Since the 2016 presidential election, many people have voiced their dissent by participating in marches, writing letters to government officials, or donating to organizations. Zachary Courser CM '99, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, chose to act on his discontent by getting involved in his community. In January, he decided to run for Claremont City Council in an attempt to instill change at the local level.
“[The election] made me feel like I should do more than be a spectator; I should get involved,” Courser said.
Courser is one of eight candidates running for two open positions in the Mar. 7 City Council election; the field includes two incumbent council members and five other challengers.
Courser is currently a Claremont traffic and transportation commissioner, but said he feels limited in implementing practices.
“I continue to see how there are so many more opportunities for me to get involved in policy-making in the city,” Courser said. “I really want to contribute my knowledge and experience both as a professional and a resident who cares a lot about Claremont.”
Though this is Courser’s first time running, he has been involved in public policy in the City of Claremont and around the 5Cs. As the research director of Dreier Roundtable—a public policy education program—Courser has worked to interest students in public policy careers.
He also organized a student networking trip to Washington, D.C., and runs the Dreier Scholars Program, in which students spend a semester in the nation’s capital working at an internship, taking classes, and meeting with political figures.
Courser graduated from CMC with a bachelor’s degree in government and returned from 2006 to 2008 to teach while finishing his dissertation. He returned as a professor in 2014 after working at Boston College, Washington and Lee University, and various schools in Europe.
“Courser has a general knowledge of the world as well as a deep understanding of the colleges and city of Claremont,” said Eric Helland, co-director of the Dreier Roundtable and CMC professor of economics. Helland and Courser co-teach a government course called Policy Lab and are co-editors with CMC professor Ken Miller of the upcoming volume “Parchment Barriers: Political Polarization and the Limits of Constitutional Order.”
“It was always a secret hope that I could finagle my way back to 91711,” Courser said. “I’ve done it, and I think I have an appreciation for the place, which is one reason why I want to get involved on council.”
Despite Courser’s familiarity with Claremont, he said that this election campaign has helped him gain new insight into the city and observe “the whole fabric of the Claremont political community.”
“I have gained a fuller understanding of our current political moment,” Courser said. “Politics right now is more salient for people than it has been. It’s on their minds, and it’s led to a lot of constructive conversations with people sharing their confusion, disappointment, but also engaging them in local politics.”
Together with his campaign managers, Sophia Helland CM ’20 and Zayn Agn, a senior at Claremont High School, Courser is striving to increase voter turnout in the upcoming election. He noted that in the last six elections, the average turnout has been around 32 percent. In 2015, the election was cancelled because no one wanted to run.
“I get excited when I get emails from people who say ‘I’ve never voted in a local election before.’ That makes me feel like I’m doing some good,” Courser said.
The local election is nonpartisan, so Courser is attempting to unite the entire Claremont community.
“It’s been almost therapeutic for me in the sense that it’s a nonpartisan race,” Courser said. “The idea is to focus on the entire community instead of on partisan divisions. I enjoy that.”
Courser describes his platform as a “hands-on approach” to governance; he aims to work closely with staff, talk to the community, and propose beneficial policies.
If elected, Courser plans to focus on three main areas: decreasing burglary and property crime, lowering the cost of water, and reducing homelessness rates in the city.
To decrease property crime, he wants to renovate the police station and increase community-based policing as well as watch programs.
Courser also said that Claremont pays disproportionately more for water compared to neighboring cities. In 2014, the city failed in their court case to pass Measure W, which sought to use eminent domain to make the water company both owned and operated by the city. The Council has now decided to appeal this decision, and Courser said he plans to help the Council improve their case in support of this measure.
The third main issue Courser wants to address is reducing homelessness in LA county. Courser supports the homeless advocacy program and wants Claremont to pay more attention as well as provide more resources to combat this issue. Courser also advocates for Measure H, which would increase sales tax by a quarter of a percent in order to fund homeless services for ten years.
Courser’s colleagues and students said that several of his personal qualities make him a strong candidate for City Council.
“One thing I really like about Professor Courser is he does not seem to have that instinct as a politician to hold back from voicing what he believes in,” Eric Helland said.
Rebecca Chong CM ’19 said that one of his strengths is facilitating discussions that are inclusive of all opinions. Courser has a strong understanding of both the intended and unintended consequences accompanying different policies, according to Lindsey Matilla CM ’19, and Sophia Helland believes he will “go through the policies with a fine-toothed comb.”
“It felt like all of the dots were connecting when I heard he was running,” Matilla said.
Though this position is entirely voluntary and unpaid, Courser said it was “an extra hat that [he is] happy to wear.”
Ultimately, Courser said that his aim is to improve Claremont’s sense of community while engaging in local politics.
“Too many people view Claremont as a place to live but not a city,” Courser said. “I’d like to convince more people that it’s a city and [that] we have a lot to be proud of. With more people contributing their voice, we will have better governance overall.”
Courser will continue his campaign for the next month, and Pitzer College will host a forum for all City Council candidates at Benson Auditorium from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23.