Lancer Alumnus: Sam Cornale: From Cashier at KFC to Executive Director of the DNC
By Zella Milfred
La Follette graduate Sam Cornale attributes much of his success to his first job at the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Cottage Grove Road, right near La Follette High School. At age 14, he would bike to work on the weekends, and quickly learned how to adapt to different situations and treat all customers with dignity and respect.
Cornale graduated from La Follette in 2005, and has been contributing to American politics ever since. He was recently appointed Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which is the national Democratic Party and the primary vehicle for electing Democrats in our country. As Executive Director living in Washington D.C., Cornale is the top staff person of the party. He is in charge of overseeing teams that are focused on raising money for elections, building technological infrastructure for targeting voters, and researching and communicating on behalf of the party. He, alongside party chairman Jaimie Harrison, will ultimately help guide the DNC through the 2022 midterm elections.
His political work this year is unique in two major ways. For one, Democrats currently have control of the White House under the Biden administration, meaning he and his teams will be working closely with the newly elected president. Secondly, the country is grappling with COVID-19, which can greatly impact their methods of voter outreach. Even so, Cornale explained that the DNC’s focus on implementing innovative tools and technology before the pandemic made the adjustment to socially-distanced organizing much smoother. “Campaigns are about good candidates, their political networks, and communicating effectively to everyday Americans about the issues that they care most about,” Cornale explained. “At its core, COVID did not change this.”
When he attended La Follette, Cornale was an active member of the school community. He was involved in cross country, track & field, winter running and recreational basketball. He also held leadership in student government as class president during his sophomore, junior and senior years. He loved ceramics and says that it taught him to see things not as they are, but how they could be. “At the end of the day that’s what politics is about,” he shared.
In high school, Cornale was greatly impacted by his English classes with LHS teacher Michael Corbett. In these lessons, he gained an appreciation for the power of words and learned that writing is “not a chore so much as it is an opportunity to change one's own mind, other minds, and the world.”
Corbett remembers Cornale being an intelligent and caring student, and is proud of his most recent achievement. “He also had a very good sense of humor; our chats always had moments of laughter,” Corbett shared. “At the same time, he was a very serious student. He was meticulous and worked very hard to perfect his work.”
Cornale also remembers his Advanced US History class being transformative, as it taught him to consume information analytically and question why certain communities weren’t as represented as others. The 9/11 attack happened during his time in this class, which he remembers being “very impactful not just in how we saw ourselves as Americans, but how we saw ourselves within the world.”
After graduating from La Follette, Cornale went on to attend UW-Madison with hopes of pursuing a medical career. But he soon realized that he was interested in more direct and fast ways of helping and communicating with people. Although it’s important for LHS students to formulate future plans, he encourages students to look at their goals through a wide lens. “I wish I had spent a little more time thinking outside the box because the world is big, there’s lots of great people in it, and the quicker you can adapt to meet that moment, I think the better you are long term,” he shared. During college he stayed active in the La Follette community by volunteering as an assistant coach for the LHS boys cross country team.
His first job in politics was running a campaign office for Barack Obama in northern Wisconsin during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. This was his first taste of organizing, which he remembers being an intoxicating experience. “You take a group of like-minded people from all walks of life, come together, put a plan in place, build a team, expand the team and ultimately change a community, a county and a country,” he said. In this kind of organizing he feels an energy that is core to who he is, which has kept him in politics ever since.
Today, in his new position as Executive Director, Cornale has a two part mission. “The first part is to build a diverse team with the best, most talented political operatives that the DNC has ever seen in order to, number two, bring light to those living in or stuck in the shadows,” he explained. “Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, if you're a patriot, we are all pursuing that same goal in public service.” He recognizes the importance of electing representatives who are connected to communities and authentically represent them when trying to make positive change.
Though he admits that working in politics can be grueling work, he recognizes that “it’s an unmitigated privilege and honor to wake up every morning trying to figure out how we can help people.” After being raised by educators in Madison, Cornale also understands that being a teacher can feel all-consuming, and that educators often work on the frontlines of the problems our country faces. He vows to fight for them in his work, too.
Cornale can’t help but reminisce on his high school experience at La Follette. He misses the pride felt at sporting events, the quiet moments in the hallways between classes, the relationships he built with teachers, and the boundless opportunities flowing through the halls.
For LHS students who are interested in pursuing politics, Cornale has some advice: “Read a national newspaper every single day, read a local newspaper every single day, and get good at and continue to practice writing. The rest is just about building relationships, but if you have those tools, information, and the ability to communicate, you can change the world.”