Madison native Sam Cornale may have left Wisconsin more than a decade ago, but he says he's carried a "streak of activism," born from the state's history of political engagement, with him ever since.
Those activist roots accompanied him through roles he held at the Democratic National Committee in the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections, and in his new position as the DNC's executive director, a title he's held since the end of January.
Cornale, 33, said in a recent interview that his upbringing as a son of educators, combined with the "incredible activist streak" Wisconsin holds from individuals on both sides of the aisle, have shaped his approach to his professional career in politics.
"There's really this streak of activism you can't help but carry with you even when you leave the state," he said in a recent interview.
"It was always something that was in the back of my head, that politics was a noble calling, that service was something that wasn't just important but necessary to make our country a better place, and so that's really animated animated my work."
Working at the DNC during the first period of complete Democratic control of government in a decade has meant embracing a series of objectives, Cornale said: amplify President Joe Biden's successes and the work of Democrats in Congress; hold Republicans accountable; and building infrastructure ahead of the 2022 midterms.
Simultaneously working to "promote (and) protect" Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris' agenda while building up the party is "the challenge of this job," he said.
"But at the end of the day, we can't shy away from what has made us successful over the last four years and ultimately why I was given this role, which is to continue building the strongest, healthiest Democratic Party, from local communities on up to the national level as infrastructure," he said.
You worked with the DNC during the 2020 presidential campaign and 2018 midterms. What influence did growing up in Wisconsin, a key battleground state, have on how you approached those jobs and how you work now in your current role?
I think you have to go back to something I talk about quite frequently, it's really ingrained in who I am, which is that I'm the son of school teachers. And every day, my mom would insist on a sit-down meal for my two brothers and me. And she would ask us about our day and we would ask her about hers, and the results of those conversations, day in and day out, year in and year out, were stories that I still carry with me. Teachers are really on the front lines of the very issues that we're fighting for at the national level as Democrats.
That really animated my interest in the right and wrong of life, and how we are needed. We need one another; we need to fight for one another. And so, you layer on top of that coming from a state like Wisconsin, which has such an incredible activist streak on both sides of the aisle. Think the likes of Robert La Follette, and Sen. (Russ) Feingold to Joseph McCarthy and Jim Sensenbrenner, Scott Walker, and so many others. There's really this streak of of activism that you can't help carry with you even when you leave the state. It was always something that was in the back of my head, that politics was a noble calling, that service was something that wasn't just important but necessary to make our country a better place and so that's really animated animated my work.
Wisconsin is again going to be in the spotlight in the 2022 midterms. What’s it like to be working in these high-profile positions in Democratic Party politics while your home state receives the breadth of national political attention it does, especially election cycle to election cycle?
I think if it's a day that ends in a 'y,' the state of Wisconsin is critical to your success, not just as Democrats but as Americans. And that's nothing new. Last year, it was that way; this year with the superintendent race, it will be that way; next year with targeted midterms, it will be that way, and so forth. Wisconsin is one of many states where we are not just invested in building this infrastructure but really focused on communicating what we've delivered to the people who need it most, and where Republican leadership has failed ... Ultimately Ron Johnson is number one, should he decide to run, on my list of the senators I will revel in sending into retirement.
You’re a Madison native yourself, a graduate of La Follette High School and UW-Madison. How would you say your upbringing in Wisconsin’s capital city prepared or positioned you for a career in Democratic Party politics?
I'd like to think it instilled in me a humble agitation, so to speak. I think the state of Wisconsin, we are kind, we are loyal, we are smart, we are hardworking people. We are generous to one another, and our neighbors. But excuse my French, we're not going to take shit from anybody. And I gotta be honest, I'm sick and tired of seeing my neighbors and their friends and family members and their neighbors, not just taken advantage of but looked over, left behind and ultimately lost out. And that to me is an ethos that was instilled in me by my parents, by growing up as a son of school teachers, four of them, they both remarried to school teachers themselves, but also, it's something that is ingrained in us as Wisconsinites. It's the Matthew 25 of politics.