Why I Ran for Mayor While Studying Online at American University

Gradute Year: 2019

In June 2017, at the age of 57 and with no experience as a politician, I decided to run for mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. With a fraction of the budget of my competitors, I came in second against the incumbent in a field of four candidates, receiving 22 percent of the overall vote.

I wasn't elected mayor, but my work made a lasting and positive impact on the community and my campaign started an important conversation about government policy. While my passion for common-sense policy drove my campaign, my experience in the Master of Public Administration and Policy program with American University made it feel possible. Now, as I work to complete the MPAP program, I'm more excited than ever to continue my work in the community.

My path to American University started in 2006, when, after a 25-year career in the corporate world, I retired in order to raise my children and began teaching after-school writing classes. As a parent and teacher, I became interested in education policy. I wondered how well public school was preparing my children and students for the future. I worried about whether they would be ready to compete in an international economy.

In a flash, 10 years passed and I was touring colleges with my oldest son. As we narrowed down his choices, the experience had me thinking: What will the third chapter of my own life look like?

I found my next step.

I knew I was interested in education reform, but as I got involved, I quickly saw the interconnectedness of public policy: how cities are run, where the money comes from, and why every policy decision has an impact. There were so many different dimensions. That's when I decided that the MPAP program at American University was a logical next step. By attending online, I could connect to American University's campus in Washington, D.C. — the ground zero of public policy — without relocating.

Right away, I could feel the rigor of the coursework and the impact of an experienced faculty. Real-world case studies — like digging into the recession in Detroit or figuring out how to resize a fire department in Phoenix — provided relevant experience for what I faced in my campaign. My coursework made me much more attuned to the realities of operational and public policy issues.

I have always had strong opinions on issues like education reform, but now I had the skills I needed to take my opinions and make them actionable. In many places, as in our town, decisions are often made based on personalities or politics rather than what's best for the community. The MPAP curriculum has given me a working knowledge of how to prepare a financial brief, analyze a policy, or spot potential legal issues before making a decision.

It's an education in taking a step-by-step approach to looking at issues analytically instead of politically or emotionally.

Now I know I can make a difference.

As I work toward graduation, I can say I wouldn't have run for mayor if I hadn't taken the MPAP program at American University. I remember thinking, "I've been doing this program at American, I know my town and how the budget runs, and I know what the problems are. I've never run for office, but I can make a difference."

While I didn't take the mayor's office, my campaign resonated with voters because I focused on policy rather than politics, moved the needle on key local issues, and inspired a community of activists. I count that as a win — and I plan to run again after graduation.

To learn more about American University’s online Master of Public Administration and Policy, request more information or call us toll free at 855-725-7614.

  • About the Author

    Lisa Brinton Thomson is set to complete the Master of Public Administration and Policy at American University in spring 2019. Before enrolling at American, she worked for 25 years in the corporate sector and spent 10 years as a writing teacher. She is passionate about education reform and public policy and lives in Norwalk, Connecticut.