Jean Bradley Derenoncourt came to the United States in 2010 after an earthquake devastated his native Haiti. He had few connections, and he didn’t yet speak English. By 2018 Derenoncourt had become an American citizen, a Suffolk University government graduate, the first Haitian-American man elected to office in Massachusetts, and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) guest for the State of the Union.
Derenoncourt chose Suffolk for its close proximity to his internship at the Massachusetts State House. After graduation he became director of constituent affairs for a state senator, helping to resolve issues and connecting residents with services. Running for office was a natural next step in his mission to better the community that had embraced him.
“This is a wonderful country,” says Derenoncourt. “We have a solemn obligation to not just live here, but to serve, protect, and improve.”
So what does it take to win that first race, and where does a prospective candidate even start?
“Running a campaign is like working for the boss in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ — your life is on hold, and you are always working no matter where you are.”
Clara Sandrin, who is completing her accelerated bachelor’s/master’s program in political science, was bitten by the political bug as a 16-year-old volunteering on Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. “I couldn’t even vote yet, but I loved managing, producing, and being behind the scenes,” she says.
Sandrin and Derenoncourt met in Professor Brian Conley’s Ready, Set, Run course. A year later they were working together on Derenoncourt’s successful run for Brockton City Council.
Ready, Set, Run provides a practical playbook for would-be candidates and campaign operatives.
“Students build a campaign week by week, using a real state-level race as a model,” says Conley. “They begin to think and behave like campaign managers, which is important for candidates to learn, too.”
They start with one all-important measurement: calculating votes to win. “Campaigns are all about numbers, nothing more, nothing less. Candidates should always be aware of their votes to win and how close they are to that goal,” says Conley.
“I’ve worked on campaigns before but never went this far behind the scenes. We learned about budgeting, printers, how to create effective literature. That knowledge, combined with my experience on real campaigns, made everything click.”
In the course, Conley stresses the importance of finding the right candidate—one who will put in the hours and enjoys face time with constituents.
“Successful candidates are multipliers of talent and resources. They have to show consistent commitment because they’re asking other people to sacrifice their time. Great candidates get work out of volunteers that the volunteers didn’t know they could give,” he says.
Sandrin saw those qualities in Derenoncourt when they met in class. “He goes through life connecting with people,” she says. “He follows up and follows through. He’s sincere.”
When Derenoncourt decided to run for city councilor-at-large in Brockton, he took Sandrin up on her offer to work as his assistant campaign manager.
“I wanted to run as councilor-at-large so I could represent the entire city,” says Derenoncourt. “In a city that blends so many cultures I may not speak everybody’s language, but I can understand where they come from. I credit the international community at Suffolk for helping with that.”
“Conventional wisdom says you need to start with lots of money and that you shouldn’t run against an incumbent. They say you need name recognition. I had my classmates and friends. Sometimes you can overcome conventional wisdom.”
Derenoncourt knew it would be an uphill battle. He and his supporters would have to work hard in a short period of time to make a relative political newcomer into a contender in the “City of Champions.”
Sandrin stepped out of her comfort zone on day one, emceeing the campaign kick-off event. “It was terrifying,” she says, but most other tasks were right in her wheelhouse—managing printers, organizing all-hands meetings, and focusing on the details that make a campaign run smoothly.
Finding a message that would resonate with voters across such a large and diverse city was critical. “We came up with the message of ‘together, let’s build a stronger Brockton’,” says Sandrin. “The message of overcoming difficulty and working together is really the American Dream.”
Occasionally Derenoncourt called on Conley for feedback and advice. Conley’s encouragement for candidates to canvass as much as possible paid off.
“Going door-to-door made the difference,” says Derenoncourt. “People were so loving and trusting. They’d offer drinks and conversation. In the face of adversity, they changed my mindset and restored my faith.”
Sandrin was surprised by the “overwhelming” support from the community early on in the campaign. “The first time I door-knocked over the summer I saw sign after sign for Jean. People were offering their resources to help.”
Hard work and grassroots support translated into victory in November 2017.
Before he came to Suffolk, Conley spent long years working on several political campaigns. He speaks from experience when he tells students to “develop a niche. Be willing to put in five or six years on the ground making contacts and getting hands-on experience to find the area you like. If you don’t figure out how to control a campaign it will control you,” he says.
Sandrin is following that advice. She’s graduating this spring after completing a fellowship at the Blue Lab campaign incubator, which focuses on running outsider candidates like U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, who was a political newcomer when he successfully challenged an incumbent Massachusetts congressman in 2014. She’ll take the lessons learned there and on Derenoncourt’s campaign into her new full-time role—as a field organizer for Moulton.
Since taking office, Derenoncourt has become a powerful voice for the positive contributions of immigrants in the face of political tensions. His story and his advocacy were what caught the attention of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in January when she made him her guest at the State of the Union address.
“The course gave me the steps I needed to run,” says Derenoncourt. “That knowledge empowered me to be a speaker, a strategist, and a candidate.”
Derenoncourt’s rapid ascent underscores what Conley tells those interested in getting into politics:
“I always tell students that I can’t promise you’ll always have success, but I can promise you’ll never be bored.”
Take the Quiz
At a party, you can usually be found:
- Catching up with friends—and making new ones!
- Bringing along your signature dish or a bag of ice, and lending the host a hand.
- Hosting! You love to plan the perfect event.
- Stopping by for a while to see what’s going on.
Question 1 of 5
How do you feel about meeting new people?
- You like to meet new people gradually and naturally.
- You love meeting new people, learning about their lives, and finding common ground.
- It’s easier to make new friends when you have a common goal, like a shared hobby or project.
- You love to network with new people—you never know how you might be able to help each other down the road.
Question 2 of 5
It would be hardest for you to spend a day without:
- Your phone
- Talking to other people
- Your hobbies
- Quiet time
Question 3 of 5
How do you feel about the issues facing the country right now?
- You want to make a difference, but you know you have to focus on a few key issues to have the biggest impact.
- You live for politics, consuming all the news you can and thinking of ways to improve policy.
- It can be overwhelming, but you try to stay informed and engaged.
- You’re really passionate about some of the issues and feel frustrated when you don’t know how to help.
Question 4 of 5
Which superlative would your friends say you deserve?
- Most organized
- Most curious
- Most outgoing
- Best team player
Question 5 of 5
You have an outgoing personality—and you’re going to need it when you’re canvassing non-stop with your constituents! You know your issues, but you also know how to be selective when putting together your platform. Go forth and make a difference (and don’t forget to vote).
You’re passionate about the issues that matter most, and willing to sacrifice your time and resources to make a difference. Find a cause or candidate you believe in and give them your all—and your vote on election day.
You live and breathe politics, and you know the best place for you to make a difference is behind the scenes running the show. Armed with your phone, color-coded spreadsheets, and a ton of scheduling apps you’ll make sure your candidate makes it to the top. You’re also probably the first one in the voting booth on election day!
You might not live for politics, but you know political issues can have a huge impact on your life. Keep on top of the news, research your local, state, and national races, and make sure your voice is heard in the voting booth!