Jesse Cornett’s path back to Portland State has taken him across the state’s political spectrum. A former undergraduate and graduate student at PSU, Cornett is now the interim special assistant to the president for strategic planning, public policy and government relations.
The politics of higher education
Jesse Cornett’s path back to Portland State has taken him across the state’s political spectrum.
A former undergraduate and graduate student at PSU, Cornett is now the interim special assistant to the president for strategic planning, public policy and government relations.
While completing his master’s degree at PSU, Cornett was a founding member of the Oregon Bus Project, a progressive political organization founded in late 2001. He has worked for former U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield, U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer and Secretary of State Bill Bradbury.
Cornett, 31, even ran for public office last year, when he was working as a senior aide and policy adviser to Bradbury, a job he started in 2003.
In early March of that year, Cornett was supposed to have been traveling with Bradbury. Instead, he had decided to stay in Salem because it was filing day, the day elected officials and hopefuls file papers announcing their intent to run for office.
Cornett initially lagged behind to mingle with the candidates, and ended by filing to run for state senate seat 24, a section of Southeast and Northeast Portland.
“I ran into a guy who lived in my neighborhood, who at the time was roommates with my state senator, and lo and behold, he filed for his seat,” Cornett said. “As it turned out, the current state senator had all but decided not to run. After talking to my wife and the Secretary to get the time off, I jumped into the race.”
Though his wife, Molly Aleshire, and Bradbury supported him, and though he secured The Oregonian’s endorsement, Cornett lost to Rod Monroe by 167 votes.
“It provided me with just this incredible experience,” Cornett said. “It was a life-changing experience for a number of reasons. One was that my office was in my living room.”
Cornett spent the past few years commuting 70 minutes a day from his home in Portland to Salem, and the commute was wearing on him. Inspired by his 10-week period of working on his campaign out of his home, he decided to pursue a job closer to home.
“I took a chance. I left the [Secretary’s] office in August of ’06,” Cornett said. “Then in December, I was offered the position here of government relations associate. I think it was a very good fit for both me and the university.”
Cornett took over as interim special assistant to the president for strategic planning, public policy and government relations following Deborah Murdock’s death in August.
“What do I enjoy about my job? Every single minute of it [sic]. My role was very state-focused. My new role is state, but also local and federal issues. It’s a pretty wide spectrum of issues,” Cornett said.
Cornett grew up near Seattle and moved to Portland shortly after graduating from Kent-Meridian High School. He said he has always been interested in politics and attempted to attend a Bill Clinton rally in Seattle in 1992, though he couldn’t get close enough to see or hear the two-term president speak.
By 1999, Cornett was a junior political science major at Portland State. A Capstone class on the presidential nomination process inspired him to attend the 2000 Democratic Convention.
“Everyone was excited that there was somebody young getting involved,” he said. “I came back, went to work for a campaign. As soon as the campaign was over I was hired to be [PSU fiscal officer] Steve March’s legislative assistant.”
At that point, in late 2001, the Oregon Bus Project got underway, with Cornett playing an integral role in its inception.
“There was a lot of interest and enthusiasm among young, politically minded people in the Portland area–we were able to tap into that energy,” Cornett said. “I am credited with being a co-founder, but at this point there are endless hundreds of people who have done more work than I have done.”
Cornett graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2001 and was the student graduation speaker. He earned a master’s degree in public administration in 2003.
“I remember it was a very strong urge to not flee from the Park Blocks. Portland State is an incredibly diverse, large yet growing institution that provides opportunities to thousands of students that might not otherwise have them every year,” Cornett said. “For me, being a part of that was pretty essential.”