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A lifelong student of politics

The University renowned policy professor started discussing politics with his dad at age 5 or 6.
Larry Jacobs lectures in his Presidential Leadership and American Democracy class Thursday evening in Blegen Hall.
Image by Bridget Bennett
Larry Jacobs lectures in his Presidential Leadership and American Democracy class Thursday evening in Blegen Hall.

Larry Jacobs’ “Super Bowl” is once every four years.

That’s election season for the political science professor at the University of Minnesota, who has spent the better part of his life immersed in politics.

Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, has had his work cited in the Star Tribune, The New York Times and nearly everything in between.

During election season, the renowned policy professor answers upwards of a couple dozen media calls per week for his analysis on political happenings.

“Starting in September, it was constant,” he said. “There were days when I’d be on all the major networks in Minnesota, television-wise.”

Jacobs has written multiple books, many of which are critically successful among academic circles.

The professor is also highly respected among his peers and the political community. He is credited with building up the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

An early love

Jacobs’s love of politics began at a young age.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in rural New York, Jacobs’ father encouraged him to think critically about politics, even as a child.

“Some people remember going fishing with their dad when they’re young,” he said. “I remember having political arguments with my dad.”

Jacobs said he was as young as 5 or 6 years old when the discussions started.

When he was 9 years old, Jacobs went to see Martin Luther King Jr. speak in New York City with his dad, an experience that has stuck with him to this day.

“There was a lot of fervor in the room,” he said.

From New York, he went to Oberlin College in Ohio. He wrestled and played football there and worked on the railroads to pay his way through college.

At Oberlin, Jacobs met his wife, Julie Schumacher, when he needed someone’s notes after missing an English class.

“We struck a deal where he had to do my laundry, and I would give him my notes,” Schumacher said.

Jacobs said his future wife didn’t trust him with her notes at first, so he had to sit outside her dorm copying them down.

While Jacobs followed his passion for politics, Schumacher stuck with English and is now the director of the creative writing program at the University.

Coming to Minnesota

After Oberlin, Jacobs attended Columbia University, where he received his doctorate. He applied for jobs at a variety of places before accepting a position at the University.

The dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the time, J. Brian Atwood, approached Jacobs about starting a new center — the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance — shortly after Jacobs arrived.

“The opportunity Atwood gave me was really the opportunity of a lifetime because it’s allowed me to build something that I think is unique in the country,” Jacobs said.

Included in that opportunity was the chance to work with former Vice President Walter Mondale, someone Jacobs said has influenced him greatly.

Mondale is “without question the most remarkable person I’ve ever gotten to know,” Jacobs said.

Mondale and Jacobs have taught classes together at the University, which Jacobs said has been the peak of his career.

Jacobs has worked with both sides of the political spectrum, and his ability to bring the two sides together is among his biggest strengths, said Steve Sviggum, former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Sviggum, a Republican, was asked by Jacobs to become a fellow and teach courses at the Humphrey School after he got out of politics.

“He has credibility on so many issues,” Sviggum said. “He reeks credibility.”

Part of that credibility stems from Jacobs’s work and research on health care policy.

Michele Kimball, director of AARP Minnesota, said her organization highly respects Jacobs’s work on health care.

“He’s well-respected, not just by myself and policymakers here in Minnesota but nationally as well,” she said.

David Schultz, a law professor at Hamline University, has worked with Jacobs in the past. Although the two have disagreed on topics — at times heatedly — Schultz said he and the academic community have tremendous respect for the professor.

“He’s probably one of the most astute political scientists in the state of Minnesota when it comes to understanding state politics,” Schultz said.

Jacobs is one of the reasons Timothy Callaghan decided to come to the University for graduate school. The political science doctoral candidate works with Jacobs as a research assistant.

“Larry was a prominent reason why I chose Minnesota over other programs I got into,” Callaghan said.

Real life

Jacobs said he doesn’t have much time for other hobbies apart from politics, although he does work out every day and loves to read.

Yet Jacobs said he thinks of politics as being a hobby as well as a job.

“To be honest, I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do,” he said. “To sit down and spend an hour-and-a-half with Vice President Mondale, and get paid for it, is remarkably rewarding.”

Schumacher said during election season, the yard of their St. Paul home is overrun by television reporters looking for comments.

“He was busy and exhausted during election season,” she said. “But that’s the kind of thing that makes him happy.”

Despite politics dominating Jacobs’s life for as long as he can remember, he and his wife said politics don’t come up in conversation at home as much as people would think.

Jacobs said coming to Minnesota was among the best things to ever happen to him. With the civic culture and hunger among people who disagree with each other to improve the state, he said he couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.

The state’s culture also aligned with Jacobs’s optimistic outlook on politics.

He said even when he was younger his hopefulness toward what the government could be was in stark contrast to his dad’s more “anti-establishment” views.

“He would always tell me, ‘when you get older you’ll see the world as I do,’ and I still don’t see it that way,” he said.

Political developments in recent years, including the nomination of the nation’s first black president, have further instilled optimism in Jacobs for where the country is headed.

“I honestly don’t think there is another democracy that would’ve elected a member of a minority to its most elevated position,” he said.


Jacobs has ambitious visions for what the Humphrey School could become. He said he’d like to see it top three in the nation in scholarship.

Regardless of where the school goes from here, Jacobs has had an impact on the public policy department at the University, said Doug Chapin, who worked with Jacobs on the Project for Excellence in Election Administration.

“Larry’s greatest impact on Humphrey has been bringing a familiarity with the political world and comfort with rigorous analysis of public problems to the school’s work,” he said in an email. “He is a rare and valuable bird in the field of public policy nationwide.”

For Jacobs, getting the chance to work with policymakers, experts and organizations has been an honor and a far cry from his humble beginnings.

“I’m the guy who grew up working his way through college on the railroads,” he said. “So to be at this spot, it’s just special.”

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