Emphasizing grassroots politics: Professor John McGlennon’s career educating and campaigning

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John McGlennon has been a professor with the College since 1974. Alongside teaching, he has led several political campaigns and brings what he learns back to the classroom. COURTESY PHOTO / WYDAILY.COM

In 1974, in the dawn of his career, professor John McGlennon came to the College of William and Mary for a one-year teaching position to teach students about public policy. One year turned into three visiting years, and as McGlennon says, “The rest is history.”

As an Orioles fan who grew up in New York and received his Master’s and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, McGlennon perhaps seemed unlikely to end up living most of his life in Virginia. Fortunately for the College, he has dedicated extensive amounts of time to his career here, both professionally and politically.

McGlennon has run for Congress twice and now continues his 22-year tenure of the Roberts District seat on the James City County Board of Supervisors. He was reelected this past Tuesday Nov. 5, beating out Republican challenger, Trevor Herrin.

McGlennon recalled that when he originally ran for the seat, it was in a more unusual fashion than most. He spent time searching for a candidate in the community, but when no one came to light, McGlennon stepped in himself.

“I was the chair of the Democratic party in James City County and there was a seat on the Board of Supervisors where the incumbent had decided not to seek reelection,” McGlennon said. “I saw the other candidates who were running, on the other side of the aisle, and just thought that the values they were promoting weren’t what I wanted to see the county pursue.”

Similarly, when McGlennon first ran for Congress in 1982, he had initially searched for another candidate for the position. This time however, the Democratic nominee for office dropped out of the race fifteen weeks before election day and McGlennon’s campaign was under a time constraint.

“I was the chairman for the Congressional Committee for the party, and so it was my job to try and find another candidate. Sounds familiar, huh? After about a week and a half or so, a group of members of the Committee came to me and said, ‘No, you should really do it,’” McGlennon explained.

Despite the late start in his campaign, McGlennon was persistent and had no regret accepting the nomination. Although he did not win the seat, he almost defeated the Republican incumbent and surprised many people with his campaign’s success. Impressive races for the Democratic party elsewhere in the state also meant McGlennon garnered additional support in the final week of his race.

“It was a great experience,” McGlennon said. “We had about a twelve-week campaign from the time I was nominated until election day. We didn’t raise as much money as we needed but I came closer than most people expected and so was encouraged to run again two years later. The last week and a half of the campaign, I started getting some more resources. The governor came down to cut a commercial for me and that’s why I think I was able to do much better in that campaign.”

When McGlennon connects his political career back to his classroom experience, he is thankful to have the ability to do more than talk about theory. He believes being able to bring exemplary career work into his lectures makes it more honest and conceivable for his students.

Despite never holding office in Congress, McGlennon humbly considers his losses as more beneficial for himself and his students. As an educator, McGlennon sees value in any experience as an opportunity to bring something back to his students, whether it be in his course on Southern politics or an old favorite focusing on political campaigns.

“I always say that you really do learn more in a losing campaign than you do in a winning campaign because you can think about all the things that you might have done differently, try to evaluate what worked and what didn’t work,” McGlennon said. “When you win, it’s kind of like, well, I must have done everything right.”

“I always say that you really do learn more in a losing campaign than you do in a winning campaign because you can think about all the things that you might have done differently, try to evaluate what worked and what didn’t work,” McGlennon said. “When you win, it’s kind of like, well, I must have done everything right.”

McGlennon also mentioned his political experience often proves advantageous in terms of how students perceive and learn from him.

“The benefit for me as an academic was that I better understood the actual practice of politics and as a teacher, I had a certain kind of ‘street cred,’ if you will,” McGlennon said.

“The benefit for me as an academic was that I better understood the actual practice of politics and as a teacher, I had a certain kind of ‘street cred,’ if you will,” McGlennon said. “When you talk about election campaigns, but you have actually run those campaigns, people give you a little more credit for that.”

McGlennon complimented College students for being politically active and aware. He ran through a list of many students who he taught that went on to pursue political careers and get involved at varying levels of government. Many of these alumni endeavored on their own campaigns and proved successful. Others found political roles without this hurdle.

“We have a lot of our graduates who are involved in appointive positions as well. The chief of staff of the mayor of Richmond is a member of our Board of Visitors, Lincoln Saunders,” McGlennon said. “We have folks who are city managers and county administrators all around Virginia and in other states.”

Nowadays, McGlennon says a semester doesn’t go by without a former student’s child in one of his classes. When asked what advice he typically gives to these and other students, he often points to his own political career holding the Roberts District seat. He believes in the value of starting local, particularly in Virginia, where there are elections every year and a multitude of opportunities.

“I like to tell students that local government is really a great place to see the impact of your work on a daily basis,” McGlennon said.

It is not lost on McGlennon that local government is often on the “back burner” for students, especially today, but he also knows that it has provided him with some of his most rewarding work.

“I can drive through town and point to an intersection that I had something to do with improving or a park that we approved,” McGlennon said. “We have a parcel of land at the end of Jamestown Road called ‘Mainland Farm.’ It is the first farm that was worked by English settlers on the mainland of America. I was able to get a conservation easement put on it that protects it as farmland in perpetuity.”

Finally, McGlennon shared what he believed to be the secret to any political success. The current board-member acknowledges that running for local office was a more fruitful undertaking because of his reason “why.”

“It’s important to know, if you’re interested in getting involved in politics, seeking elective office or working in state, local or national government, to know why you want to do it,” McGlennon said.

“It’s important to know, if you’re interested in getting involved in politics, seeking elective office or working in state, local or national government, to know why you want to do it,” McGlennon said. “It certainly shouldn’t just be because my ego would really like the attention. I think I was a better candidate for local office than I was at the congressional office because I had a much clearer sense of what difference it would make if I held the office.”