Pepperdine People Magazine
Pepperdine People Magazine Spring 2008
Voice of the People
Pete Peterson Advocates Citizen Involvement in Government
by Jerry Derloshon
Pete Peterson believes that just showing up at a polling place on election day falls way short of fulfilling one's civic duty. Most days he spends his time focusing on how citizens can play a more active role in public policy. He considers what level of citizen engagement is needed in a country that was created "by and for the people."
But Peterson hasn't always been involved in advocating citizen participation in government. Prior to embarking on his current career, he knew considerable success as a graphic arts salesman. The accouterments of that success—increased responsibilities and higher earnings—were well earned, but they simply weren't enough. At 38, he wanted to make a change.
Beginning in 1994, five years after earning a bachelor's degree in history from The George Washington University, Peterson began selling graphic arts in Easton, Pennsylvania. He was good at it, making cold calls and closing prestigious accounts such as American Express and Bell Atlantic.
Over time he assumed increasingly responsible executive positions creating marketing campaigns, writing copy, and booking large-scale direct mail and printing accounts. In 2005, by then a more than 10-year industry veteran, he was happily married to a graphic artist named Gina and worked for Strine Printing Company in York, Pennsylvania. Peterson coordinated the $60 million-firm's business development and project management efforts in the greater New York metropolitan area. He was an industry insider who worked hard, networked well, and enjoyed what he did.
Firmly established in his career, Peterson decided to volunteer for the New Jersey gubernatorial race of Bret Schundler and began making local political contacts. He was asked in 2005 to run, in Union County where Pete and Gina lived, for the position of freeholder (akin to a county supervisor's seat). While not successful in his election efforts, the experience changed his life. Suddenly he was aware he wanted not more, but that he wanted to "do more meaningful work."
"I wanted to hone my own political philosophy," he recalls. "I didn't feel grounded; I had a love of the 'issues' and wanted to take two years out and see what sense I could make of things."
Applying in earnest to graduate schools of public policy, Peterson was accepted at all of his choices: George Washington, Harvard, NYU. But a brochure from Pepperdine University caught his eye with the school's stunning coastal location. That Gina hailed originally from Newport Beach, and her parents still lived in Orange County, hastened their visit to the Malibu campus.
His decision to attend Pepperdine was encouraged by a family friend and Pepperdine alumnus John Rettberg (B '59, GPC) and sealed when Pete and Gina met Pepperdine professor Robert Kaufman. "The School of Public Policy offered something I didn't see elsewhere," says Peterson, "a blend of the quantitative with the qualitative. I was drawn to the role that great books played in the program, and the role of sociology, history, and the U.S. Constitution."
An avid reader, Peterson quotes Alexis de Tocqueville and other leading thinkers substantively and with ease. "The reading rocked my world," says Peterson, whose book shelves are lined with works by Aristotle, Burke, the founding fathers, and contemporary authors including sociologist Robert Putnam. "What I embraced in my studies was the importance of community; the idea that only by identifying with our local communities can we fully appreciate the state, nation, and the world."
His readings and class writings focused on the relationships of people and organizations to each other and the role of faith in society and human nature. He cites professors Ted McAllister, Robert Lloyd, Robert Kaufman, and David Davenport as valued mentors. A first-rate student, he graduated in 2007 at the top of his class and was honored to serve as valedictorian.
At the urging of David Davenport and other professors, Peterson accepted an offer to lead a newly formed organization called Common Sense California (CSC). Cofounded by Davenport and headquartered at the School of Public Policy, CSC seeks to increase citizen involvement in public policy decisions. "Officials are starting to understand they need to more effectively involve the general citizenry," notes Peterson. "Unfortunately, most people see themselves involved in policy only at the voting booth."
These days Peterson champions for citizen involvement far beyond the voting booth, such as the CSC-hosted "California Speaks on Healthcare Reform" program that involved 3,500 citizens at eight different venues. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger attended with top state officials. A report from the one-day meeting, ripe with citizen input, has been shared with legislators.
Last year CSC and the School of Public Policy cohosted a conference on the emerging field of deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy uses tools such as citizen dialogues, deliberative polling, and citizen assemblies to engage regular citizens in policy issues to break through partisan gridlock, overcome special interest domination, and rekindle a sense of civic ownership in the conduct of government.
Peterson's ongoing work at Common Sense California also links the organization with opportunities to make positive change in other California communities. CSC recently provided $25,000 in grant money to Threshold 15/10 to help the citizens of San Mateo shape affordable housing policy alongside developers, environmentalists, and others.
Currently teaching a course on citizen engagement at the School of Public Policy, Peterson possesses an unbridled optimism for his future, including the possibility that he may someday run again for political office. This work, and myriad other project Peterson oversees, has given him the kind of meaningful career that he sought from a degree in public policy.