Sam Liebert goes to Washington, this time to serve
You might not be able to pick him out on television, but Janesville’s Sam Liebert will be in the crowd watching Barack Obama become the nation’s 44th president.
Unlike most of the estimated 2 million spectators, Liebert will be witnessing his new boss take the oath of office Tuesday, Jan. 20. The 2003 Janesville Parker High School graduate is now working on the Obama transition team and within a week will join the administration as an employee in the Agriculture Department.
The trip from the halls of Parker to the Obama administration has been a long one.
For Liebert, the decision that started his journey to Washington was made on a chilly March evening in 2003 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“I looked out over the Reflecting Pool past the Washington Monument to the Capitol, and I decided right then and there that I would some day return to Washington as a public servant,” Liebert said.
Steps at Parker
Liebert’s decision came during opening ceremonies for Janesville Parker High School’s week of Washington Seminar field study. Had it not been for Parker teacher Joe Van Rooy, Liebert would not have been in Washington that week.
“I spent the first two years of high school in the Block Program for students at risk,” Liebert said. “I just didn’t do the work because I had lost interest.”
Liebert remained interested in music, and he credits band teacher John Biester with helping him to “hang in there” while he got over the academic hump.
Van Rooy learned of Liebert’s interest in government and extended an invitation to the AP government class and Washington Seminar.
“There are no prerequisites in terms of past academic performance,” Van Rooy said. “The keys are motivation and interest, and Sam had both.”
Van Rooy said Liebert’s decision to seek a life of public service while in Washington is an example of what teachers want to see.
“It’s tremendously satisfying to see students take the classroom study out into the real world,” Van Rooy said. “It doesn’t work out that way for every student, but in Sam’s case he has been able to take that motivation and interest to succeed academically and then apply that knowledge to real world experience and a career.”
An indirect route
Along Liebert’s 5 1/2-year journey, he graduated from high school, worked as a security guard, created his own security company and attended classes at UW-Rock County.
Then Liebert began taking steps toward a political career.
“I started the College Democrats organization at UW-Rock and started meeting people at various conferences and workshops,” Liebert said. “That led to my work with Sen. Russ Feingold’s PAC.”
Liebert ended up in Ohio working on Sherrod Brown’s successful U.S. Senate campaign in 2006. That experience increased Liebert’s appetite for politics. He jumped feet first into the 2008 presidential campaign a few months later.
“I decided to check out the presidential races and eventually got hooked up with the Tom Vilsak campaign,” Liebert said.
Liebert arrived in Des Moines on Feb. 10, 2007, towing a U-Haul with his life’s belongings.
“Thirteen days later, Vilsak dropped out of the race,” Liebert said. “He dropped out at noon, and three hours later the Edwards campaign called me on my personal cell phone to offer me a job. To this day, I have no idea how they got my number.”
Within days of Vilsak’s withdrawal from the race, all the major Democratic candidates contacted Liebert.
“I decided to go with Obama,” Liebert said. “I had met him in Ohio while working on the Brown campaign. He seemed sincere and, like me, he was a mixed-race African-American trying to make a difference.”
A big win
Liebert’s decision to join Obama was based on the candidate, not the candidate’s campaign offerings.
“The Obama job paid the least, and I started at the very bottom,” Liebert said. “Over the course of the year, I was in Iowa; however, we went from a 20-point underdog to a big winner. It turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Liebert climbed the organizational ladder on the Obama Iowa team and ended up responsible for key precincts in the Des Moines area as a field organizer. By the time Obama shocked the world with a solid win in the Iowa Caucus on Jan. 3, 2007, Liebert was on the staff traveling team.
Liebert then went to Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Mississippi, Indiana and Wisconsin as part of the primary campaign. After Obama wrapped up the nomination, he was assigned to Florida for the general election.
The Obama team in Florida focused on the I-4 corridor, a 134-mile highway cutting across Florida from Tampa to Daytona Beach that splits northern Republican Florida from southern Democratic Florida.
“That was the battleground area, and we worked it hard,” Liebert said. “We won the corridor, and we won the state.”
The next move
In the week his team was winding down in Florida after the election, Liebert pondered returning to Janesville to resume his education.
“Then I thought about that night in 2003 in Washington,” Liebert said. “I wondered if this new administration would consider me for a job in Washington.”
When President-elect Obama nominated Vilsak for Agriculture Secretary, Liebert had the opening he needed.
“I contacted my former campaign workers who were with Vilsak and applied for a job,” Liebert said. “I won’t start in the Agriculture Department until Secretary Vilsak takes office, but I’m working with the transition team until then.”
Liebert has a Washington apartment, and he’s been accepted at American University.
“Things are happening fast, but I’ve completed that journey I committed to in 2003,” Liebert said. “I’m returning to Washington as a public servant.”
Seminar alumni reach high ranks
Since 1973, Parker High School government students have been traveling to Washington, D.C., for a week each spring as part of the Washington Seminar program.
Sam Liebert, a 2003 alum, will join the Obama administration in the agriculture department, but he’s not the first or the highest-placed Seminar graduate in the executive branch.
Steve Preston, a 1978 Parker grad, served President George W. Bush as administrator of the Small Business Administration and secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But Washington Seminar also has turned out its share of physicians, lawyers, teachers, artists and just about every other profession and occupation.
-- Brian Christensen, a 1983 Seminar grad, became a successful campaign strategist. He introduced Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, to the political scene and helped engineer his first congressional win.
-- Bob Burke, a 1986 Seminar alum, is active in state government and politics as a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s teachers union.
-- Lisl Hornig, a 1999 alum, is a college grad and a mom pursuing a career as an author of children’s books.
-- Mike Fanning, another 1999 grad, turned an engineering degree from UW-Platteville into a job with a top-ranked NASCAR team, Richard Childress Racing, as a data acquisition engineer.
-- April Hornig, is a 1991 Seminar alum and Lisl’s sister. April is a middle school teacher.
April and Lisl’s father, Tom, is an attorney with the von Briesen & Roper law firm in Madison and lent his legal knowledge to the class.
“The class work prepared the students with a firm background in all facets of government—executive, Congress and judicial,” Hornig said. “The week in Washington provided the students with a much greater sense of confidence and maturity.”
Seminar founder and retired Parker teacher John Eyster said if programs are measured by their graduates, Seminar gets high marks.
“In the case of Sam Liebert, it’s a classic example of what a determined student can do when given the opportunity,” Eyster said.