Not long ago Jeff Beals was wrangling together a constitution for Iraq. These days, he is bringing order to a crowded classroom of students at the Woodstock Day School. Life has taken Beals, 40, on a winding path that most recently has brought him to a key role in this district’s grassroots movement and a possible run for congress.
Beals was stacking chairs in his classroom at the Day School two weeks ago, getting ready to meet his wife, who teaches kindergarten at the school, and pick up his two sons, who also attend. The shelves of his history classroom are crammed with mementos of a storied career: he graduated Harvard to become an intelligence officer at the CIA, a diplomat in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and later one of the longest-serving U.S. diplomats of the Iraq war.
Sitting on one of those shelves was a ceremonial sword given to him by Iraq’s vice president. As one of the only U.S. diplomats fluent in Arabic, Beals played a central role in setting up Iraq’s parliament and in mediating the drafting of its constitution throughout 2005. Beals traveled the length of the country, working for three separate ambassadors locating insurgents and brokering cease-fire talks that brought together generals, the U.S. ambassador, and militants for the first time. He was decorated by both the U.S. Army and the State Department for his achievements.
After the war, Beals came back with his wife to his farm in the Hudson Valley, which was built by his uncle and father when he was seven years old, to raise his family — and livestock. He worked in his family’s Thanksgiving turkey business, began speaking to student groups at schools and boys clubs, and eventually turned to teaching history full-time.
“I was part of a generation that thought we had won the Cold War, and only needed to fight for democracy overseas,” Beals said, “but I’ve come to believe it’s even more important to defend democracy here at home.”
Beals is a member of the Woodstock Democratic Committee, and has been working on the grassroots level since last November’s election, when he joined with Swing Left, a new national activist movement, to throw a gathering in Woodstock in March, with the aim of winning back the 19th district congressional seat in the 2018 elections. His meeting brought together 75 citizens from around the district. He has since worked with the group NY19Votes to stage two voter registration drives that stretched across the 19th.
“We had doors slammed in our faces in Saugerties while canvassing, but there were just as many people who were genuinely upset and had never before felt called to politics,” Beals said. “The work we are doing now is going to build the infrastructure we need to get out the vote in ways Democrats haven’t done before.”
Beals brings the political engagement to the classroom. While teaching a class on the U.S. Constitution this past fall, Beals turned the room into a campaign war room, bringing in organizers from both Zephyr Teachout’s and John Faso’s campaigns to make their case to his students. Several went on to work as canvassers and phone bankers in the congressional race.
Beals himself is still sought out by U.S. officials for his insights on Iraq, returning to the region with retired General Anthony Zinni as part of a commission to review the war effort in 2008 and more recently working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign foreign policy team. He has brought some of his Iraq contacts to his classroom as well, introducing students to a range of Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government and came to live in the states after the war.
One colleague from his days in the Middle East that he can’t bring back, however, is his lost friend Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died tragically in Benghazi and who was a colleague of Beals for two years in Jerusalem.
“We laughed a lot, had snowball fights in the Old City when a crazy blizzard passed through, and never stopped talking politics,” said Beals. “Chris’s beautiful life was overshadowed by the story of his passing.”
Those experiences in the Middle East were sobering, and they are on Beals’ mind as he watches developments here at home.
“I wish the things we were seeing in our politics now didn’t remind me of the Middle East, but they do,” Beals said, in his classroom. “People feel unheard in the halls of government, so they are taking to the streets to make themselves heard just like they did in Cairo. They’re facing a corrupt administration that gives key positions to family members, just like we’ve seen in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere. This groundswell of resistance is a sign of how deep our democracy is, but it’s also a sign of how dire things have gotten.”
Beals told me he is confident that the Hudson Valley is the place to launch a drive for a real change in our politics and a model for the country. He is now bringing his activism to another level, speaking at candidate forums around the district and starting up a congressional campaign that ties together activists and citizens across the district.
“We are going to do something the gerrymanderers never dreamed was possible,” says Beals. “We’re going to turn this sprawling district into a community.