From the Farm to the Governor’s Office: A Colin Powell Fellow’s Journey into Public Service

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Gareth Rhodes serves as Special Counsel to the Superintendent of Financial Services, where he is responsible for cross-agency initiatives that implicate policy, law, communications, and intergovernmental issues, and other special projects. He is currently on a temporary detail to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Inspector General’s Office where he is serving as Deputy Inspector General & Special Counsel. Gareth earned a J.D. at Harvard Law School, during which he served as a law clerk on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Prior, Gareth served as Deputy Press Secretary to Governor Cuomo as part of his five-year tenure in the Executive Chamber. Gareth holds a B.A. from The City College of New York (CUNY), where he was a recipient of a Harry S. Truman Scholarship and served as a White House intern. Gareth was a candidate in the 2018 Democratic Primary in New York’s 19th Congressional District, where he earned the endorsement of The New York Times and finished a close second out of seven candidates on election night.

Can you tell us about your background? Where are you originally from and what brought you to CCNY and The Colin Powell School?

       I grew up in rural Upstate New York, where my parents live as members of a religious commune where no one owns any property and they grow most of their own food. After high school, I left the commune and got a job drilling water wells, with no plans to go to college. A year later, I ended up applying late in the cycle to CCNY as their application window was one of the few still open. My first trip to New York City was a bus ride into Port Authority that summer, and I took the 1 Train up to City College where I learned all about the school and was set on coming here. I started in Fall 2007, then took a year off to work at a retreat center in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, and returned to college in Fall 2009 when I became a Colin Powell Fellow. 

 At the Colin Powell School, what was your concentration(s) and what programs/groups were you most involved in?

I was a Colin Powell Fellow before the Colin Powell School came into being. This was when there was still a few dozen fellows and we had a small center in Shephard Hall. I was a member of the first Skadden, Arps Honors Program cohort, a program that was critical to helping me start to focus on a legal career. While a Colin Powell fellow, I studied and wrote about campaign finance reform, an issue I continue to view as being at the core of what is wrong with our current political system. 

Can you tell us about one turning point within a program or with a professor that catapulted your career path?

It would not be an exaggeration to say my experience at City College, together with the opportunities presented by the Colin Powell program, was a major turning point in my life. The Colin Powell program opened doors that would otherwise have been closed. For example, the program’s scholarship and connections helped me get my start in politics, an internship with Congressman Charles B. Rangel at his district office at the Adam Clayton Powell office building on 125th St. in Harlem. The Congressman I remember being amused that a rural upstate kid like me was so eager to work in his district office. It was the best introduction you could have to politics, being on the front lines processing Section 8 housing applications, dealing with requests for expedited immigration processing, and other issues important to the community. That internship led to an internship with then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, and then an internship in the Obama White House. Taken as a whole, these college internships built on one another to show a real interest and commitment to public service, helping me win a Truman Scholarship in 2011 and land a job right out of college in the NY Governor’s office in Albany.

       Professor Andy Rich, who has been a mentor to me starting at CCNY, then to the Roosevelt Institute where I interned, and then at the Truman Foundation and the Skadden program which I was a part of. I can’t tell you how happy myself and others were when Andy was appointed the Dean of the school, he is an incredible resource and mentor to so many such as myself at all points in our careers – figuring out how to select and start a career path, when to make a transition such as going to law school, and so much more.

Now CCNY President, then Professor Vince Boudreau – a mentor and someone who really encouraged me continually from Day One to pursue a career in public service and law, and helped me think through the nuts and bolts of it all. I remember on multiple occasions coming into his office as a very confused student unsure what to do, and leaving with a clear vision and plan what to do next.

Others: the CCNY Honors Center (particularly Robin Villa and Lee Linde) and the Skadden Arps Honors program for Legal Studies (particularly Susan Butler Plum, Linda Dodd, Karen Struening). It’s hard to imagine now, but I really did not think college or law school was something that was in reach for me, and the CCNY Honors Center and the Skadden program made both a reality. I would not be where I am today without these individuals and programs. 

Where has your career in politics taken you?

My first job after college was working for NY Governor Andrew Cuomo in Albany in his communications office. If you are a young person starting out in government, working in a press office I believe is really one of the best place to be as you can learn a great deal about a lot of issues and pick up some important skills, with the only downside being it is a 24/7 job. I went from answering phones to a few years later traveling the state with the governor, where I was perhaps best known for accompanying Governor Cuomo on his tunnel tour of the escape route of two prisoners from an Upstate New York prison  (and tweeting the photo of the post-it note left behind that would appear the next day on the front page of The New York Times). (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/nyregion/2-convicted-killers-escape-from-a-prison-in-new-york.html). 

5.     How do you approach your current role? What most excites you about your role and what are your main priorities or areas of focus right now?

Coming into work every day and knowing you can spend every working hour doing something that will make life better for people. There is some saying out there along the lines of, “find a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” That’s what public service work is for me. You get to spend your day with incredibly talented individuals trying to solve the toughest issues and you are presented with the opportunity to really make a difference in the everyday lives of people. To me, one central lesson I learned working for Gov. Cuomo is government work, after all the political rhetoric and talk, is actually very simple: people give over a big part of their paycheck to the government, and in return, those of us who are privileged to work in public service are expected to deliver real results. You are there to get things done, no excuses. Otherwise, in our democratic system, you are quickly voted out of office. I had an opportunity to run for office myself in the 2018 cycle, and it was an exciting and rewarding experience, that really gave me hope for the future. It’s remarkable how much common ground there is outside the bubble of social media and an eagerness among people on both sides of the political aisle for the same kind of reforms and policy changes. 

6.     What can students gain from working in politics and what advice can you give students while they are with us and developing their own paths to success?

It is rewarding work and it is more important than ever, I believe, for young people to get involved. We face some serious problems that will need not just new ideas and solutions, but also the energy and passion to get tough bills put into law, build new political coalitions, and find some unity and common ground in this time of such division and toxicity in our political life. The best advice I can give is take risks, take advantage of the opportunities that come along (such as the many offered by the Colin Powell School), and don’t be afraid to follow your dreams. City College is the most diverse school in the nation with a student body like none other, and you are studying in a special place that can prepare you better for the world beyond than anywhere else. Seriously. And I say that as also being a graduate of Harvard Law School.