is simply a great education and a great experience. The combined academic and real-world approach to this graduate program is the right way to go. It helps to elevate the profession, and instill strong values of hard work, ethics, and an historic understanding of Florida politics and government. I wholeheartedly recommend the Political Campaigning Program to anyone interested in either.”
Tom Rooney (UF/PC 1996) Former US Representative- Florida’s 17th District
Michael Luethy (UF/PC 2003)General Consultant- Oak Grove Campaigns. Raleigh, NC
“I frequently return to the truths I learned at UF. The Campaigning Program equipped me with a fuller understanding both of the larger, environmental factors that shape elections and of the strategies and tactics that define successful campaigns. There’s no substitute for experience in campaigns, but success within that experience is based on the understanding and skills you have acquired. For anyone considering a career in politics, I recommend arming yourself with the Campaigning Program’s balanced approach of theory and practice.”
Ian Rayder (UF/PC 2003) Senior Manager – Government Affairs at Cisco Systems, Washington D.C.
“The Political Campaigning program at the University of Florida provided me with the practical skills and academic foundation necessary to jump-start my career in the field of applied politics. The strength of the program was it’s focus on the strategic and tactical approaches that ultimately enabled me to better leverage my skills as a campaign staffer, Policy Advisor on Capitol Hill and now, Government Affairs professional. Further, the relationships that I was able to cultivate with elite practitioners and alumni of the program exposed me to opportunities that I would have not otherwise had. I would recommend this program to anyone considering a career in the political arena.”
Lyndsay (Jones) Monstur (UF/PC 2003) Associate Director for Major Gifts- Harvard Law School, Cambridge, MA
“As an international student, the campaigning program at UF provided me with a unique opportunity to gain practical U.S. campaign experience and to make valuable connections. It taught me the value of professional relationships, provided me with mentors, and the academic coursework gave me confidence in my decisions. Although I no longer work in politics, I still employ the skills learned at UF in my career as a major gifts fundraiser, for example, building my case in a way that might appeal to a specific set of potential donors and cultivating relationships. In addition, the practical campaign experience I gained gave me a tenacity that is often lacking outside the political arena, as well as the ability to thrive under pressure and juggle multiple projects without losing focus on the overall goal.”
Jenny (Materio) Mesirow (UF/PC 2006) Vice President, Government Affairs at Farm Credit Council, Washington D.C.
“The UF Political Campaigning Program provided me the perfect balance of political theory and tactical skills I needed to launch a career in politics. The curriculum ensured that I was exposed to all aspects of political campaigns while allowing me the flexibility to dive deeper into the topics that were of particular interest to me. Whether managing a congressional race, serving as legislative staff on Capitol Hill, or now as a lobbyist, I frequently rely on the knowledge I acquired and the relationships I built through the Campaigning Program. I strongly recommend this program to anyone who is hoping to have a successful career in politics.”
Joe Pileggi (UF/PC 2005) Political Director, Republican National Congressional Committee
“The Campaigning Program really fostered a desire to work in electoral politics and has thus far led to an exciting career. Having a degree in Political Campaigning definitely got a lot of people’s attention when I was first getting started in the field, and the relationships I made in the program led to several campaign opportunities and are contacts that I maintain to this day. It’s always great to be a Florida Gator, but especially so when you combine that with the chance to study electoral politics and apply that knowledge to the real-world experiences that elections bring. The Political Campaigning Program at UF is a tremendous opportunity for anyone looking for a career in that field.”
Scott Simpson (UF/PC 2003) Managing Partner- Resonance Campaigns, Washington, DC
“The Campaigning Program at UF was one of the best decisions I ever made when choosing to pursue a career in politics. It helped to give me a strong foundation and better understanding of the things that happen in politics every day. The network of alumni is wide but tight-knit, and continues to be as valuable a resource as the coursework itself.”