Inside Look Into The Charles and Kathleen Manatt Democracy Fellowship

Publication Date: 
19 Feb 2014

Michele A. Manatt served as Senior Policy Advisor Adviser to three Assistant Secretaries of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 1993-1999 and observed elections with the Organization of American States (OAS) in Peru and El Salvador, and with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Honduras.

Now Chair of the Council on Women's Leadership at the Meridian International Center, she speaks with IFES about the Charles and Kathleen Manatt Democracy Fellowship, founded by and named after her parents.

Charles T. Manatt – who grew up in Iowa and served as Chairman of the Democratic Party and U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic (1999-2001) – and his wife Kathleen, also an Iowan, founded the Manatt Democracy Fellowship in 1998. The Manatt Fellowship nurtures talent in democracy-building among graduate students pursuing a degree in the Midwest. Hosted by IFES, Manatt Fellows carry out research at the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a period of four to six weeks.

Please tell us about your father's work promoting democracy and credible elections across the globe.

My late father Charles T. Manatt, who was better known as Chuck, served as Chairman of the U.S. Democratic Party in the early 1980s when tensions between the Communist bloc and the West reached new heights and repressive dictatorships were further suppressing opposition voices. With his Republican Party counterparts – Bill Brock and later Frank Fahrenkopf – my father helped pass congressional legislation that established the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and NDI in 1983. That was one of the high watermarks of his career. With the functional bipartisanship in the days of the Ronald Reagan presidency, the birth of the democracy promotion space was the lasting fruit of those leaders' shared vision that the U.S. could serve as a model and catalyst for party-building, education on political rights and support for a free press.

Several years after NDI and IRI were up and running, these leaders and others – like Democrat Peter G. Kelly (current IFES Board of Directors Chairman) – saw that the more technical aspects of election administration were not adequately covered by these nongovernmental organizations. They identified a need for an institution that would draw on expertise from both the Democratic and Republican parties and would target election management, transparency, strengthening electoral tribunals and expanding voting access for vulnerable and marginalized groups.

In 1987, F. Clifton White, a top Republican strategist and effective organizer, founded IFES. My father became the Chairman of IFES in 1993 and worked closely with then-President Richard Soudriette. IFES expanded its reach and grew exponentially as emerging nations sought assistance in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Why was international development and building democratic institutions important to your father?

My father was trained as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and then co-founded what became a major law firm based in Los Angeles – Manatt, Phelps and Phillips. He understood early in his career that broad-based, sustainable growth is achieved through the painstaking work of constructing a rules-based legal system, respect for contracts and healthy political competition channeled through political parties.

The Manatt family has been a great supporter of democracy promotion worldwide, specifically with IFES' work. How would you describe your parents’ legacy in the broader democracy promotion space?

Both my parents were keenly aware of the many changes that happened in the United States and the world since they first moved to Washington, D.C., from Iowa in 1959. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; greater participation of women in the workforce and political life of the U.S.; and the building blocks for protecting the legal rights of persons with disabilities were all topics of dinner table conversation as my brothers and I were growing up.

While he was leading the Democratic Party and later chairing IFES, both of my parents were friends and strong supporters of democracy champions, hosting countless receptions and dinners for important visitors at their D.C. home. To cement the legacy of their work together – and in recognition of their origins in a small town in Southwest Iowa and their education at Iowa State University – they wanted to create a fellowship for Midwestern students.

Your family generously established the Manatt Democracy Studies Fellowship, which brings graduate students to Washington, D.C., to carry out research on democratization with IFES. Please tell us about the fellowship and its goals.

The Charles and Kathleen Manatt Democracy Fellowship was founded to make sure that there is a pipeline of democracy-building scholars from the heartland of America coming into the IFES orbit. There tends to be a bias or self-selection of folks from the Boston-Washington, D.C., corridor. They thought this was too limited, and that more talent needed to be recruited from the so-called "flyover" states.

Fortunately, IFES was amenable to the idea. The fellowship has been a win-win for IFES and for us. But we want to see more students applying. It is an excellent opportunity for furthering research and the fellowship is quite flexible. We have expanded the months beyond just the summer and it is for students from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin – are you reading this? Please, check it out and apply. The deadline is March 1st. 

Why is it important to engage graduate students from the American Midwest who are interested in Democracy promotion, election administration and civic participation? What do you think the fellowship offers graduate students interested in researching democracy promotion?

My parents, my brothers and I all believe that we need to attract and deepen the talent pool working in democracy promotion and governance from the American Midwest. We want to encourage more cross-fertilization between universities there and IFES in Washington, D.C. as well.

There is a bias toward students from the Boston-Washington, D.C., corridor, California and maybe Texas. The U.S. is a massive country with remarkable and dedicated graduate students from all over. We want to put a fine point on the pools of talent being trained in the heartland – the states that gave us some of our greatest presidents of the 20th century and democracy leaders of today like Senators Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kansas) and Representative Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin). We want to provide them a great opportunity at a pivotal moment in their careers.

It offers graduate students an opportunity to deepen their research in the U.S. capitol, spend time in a rich environment with IFES staff and expand their professional network through contact with the democracy-building and governance institutions based in Washington, D.C. The sky is the limit as to what they can achieve and whom they can meet during their Manatt fellowship.

Learn more about the Manatt Fellowship or to submit an application to the 2014 program.