State Elections Director Eric Spencer said he has always been fascinated by politics and law.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Spencer graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He went on to receive his law degree from Duke University and a master’s in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School.
The intersection between those three disciplines – politics, public policy and law – has defined his career, Spencer said.
You joined the U.S. Army after receiving your master’s degree. What led to that decision?
I was in my second day at school, getting my graduate degree, and I saw the planes crashing into the World Trade Center live on TV. While I was studying that morning, and within a couple weeks of the attack, I tried to get an internship at Hanscom Air Force Base, which is north of Boston. I just wanted to sort of serve in some way and I couldn’t because of security reasons they couldn’t let me on.
How’d you get in eventually?
I went to go see a Marine Corps recruiter to try to join the Marines and I was about 60 pounds overweight. I was in graduate school and in law school at the same time and the recruiter just looked at me like I wasn’t serious… By the end of the year I got a recruiting flier from a recruiter in Durham, North Carolina, that probably goes out to every forthcoming graduate of Duke and I just called him up and I said I was interested and I spent that summer working out. I lost 60 pounds. I read military books. I prepared myself physically and mentally that entire summer and I interviewed to join as an officer and I was accepted. So in September of ‘03, right after having taken the bar exam, I was a regular trainee recruit at Fort Benning, Georgia.
For an entire year from December ‘05 to December 2006. And this was right before the surge was implemented a few months later in 2007. So in many ways, the high number of casualties that we took led to that surge being necessary. The first couple of months I was in Sadr City and the last 10 months was in southeast Baghdad. I think we saw some of the worst fighting.
Did that experience shape the way you approach your job now?
There are a lot of similarities between the Army and elections. It’s one massive logistical challenge to get everybody to move toward a common goal and everybody plays a role in getting to that goal. Attention to detail is critical. And it requires leaders to be both in the trenches, literally in terms of the Army and metaphorically in terms of elections. There’s no job that’s beneath you in the Army and it’s the same in elections.
When you say in the trenches, how much work are we talking about right now?
I leave here between midnight and 2 a.m. and I’m usually in by 5:30 a.m. At the latest 7 a.m. Seven days a week.
How does this election cycle compare to 2016?
In my first election cycle, to do four statewide elections in one year, one of them being a presidential election, was a massive task. And then this year I thought, I have that experience under my belt and this will just be a midterm election. Easy. But then we had Congressman (Trent) Franks’ resignation. So we had two special congressional elections to run in March and May of this year at a time when we all assumed would be election prep time. So like in ‘16, in ‘18 we will have four elections again. … It feels like we’ve been at a sprint since the first day. So 2018 isn’t any crazier than what we’ve seen since I got here. I feel like I’ve gotten a decade’s worth of election experience in only three and a half years.
What did you take away from the criticism the Secretary of State’s Office received during the 2016 elections?
What I didn’t fully appreciate in ‘16 being new was that it’s not so much about making mistakes. It’s about how you respond publicly and acknowledging those mistakes. I accept full responsibility for not raising a louder voice in early ‘16 about the fact that, you know, 11 percent of the publicity pamphlets were going to be late. And at that time, I was still dealing with the blowback from the presidential preference election lines, but I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of screaming it from the mountaintops that something went wrong and we’re working hard to fix it, because in my mind I thought just working hard to fix it was sufficient. But it’s not… And since then, the minute we see something that even potentially goes wrong, we put it up on our website immediately and just keep people informed.
What do you like most about the job?
It’s, believe it or not, meeting first-time candidates. The best experience was Debbie Nez Manuel, who is running against Senator Juan Mendez in Legislative District 26. She brought her entire extended family into that room that I showed you a couple minutes ago with the petitions. Our computer aggregates and tabulates the results of our different reviewers who are looking at petition sheets and when I saw the final number that it was above the required minimum, I turned around and told her congratulations. She just immediately burst out into tears. And her entire family was cheering and they were crying. … It still gives me goosebumps to think about it, and there were dozens of other candidates like that where they walked out of here with that certificate and got on the elevator just exhilarated. So that’s the neatest thing about the job that we’re still the gateway to people being able to run for public office and make a difference. Yeah I know it sounds cheesy, but that’s when you go home and feel like you’re making a difference.
Do you think you’ll stay in government or go back to private practice?
I have absolutely no idea. And I know this sounds weird, but I have not thought a day past the general election. I can be fired the next day. I could be asked to stay. It depends on what happens at the election as well.
What’s one thing most people in the Capitol community don’t know about you?
I’ve jumped out of five airplanes. I got my jump wings in the Army Airborne School. … And only one of those jumps was correct. You’re supposed to land toes, knees, side of your leg, and then roll over. And I only successfully did that once. The other four times it was toes and then head and I just looked like the stereotypical officer jumping out of the plane. I was really bad, but I qualified and that’s awesome.