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Doing Better: NC nonpartisan institutes train candidates of all political stripes

Frank Hill has a trivia question: Of the more than 3,000 individuals who have graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill over the past 60 years as Morehead-Cain Scholars, how many have run for governorships or national office in the United States?

By his count, there’s only seven, including himself and current North Carolina Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price, who was re-elected last month, and Mike McIntyre, who did not seek re-election.

For Hill, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican in 1984, the data point toward a major problem – one that he believes is killing our state’s pipeline of political talent.

“We have to get our best people on both sides of the political spectrum running for office, because we’ve got some really big problems,” says Hill, former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Republican U.S. Rep. Alex McMillan of Charlotte. “We’ve got to find our Thomas Jeffersons and Ben Franklins and James Madisons. They’re out there. But they’re not leaning toward holding public office.”

Why not?

Fear is a major culprit. There’s the relentless media scrutiny that comes with high-profile campaigns. And the culture of poisonous partisanship in Washington doesn’t help. But there’s perhaps something even more fundamental at work – our young talent isn’t introduced early enough to the potential impact of public service, and mature talent doesn’t know much about the process.

For generations, that’s a challenge the two major political parties have tried to address nationally through their own campaign schools. In North Carolina, we have an intriguing alternative – nonpartisan institutes that train candidates of all political stripes.

Impressive alums

The most established of these nonpartisan organizations is the Greensboro-based N.C. Institute of Political Leadership, which has operated continuously since 1987. During 11-weekend programs in the fall and spring, its Fellows Program educates adults of all ages on key aspects of running for and holding an elected office. The IOPL, which accepts applications and charges a $500 tuition fee, starts its next full series of classes Jan. 16.

“This program teaches that there are multiple ways to look at an issue and insists that we talk to each other and respect other points of view,” says executive director Ross Harris.

IOPL, which also offers programs for women and college students, claims 1,200 alums. More than 100 of them have served in the N.C. General Assembly, with 15 there now (nine Democrats and six Republicans). They’re joined in Raleigh by some other well-known alumni. Republican Mark Martin won his first full term last month as chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Secretary of Treasury Janet Cowell – both Democrats – were re-elected to their posts in 2012.

Marshall enrolled in the IOPL in the early 1990s after losing a hard-fought campaign for a seat in the N.C. House. She studied how to write a campaign plan and handle media interviews. Sitting alongside Republicans and Libertarians, she says, “we learned to talk about issues that we didn’t agree on in a civilized way.”

Martin, who attended IOPL in 1992, was also impressed by the program’s strong emphasis on civility: “Having everybody go to a program like this would be very beneficial among those who want to serve the public,” he says.

Training future leaders

Frank Hill, meanwhile, runs the Raleigh-based Institute for the Public Trust. Launched in 2010 with private contributions, it has about 500 graduates who are politically diverse and hand-picked by Hill and his team. Half are adult professionals with impressive track records. The rest are undergraduates with leadership scholarships at universities including UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, East Carolina, N.C. A&T and Duke.

Featuring a curriculum that is free of charge and blends history, philosophy, religion and ethics with practical aspects of campaigning, The Institute for the Public Trust provides a linked series of 90-minute classes that extends over several months.

Already, a handful of its graduates have won elections, most prominently Kenny Smith, who took the course in 2012 and earned a seat last year on the Charlotte City Council.

The opportunity cemented Smith’s desire to run and connected him with a network of polling and media experts, donors and aspiring candidates. “You’re surrounding yourself with folks who are not all like-minded but who have similar interests,” he says. “It was a tremendously positive experience.”

How often do we hear that about politics?

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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