By Erica Messner
One democrat, one republican. One sophomore, one senior. Two internships with competing congressional election campaigns. Cohabiting in student association government. Bitter rivals? Hardly.
Rishi Sharma ’15, an applied mathematics and history major who has an interest in education policy, and Alina Czekai ’13, a health policy major and legal studies minor, have dedicated their time this election season to local congressional campaigns. Sharma, communications co-chair of the Students’ Association, is currently working as an intern on Congresswoman Louise Slaughter’s campaign, while Czekai, Students’ Association vice president, volunteers with County Executive Maggie Brooks. Republican Brooks and Democrat Slaughter are running competing campaigns for New York’s 25th District seat in the House of Representatives.
“It didn’t take a lot of encouragement for me to get involved. Just looking up what Louise had done, I knew she was someone I actually believed in and someone I wanted to get involved with,” said Sharma.
Specific aspects of Brooks’ style of campaigning stood out to Czekai.
“One thing that I really admire from Maggie’s campaign is her emphasis on positive campaigning, campaigning with the truth,” said Czekai.
While on opposite side of the campaign trails, Sharma and Czekai have both been interning on a regular basis since September.
“Alina and I do similar things, just on opposite ends,” said Sharma. “It’s not a consistent thing I do every single day because the campaign moves so fast. I get exposure to a lot of different things.”
“I’ve been lucky to see a full perspective and view of what it is like to run a campaign,” said Czekai. “It’s all about seeing what your constituents need, what their problems are, and figuring out problem-solving strategies. Going to the people and saying ‘I know these are your concerns, I actually feel them too. Let’s work together and figure out what we can do.’”
This personal focus of campaigning is pervasive on both sides of the race.
“Something that I know Louise’s staff does really well is campaign to people in a very personal way. It’s taught me the importance of listening, really reaching out to your constituency well and making sure that their voices are heard,” said Sharma.
As a Co-Chair of Communications in SA Government, Sharma has experienced many things in Congresswoman Slaughter’s office that are applicable to his role in student government.
“If you want to be successful in politics, whether it’s in student government or in Congress like Louise is doing, you have to make sure you have a personal relationship with your constituents. She values that, I value that, a lot of student government leaders value that. It’s my job to think of creative ways and techniques about how to get the message out,” said Sharma.
Before serving as SA vice president, Czekai worked as executive historian and deputy speaker.
“All of these roles have taught me how to be comfortable in my leadership style. Maggie really has a focus on keeping things positive and keeping things forward-looking and optimistic. I think that definitely applies to my student government leadership role. If there’s a problem, we’re going to get through it together and we’re going to move forward,” said Czekai.
Sharma and Czekai are unusual not only because they are working on competing election campaigns, but because at the end of the day, they both come home to student government.
“Our roles work really closely together. Student government is nothing without strong communications,” said Czekai, noting the importance of reaching out to students about upcoming changes or new initiatives, and collecting information that will be helpful to the senate and executive branch.
Sharma and Czekai take their campaign internships for what they are, and leave their differences at the door.
“We use it as a point to joke about within our friendship. It doesn’t conflict with anything we have to do. We still work really well together, we are still great friends, in fact, probably even better friends,” said Sharma. “It’s funny how Maggie and Louise are competing and Alina and I are competing, but you know, it’s a healthy competition.”
Amid the good humored teasing, the two are careful to respect the integrity of each campaign.
“We don’t want to be the one that reveals any information that might give the other a competitive advantage,” said Sharma.
“I’m excited to talk to him after the race. I think it will be really cool to see his perspective,” said Czekai.
The combination of roles possessed by both Sharma and Czekai has undoubtedly made their experiences uniquely valuable. But on a more universal level, any motivated Rochester student can take advantage of these types of political experiences, and many have.
“I really encourage students who consider themselves to be politically minded or interested in politics to volunteer on a campaign. I thought I understood politics and political issues, but you really don’t until you learn about it from that perspective,” said Czekai. “Whatever political side students are on, I definitely encourage them to get involved.”