Max Levy has more authenticity in his smile than most politicians have in their pinky fingers. It’s the kind of smile you don’t see too often, overflowing with goodwill and charisma. It widens more when he talks about others than it does when he talks about himself.
“I’m a walking cliché,” jokes the former president of Penn Democrats, running a hand through his neat brown hair. That's obviously false. Max, who is finishing up his communications degree with a concentration in public service this spring, is an accomplished, driven political powerhouse. Since coming to college, he’s interned at the Center for American Progress, at the White House and with the 2016 Democratic National Convention. He even took a semester off this past fall to work on the Hillary campaign.
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Though part of his passion lies in his genuine desire to help people, Max traces the inspiration driving him into politics back to the 1960s. After they met as undergraduates at Penn, Max’s Philadelphia–born grandparents eventually landed in Montgomery, Alabama. His grandmother worked as a teacher, but his grandfather became heavily invested in civil rights work.
“My grandpa’s a rabbi,” explains Max. “He worked to integrate the clerical societies in Montgomery. Then my mom was born, and they just went ahead and raised a Jewish family in Montgomery in the 60s.”
His family has remained in the South ever since. Max, who grew up in Atlanta, looks to his grandfather as his biggest role model. “My grandpa is one of my heroes,” says Max. “The way he looks at life, the work he’s done and the way he’s always dedicated himself to doing such good…His optimism and faith in people really inspires me.”
In Max’s freshman fall, he took an introductory communications class and was sold. He speaks highly of the classes he’s taken in the department, and considers himself lucky that the major and political concentration he’s taken on have been so well matched with his interests. “When I got to Penn, I thought I was going to be PPE.,” adds Max. “But I took a philosophy class my very first semester and I HATED it.” Although he’d entertained with the idea of becoming a writer, he explains, he found that he was more interested in “the political process, the world of Democratic politics and that as a way to make change.”
The credit for his political fervor, however, is only partially owed to the intellectual hub of Annenberg. Outside of the classroom, the pinnacle of Max’s time in Philadelphia has unequivocally been his involvement with Penn Democrats, or Penn Dems for short.
“Max followed Penn Dems on Twitter even before getting into Penn,” says Jana Korn (C‘18), Max’s good friend and Penn Dems presidential successor. “There was never really any doubt that he would end up making Dems his life.”
Max agrees, though his involvement on campus spreads far and wide. He has been the Executive Vice President of Class Board 2017 since his freshman year, spent two years on the Executive Board of Phi Psi and, in whatever free time he can scrounge, does graphic design for The Punchbowl, Penn’s semesterly satirical magazine that dates back to 1899.
Penn Dems, however, has remained his constant priority in his college career. He made a beeline for Dems at the Fall Activities Fair his freshman year and joined their deputy board soon after. “We immediately started working on things,” recalls Max. “We did some canvassing out in West Philly for Obamacare enrollment, and it was that kind of solid action that really sold me on Dems so quickly. I knew that this was the group that really cared about progressive politics.”
When his second semester at Penn approached, Max became the Communications Director for Penn Dems. As he assisted with significant organizational changes within the club over the next two years, he slowly moved up the ranks. After a year as Vice President, Max took over Penn Dems as President at the end of the Fall 2015 semester. He jokes about his term, cut short by his work on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, referring to last spring as his “one semester of fame.” His first mission was to encourage as many Penn students as possible to vote in the presidential primaries.
Former Penn Dems Outreach Director Hannah Fagin (C’17) counts Max’s presidency as the highlight of her time with Penn Dems. Of all of the Penn Dems boards she’s seen, she says, “Our board was the closest. Max made a huge effort to bring us closer together.”
As the presidential election ramped up, so did Max’s involvement in it. He spent last summer in Philadelphia working for the Democratic National Convention. “The days of the DNC, I worked the longest hours I’ve ever worked,” says Max. “But I loved every minute of it.”
Toward the start of the summer, Max had applied for and accepted a fall position as a Campus Organizer with the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, at the encouragement of a fellow former White House intern. Though he’d initially brushed the idea of taking a leave of absence aside, he gradually became more open to the idea. When he got the good news that he was being offered the opportunity to work with Hillary Clinton’s campaign full–time, Max was faced with a tough decision.
Working on the campaign would mean missing the first half of his senior year, and the second half of his Dems presidency. It would mean passing up the opportunity to write the senior thesis required for his major, the idea for which he’d come up with years earlier. Most upsetting for Max, however, was that it would mean missing the opportunity to engage as intimately during the election season with Penn’s campus, where his political involvement had always meant the most to him.
Professor David Eisenhower, who runs the political communications program at Penn and has been Max’s advisor since his sophomore year, recalls talking with Max as he grappled with the decision to take time off. “I said, ‘Absolutely do this, this is service, it will connect you to national affairs, to political affairs, to whatever you do professionally in this area in a way that three years at Penn could never do,’” recalls Eisenhower.
From August 8th to November 8th, Max spent 92 days straight working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign—no days off, no weekends, and, according to Hannah, longer hours than Max’s humility will allow him to admit.
“I was worried that, mentally, it wouldn’t be that healthy for me to be working for that long,” recalls Max. “But to know now that there physically were not more hours in the day that we could have given—to know that there weren’t any hours I spent doing anything other than making sure that Hillary could be our next president—was really good for me during the election.”
Max’s friends on campus were thrilled and proud to see the long hours he put in at the campaign, and not at all surprised that he barely stopped for breath. “I think he worked at least 12 hour days,” says Hannah. “His drive is incredible.” Jana, who was president of Penn Dems during the election, notes that despite Max’s dedication to his work, “He never abandoned Penn Democrats…never failing to act as a support system. Ever since I’ve known him, he has put aside his personal stress and anxiety to be a support system for the people around him.”
Max’s tireless drive and good–willed motivation, praised by his friends and professors alike, paid off most concretely during his time as a Campus Organizer for Penn. On Election Day, polling locations on campus saw a 20% increase in voter turnout from their 2012 numbers. Despite the result of the election, Max counts this uptick as a sign that he did all that he could do—and for now, he’s willing to make peace with that.
Since arriving back to campus as a student, Max has never once regretted his semester off. What has surprised Professor Eisenhower has been the dedication with which Max has continued to approach his academics. With Professor Eisenhower, Max is now working on a semester–long analysis of President Obama’s speeches. The project will serve as a stand–in for the senior thesis Max was unable to write. “Max has been unusual in the sense that he seems to really value the program here,” boasts Eisenhower. “He’s entirely focused on completing Penn and getting the maximum out of the spring semester, despite the large movements he’s just spent so much time working on...I don’t think there’s much that Max can’t do.”
Those who know Max predict that his kindness, care and humility will be his biggest assets in his future. Jana is the least humble when it comes to her friend. “I am certain,” she states, “that someday, there will be Penn Dems knocking on doors for his campaign.”
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