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New DNC Executive Director, Sam Cornale, is a La Follette High School and UW-Madison Grad

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Kelly Meyerhofer | Wisconsin State Journal

A born-and-raised Madisonian will help guide the world’s oldest, still-running political party through the 2022 midterm elections.

Sam Cornale, a graduate of Kennedy Elementary School, La Follette High School and UW-Madison, has been named the next executive director of the Democratic National Committee.

“Is it a dream job?” Cornale, 33, said in an interview. “You know, it’s going to be hard. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us despite four years of some pretty unprecedented success that I was really proud to be a small part of. ... The stakes couldn’t be higher and people couldn’t be hurting more and that is a very sobering reminder. If this is someone’s dream job, they may not be appreciating all of the challenges ahead.”

Cornale (pronounced “corn-AL”) worked behind the scenes in national politics even before graduating from UW-Madison in 2010. He got his start by taking what was an initially unpaid gig managing a field office for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which led to some jobs in the Obama administration.

The lifelong Democrat eventually moved on to management positions at the DNC during the 2018 and 2020 elections.

“Five years ago, if you would have told me I would work in party politics, I would have thought you were crazy,” he said. “It became clear to me that ... starting to fight directly for more Democrats was the most linear path to bring some light to a country (that) needs it.”

Stories and struggles

Cornale grew up on the city’s Far East Side as the son of four educators: his mom taught English and also worked as a guidance counselor; his dad was a school psychologist; his stepdad taught physical education; and his stepmom taught second grade.

He remembers sitting around the kitchen table with his brothers at the end of the day, listening to his mom share stories about her students. He was moved by their challenges — the student who became a victim of gun violence, others who struggled with mental health problems and some whose parents worked three jobs to make ends meet.

“I was not a kid studying JFK’s oratory at age 7 but I was somebody who was always really interested in people’s challenges and altruistic in wanting to help them,” Cornale said. “And I think separately, I’ve always been interested in stories and people and what makes them tick.”

Cornale graduated from La Follette High School in 2005. In a speech he delivered as senior class president, he told the story of their unsuccessful battle to keep 25 parking spots for students. The spaces instead went to teachers who needed them.

The failed effort, Cornale said at the time, shows how students should not revolve around self-centered curiosity about what the world can give them, but instead look at what they can give the world.

Cornale went on to attend UW-Madison, where he was quoted in a May 2008 State Journal story defending students amid a heavy police presence at the annual Mifflin Street block party.

More than 380 people were arrested, mostly for alcohol-related offenses, that year. He stood up for a student who was recording the scene and then arrested.

Also during college, Cornale interned in the office of state Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, where he said he first connected his interests in people’s struggles and stories into action.

One of Cornale’s daily work assignments was to clip stories out of all the local newspapers in Miller’s district. He came across one in which a student went into anaphylactic shock at school. A law at that time set restrictions on the usage of epinephrine injectors such as EpiPens in schools.

Cornale’s internship ended long before a law passed in 2014 gave schools more flexibility to respond, but the experience of coming across a constituent’s problem and working to address it stuck with him.

“That was a very small but — for that family, who almost lost a loved one — really meaningful cause to take up,” he recalled. “It was one little intern and one little state office, but we ended up pushing legislation.”

Maintaining Madison roots

As Cornale’s junior year at UW-Madison ended, an opportunity arose.

The 2008 election was in full swing and Cornale, then 20, knew he wanted to work in politics. So he dropped out of school to lead a field office and staff of about 18 people in northern Wisconsin for Obama’s presidential campaign.

After Obama’s victory, the president-elect’s team called and asked about Cornale working on the transition team. He accepted the job, which introduced him to several incoming Cabinet members. He went on to work as deputy chief of staff for Labor Secretary Tom Perez and led Perez’s successful 2017 campaign to chair the DNC.

Cornale did go back to UW-Madison one summer to finish up his degree. He said he was three courses shy of earning his diploma at the time he dropped out. University records show he graduated in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

While Cornale has worked in Washington, D.C., for most of his professional career, he said he never forgets his Wisconsin roots.

Since 2017, he’s taught a course each spring semester for UW-Madison’s Wisconsin in Washington, D.C., internship program, where students take classes and intern in the nation’s capital.

This spring, even though the program moved online because of COVID-19, Cornale is teaching a class on presidential campaigns and governance for the program.

“It’s three hours (a week) of perspective in a world that desperately needs it,” he said of the course. “If you’re ever looking for a dose of hope or optimism in life, spend three hours with 20- and 21-year-olds from the state of Wisconsin.”

This article was originally published by the Wisconsin State Journal on January 26, 2021. To view the full story on their website, please click here.

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