Devin Mauney

(Published in 2008) Here’s a rather disparate constituency: malaria victims in Africa, hardscrabble sugarcane farmers in Brazil, and financially strapped students in Arizona.

That might sound like a range of concerns beyond the purview any one institution. But a range too broad for Devin Mauney to make a difference? Don’t bet on it.

Over the past five years, Mauney has emerged as a promising leader in several arenas. The 2005 Flinn Scholar has already developed sharp political instincts, a fascination with education and economic policy, and an intense concern about gaps between the rich and poor. Last month, the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation recognized his accomplishments and potential, naming him one of 65 recipients of the nation’s highest undergraduate award for public service.

The Truman Scholarship will provide Mauney, now finishing his third year at Arizona State University, with $30,000 for graduate studies, along with hard-to-beat cachet as he extends his academic and professional investigations of how to combat what he describes as a “bias against the poorest.” He is aiming to use his Truman at Harvard University, where he hopes to pursue a law degree and a master of public policy degree from the Kennedy School of Government. He would then like to take his expertise to Capitol Hill, perhaps in a staff position on the Finance Committee of the U.S. Senate.

“I’m especially interested in trade policy as it relates to the poor outside the U.S. and inside the U.S.,” Mauney says. “Our tariff structure disproportionately taxes poor nations’ exports that are bought by the poor in this country. I’m also interested in how our tax policy affects income inequality.”

Mauney’s trajectory toward public leadership became evident well before he mastered the vocabulary of economic policy. In middle school, he witnessed a moribund set of programs for youth in his United Methodist Church (UMC) community in Tucson and took on responsibility for planning better activities. Recognized for his success in that role, he was tabbed as a ninth grader to serve as a lay member of the UMC’s Desert Southwest Conference, the legislative body for the church in Arizona and southern Nevada.

Mauney was nominated to be a reserve delegate to the UMC’s 2004 General Conference, the church’s national decision-making body, and as a senior in high school, he joined the board of directors for the UMC’s General Commission on Communications. Because of his youth, he had to overcome preconceptions among other General Conference participants.

“It can be tough, even when you have expertise in an area, such as my knowledge about the communications efforts of the Church,” Mauney says. “On the other hand, as I’ve also found in politics, once you’ve broken through the barrier of assuming you don’t have anything to say because of your age, most people are really receptive.”

Mauney proved that point in 2004, when he became the youngest candidate ever for a seat on the Tucson Unified School District’s governing board. Convinced that the district needed a student’s perspective to champion a richer selection of academic and extracurricular programs and strengthen community among students, he began collecting signatures to get on the ballot during the summer before his senior year at University High School.

He spent the summer and fall knocking on doors throughout the district’s 217 precincts, drummed up television and radio interviews, won an endorsement from the Tucson Chamber of Commerce, turned 18 in September, and in the November general election received almost 19,000 votes. That total was well short of what he needed to win a slot, but his candidacy drew considerable attention to the race among students and other community members, earned praise from his fellow office-seekers, and gave him an enticing taste of electoral politics.

“I had never been involved in politics before running,” Mauney says. “I got a sense for how much it actually matters who comes to the table and casts the votes within a legislative body. And I found that I liked it,” he adds. “It has to be something that’s fun for you.”

Mauney deepened his involvement in politics after the election. The summer after he graduated from high school, he interned in Gov. Janet Napolitano’s Tucson office, where he did constituent casework, answering residents’ questions and concerns about state agencies and departments under the governor’s authority. The following spring, he worked on Attorney General Terry Goddard’s re-election effort.

“Working for Gov. Napolitano, I did a lot of listening. It taught me how important it is to help people feel connected to their government,” Mauney says. “Working on the attorney general’s campaign, I learned about how a campaign actually works.”

Mauney has also sustained the involvement in education policy that began with his school board run. During his sophomore year at ASU, he served as the government relations director for the undergraduate student government and he chaired the board of directors of the Arizona Students’ Association (ASA), an organization that advocates on behalf of students at Arizona’s state universities to the state Legislature. He worked intensively to bring representatives of all three universities into agreement on a plan to tie tuition increases to increased support from the Legislature.

“One of my highest concerns was making sure that everyone has the chance to attend college,” Mauney says. “That means working to increase access to financial aid, which brings us closer to having equity of opportunity.”

Mauney’s sensitivity to inequity has suffused his interest in economic as well as education policy. As he advanced in his program of study as an economics major, he became increasingly interested in trade issues and how they played out in large developing nations. Last year he applied for and won a National Security Education Program (NSEP) David L. Boren Scholarship, which underwrote six months of study and research in Brazil.

After a month of language and cultural studies in Salvador, in northeastern Brazil, Mauney moved on to take courses at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo and began developing what would become the policy proposal on ethanol production and trade barriers for his Truman Scholarship application.

“Brazil is a huge agricultural producer, and if the U.S. weren’t as regulated, I think their production could be even more tremendous,” Mauney says. “Their sugarcane ethanol is price-competitive with gasoline, without a subsidy. Propping up our corn-ethanol industry gives more money to really rich companies. From the perspective of economic efficiency and equity, it doesn’t make sense.”

Politically, though, eliminating ethanol subsidies in the U.S. would be profoundly difficult. “What stands in the way are the very diffuse benefits and concentrated costs—the vast majority of costs would be accrued to a few companies in the Midwest,” he says. “I think we should be okay with that, because the poor in Brazil would benefit from a stronger economy, and everyone in the U.S. would benefit from lower fuel costs. But it will take leaders in the debate who are willing to take risks.”

One of Mauney’s interests that is much less liable to evoke controversy is the prevention of malaria in Africa. Through his role on the UMC’s communications board, he became involved in the Nothing but Nets Campaign, an effort jointly undertaken in 2006 by the United Nations Foundation, the UMC, the National Basketball Association, and Sports Illustrated to fight malaria in Africa through the purchase of insecticide-treated bed nets. To see up close how the UMC’s funding for the campaign was being used, Mauney traveled in January, 2007 to Zimbabwe and South Africa. The low-tech, demonstrably effective campaign appealed strongly to Mauney’s affinity for efficiency.

“You get a sense of how silly it is that some problems exist,” he says. “It costs $10 to buy a net, ship it to a village, teach someone how to use it, and save a life.”

Even as he continues taking on responsibilities within the UMC—he has been selected to lead the Desert Southwest delegation to the church’s 2008 General Conference—Mauney is further immersing himself in electoral politics. His newest role is as a campaign manager for a candidate in an upcoming Maricopa County contest.

“Right now, it’s my job to sit down and help the candidate with fundraising calls. I’m also working to be sure that volunteers get organized and asked to help, and that the research team and communications staff have what they need.”

Mauney doubts that he could have secured as rapid an entrance into political life if he hadn’t remained in Arizona for his undergraduate education. “Some of the experience I’ve been able to gain is a direct result of connections I’ve made through the Flinn Scholarship,” he says. “Further, the fact that ASU is part of the community, not insulated from the rest of the world, has given me the opportunity to be involved in local politics right away. And working with ASA, where I was representing 115,000 students—I don’t think there would have been any kind of similar chance elsewhere.”