Two TCNJ alumni have played key roles in this fall’s presidential election. Tricia Mueller ’99 is serving as New Jersey state director for Barack Obama’s campaign, and Mike DelBene ’01 served as an alternate delegate at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis–St. Paul, MN, in September. Get to know more about these two Lions.
A Commitment to the Working Class Led Mueller to the Obama Campaign
by Katherine Federici Greenwood
Tricia Mueller was far from TCNJ’s beautiful campus in the fall of 1994 as she stood on a picket line for three days with Mexican community organizers. A 20-year-old junior at the time, she was helping them stand guard outside an American paper factory to make sure the company didn’t close its doors without paying its poor Mexican workers — a common practice among some foreign companies, she says.
Mueller spent that semester in Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua on a study-abroad program organized through the Center for Global Education that focused on experiential learning in women’s and human rights and developmental issues. Living with a host family in a poor neighborhood in Mexico, she studied Spanish, took courses through the center, and worked with community organizers as they tried to improve the working and living conditions of the country’s poor. In addition to manning the picket line with the community organizers—who helped ensure that the factory workers eventually were paid—Mueller also volunteered at a women’s public health center in Managua, Nicaragua.
“I was able to see the effects of globalization, the effects of a lack of unionized work force, the lack of accessibility to health care or any sort of human rights at all in these countries,” said the Class of 1999 member. And she began to understand why people organize and fight: “It is all based on need—need for education, need for food,” she said.
That experience abroad proved to be a catalyst for her landing in the labor movement and politics—since 2000, she has been the chief political director for New Jersey’s carpenters union. In July of this year, she took a leave of absence to head Barack Obama’s campaign in New Jersey. Because of Obama’s own roots in community organizing and his concern for the living conditions and wages of the working-class, “It’s a no-brainer for me to be on this campaign,” said Mueller, who has served on the political campaigns of governors Corzine and McGreevey and senators Lautenberg and Menendez.
Even though the state has a history of voting for Democratic presidents, and Obama continues to lead in the polls, Mueller is taking nothing for granted. In fact, she says her biggest challenge is “letting voters know this is not a done deal yet,” and making sure they realize that every vote counts (read: the 2000 presidential election). As November 4 approaches, she’s putting in easily 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with the goal of delivering New Jersey’s 15 electoral votes to her candidate. As the chief strategist and manager of the New Jersey campaign, which is based in West Windsor, she meets with political and business leaders and trains activists across the state, all the while focusing on Obama’s commitment to improving the economy and raising the quality of life for working people.
Mueller’s commitment to the working class and public service runs deep. Her grandfather was a sheet metal worker in Pennsylvania. Her father, who never completed college, started as a lineman at Bell Atlantic and moved up to management before retiring after 25 years to enter government — becoming mayor of Oaklyn, NJ. Today he heads the South Jersey Transportation Authority. Her mother, Paula Bezot Mueller ’73, is a teacher. As a child, Mueller helped her father campaign for mayor—stuffing envelopes, canvassing door-to-door, and studying electoral maps. “I’m an activist at heart,” she noted.
When Tricia entered TCNJ, she already knew that she wanted “a job that mattered,” but had only a “vague notion” of what that would be. Mueller chose TCNJ for its study-abroad program and for its English department. Her training in English literature courses, in which, she said, she learned to “process information,” prepared her for her career. Her creative writing and poetry professor, Peter Wood, helped guide her into community/labor relations. During senior year, when she was still uncertain what to do after college, Wood suggested she apply for a position in a union-organizing program in New York City.
“[Professor Wood] always understood that my path wasn’t going to be a traditional one,” said Tricia, who played first doubles and second singles on the Lions women’s tennis team. She didn’t end up participating in the program Wood suggested, but his encouragement and the trip abroad sharpened her focus.
From Mexico, to the carpenter’s union, to the Obama campaign, Tricia says, “It’s been a really exciting road I’ve been on.”
Decade-long Commitment to the GOP Earns DelBene a Ticket to the RNC
by Pete Croatto ’00
Attending the Republican National Convention takes three weeks—at least it did for Mike DelBene ’01, who attended the event as an alternate delegate from New Jersey’s 12th congressional district.
The longtime Republican spent a week before his trip to Minnesota anticipating the convention and being “a part of history.” The second week was spent at the convention doing everything from “quasi-private and confidential” tasks to reveling in the convention’s crowded passion.
The third week has lasted a little longer for Mike, who is still coming down from the emotional high of living—and then retelling—a political dream to friends and family. “That keeps the high going,” said Mike, 30, who lives in Ewing and works in the financial services industry. “I get excited and giddy all over again.”
Mike attended the convention at the invitation of State Senator Bill Baroni, Senator John McCain’s campaign chairman for New Jersey. Mike has a decade-long involvement with the GOP, including serving as state chairman of the New Jersey College Republicans as a TCNJ senior. Even before graduating in 2001, the communications studies major assisted on several campaigns, and helped then-state assemblyman Baroni’s campaign in 2005.
“Michael is part of a new generation of leaders in New Jersey that is helping build our Republican Party and electing John McCain,” Baroni said. “It’s clear that his time at TCNJ has prepared him exceptionally well to take on those leadership roles.”
In Minnesota, Mike spent his days and nights with similarly minded men and women, namely New Jersey’s 52 delegates and numerous alternates. The first two days of the convention, Mike and delegates countrywide helped box supplies for victims of Hurricane Gustav at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The group also conducted other tasks that likely didn’t make the 11 o’clock news: adopting rules and protocol for the convention, listening to speeches, and officially nominating McCain and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for the Republican ticket. Still, it was an experience Mike cherished.
“The first day, when you walk in, it’s a lot of shaking hands and ‘nice to meet yous’, and the last day, there are a lot of hugs and ‘let’s keep it touches,’” Mike explained. “Anytime you go through such an intense five days with the same group of people—you live together, eat together, and then you make history together—it’s only natural that you feel this bond.” He adds that many of the delegates even spent their free time visiting Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Two memorable, but less publicized convention moments also resonated with Mike. One was hearing a speech from McCain’s brother Joe, who recalled McCain, a prisoner of war during Vietnam, wearing a brown leather bomber jacket during his last military briefing. John McCain hung the coat on a hook, went on his bombing mission, and didn’t return. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house; you could have heard a pin drop,” Mike said. “It really was a clarifying moment about the man we want to become the president of the United States.”
On the convention’s last day, Mike saw firsthand the influence of Palin, whose emergence from near obscurity as Alaska’s governor to McCain’s running mate became national news. In the middle of a speech on the convention’s last day, Palin and her family made their way to their seats and stopped the proceedings cold.
“It was amazing to watch 25,000 heads turn and watch Governor Palin sit down,” Mike remembered. “The speaker on stage literally took a back seat to Governor Palin and her family coming in. You almost went blind from all the camera flashes.”
Many saw the celebratory chaos that was the Republican National Convention, but that was nothing compared to being there. “I can tell you, walking down the long, dark tunnel—and I know this is going to sound clichéd—at the Xcel Center and stepping on the convention floor and looking up and doing a ‘360’ around and listening to tens of thousands of people chant and cheer and be unified in one common cause, was unlike anything I’ve experienced in my life,” Mike said. “It’s sheer, positive energy in that room. It’s electric.”
That energy has stayed with Mike, who will spend “every free hour and minute that I have” over the next month to get McCain elected. He has no idea if he’ll be at the RNC in 2012, but he’d be happy to do so. He should make sure he’s cleared at least three weeks on his calendar.