I’m 35 years old, grew up in North Carolina, live in Chelsea, I’ve been in New York for 3 years after stints in Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Colorado, and Washington. Went to UNC-CH undergrad and The Wharton School at UPenn for MBA. Single, no kids. Day job is a consulting practice doing venture strategy for political organizations.
You head the New York office of New Democrat Network. What is this organization all about and how did you get involved?
The New Democrat Network is exactly what its name implies - it’s a network of people dedicated to building a NEW, modern, vibrant, Democratic Party - one capable of competing effectively in the 21st century in order to take the growing Conservative movement head-on. We focus on four areas: new strategies, powerful messages, new leaders and new institutions. Our goal is build a new strong infrastructure that will make Democrats competitive in all parts of the country so we can become a winning Party once again.
In the messaging area, we did two broad based issue advocacy campaigns this year: The Hispanic Project, one of the most successful national media campaigns ever put together in politics that communicated our Democratic values and ideals to this important and growing constituency, and "The Restore the Promise of America” media campaign, which brought our message of hope and prosperity and a better America into non-traditional states for Democrats - like Alaska, Oklahoma and Colorado. In the leadership area, we started a young professionals group here in New York that now boasts about 200 members and have expanded it into San Francisco and LA. The focus is to educate the next generation of leaders about the most pressing issues facing the country - we host forums on various issues with top political and opinion leaders a couple of times a month.
We have also been very aggressive in promoting young elected Democrats - trying to find the next Bill Clinton if you will - and then nurturing and accelerating their careers through funding, training and networking.
The final area - the infrastructure piece - is one of the most important projects we worked on in 2003/2004. We nicknamed it "The Phoenix Project" because I happened to be reading Harry Potter at the time and thought the whole “rising from the ashes” theme was very appropriate. “The Phoenix Project” focused on a comprehensive study completed by Rob Stein, a former senior Clinton Administration official. Rob researched the financial data of the 80 leading multi-issue, tax deductible conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, media monitoring organizations, etc., which constitute what he calls the "Conservative Message Machine.” He aggregated their annual expenditures, analyzed functionally how the money is allocated, estimated the generic sources of their revenue, and uncovered a philanthropic "investment banking" arm comprised of several small groups and a handful of people who help to raise the Message Machine's $400 million annual operating budget. He compiled the data and developed a storyline, which is contained in an elaborate PowerPoint presentation. This presentation served as the basis for our discussions with leading progressive leading figures around the country - essentially how to compete against the massive propaganda machine built by Conservatives over the last 30 - 40 years.
Why do you think the Republicans have been so successful over the last eight years?
The Republicans have been successful over the last eight years because of the machine they have built over the last 30 years.
The current Chair of the DNC, Terry McAuliffe, is stepping down and a new chairman will be elected in February 2005. Given your background working at the DNC during Clinton's presidency, what is the role of chairman? How much influence does he/she have on the party?
Just like in any leadership position, the Chairman can have a lot of influence on the growth of the Party depending of course on what he/she chooses to do and how they choose to do it. Ultimately, the DNC is just a bunch of people who really care about their country. In order to lead you have to 1) earn respect, 2) develop and implement a comprehensive sensible vision and then 3) share the credit and 4) own the blame.
How does the election of DNC Chair work? Who votes? How can a concerned democrat have a say in the election?
There are 400+ DNC members who vote on the Chair (the list is on the NDN website www.newdem.org). It’s a mix of people, State Party Chairs, some elected officials, “at-large” members - a big mix. The best way to have a say is to 1) convince one of the voting members to vote for the person you want them to vote for or 2) give the candidate you like money so they can travel around the country and convince those 400+ people to vote for them.
Who do you believe are the top candidates for the Chairmanship and how do their platforms differ?
I will answer this by asking a question: Which of the candidates has best demonstrated a clear understanding of the challenges facing progressives and an ability to do something about it???? And incidentally I mean demonstrated this understanding BEFORE everyone else decided to get on the bus.
In my mind the biggest challenge facing Democrats is the lack of a comprehensive, competitive infrastructure capable of developing and promoting their ideas. The one person I know who understands this challenge and the others facing our party and has a vision and strategy to make Democrats a winning Party again - is Simon Rosenberg.
You started out working for Senator Terry Sanford, a democrat from North Carolina, who made a couple runs for the Democratic nomination for the presidency back in the 1970's and was deemed one of the most creative governors of the 20th Century by Harvard University. What were you doing for the Senator and what was the experience like?
It was my first “real” job so I didn’t have anything to compare it to (except for working on a dude ranch which come to think of it has some parallels to politics - only the rugged survive). Ultimately it was a platform to get me into politics which has turned out to be an incredibly rewarding career so it was great.
After six years out in the political trenches, you decided to go to business school. What motivated you to do this? Would you recommend it to others? What was the most valuable thing you learned?
I went to business school because I always felt that I was missing some critical skill. More than anything, Wharton gave me a new way to frame problems in order to develop a solution. I look at politics differently now. I approach organizational issues differently. I think it helped the Phoenix Project that Rob has a background in venture capital and that I came out of an MBA school as the project is essentially about creating a market for investing. Capital is drawn to transparency and ROI - that’s something most people in politics don’t think about.
How do you think the New Campaign Finance Laws have changed the nature of elections?
I don’t think the new laws have changed politics drastically, and I say this knowing everyone will disagree with me.
To what extent do you think the Hispanic vote impacts the future of the Democratic Party?
It’s one of the biggest marketing challenges in front of Democrats (and Republicans) - if you can own a significant chunk of this market, you will consistently win. Of course, one thing we learned from this past election cycle is that Hispanics are not monolithic and that you have to talk directly to them about the issues they care most about - and in their own language. If you approach this group with a broad brush, you by definition won’t reach them.
They are very much a swing group and should not be considered a base for Democrats. Bush proved that point effectively by putting together a very aggressive and successful media/marketing campaign designed to appeal to Hispanics and the reality is that it had a positive impact on how Hispanics view this President. NDN through its Hispanic Project national media campaign proved how critical this swing vote is to Democrats and how we cannot allow Republicans to make further inroads with Latinos - NDN was really the only organization that understood the complexities of Hispanics and had an on-going dialogue with the community for most of 2004.
Who are your political heroes?
Bob Kerrey because he doesn’t care what a person is; he cares who a person is.
Erskine Bowles who would have been one of the most effective Senators in history, if only the citizen’s of my home state had chosen to elect him. The fact they didn’t is one of the many reasons I live in New York.
What's your dream job?
My dream job is not radically different than what I’m doing now. I am deeply passionate about this country, our government and our collective ability to do such an amazing amount of good in the world. That is, if we choose to do so - if we choose to elect the right people, if we care about the right issues. 12 million children in this country don’t have health insurance and if every single one of us got up every day caring about that, soon 12 million children would have health insurance - it’s frankly criminal that they don’t. And I feel like in my small way, I do what I can to change that and other issues like it which is incredibly rewarding (albeit periodically incredibly frustrating).
Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York" or "God damn, I'm glad I live in this city."
I can have four available cabs drive right past me when it’s pouring down rain and I will still say “I’m glad I live in this city.” (You think I’m kidding.)
Since this is the "city that never sleeps", tell us a good 3am story.
You're in a time machine that can take you back in time. What day in NYC history would you go back to?
Tomorrow - the very best days are ahead of us (and yes, I am aware of how trite that sounds). This is one of the major problems I have with Republicans - their belief system is structured around fear. They want to revert to a time that has passed, a time that had significantly more problems than anyone is willing to acknowledge, one that we cannot and should not want to reclaim.
What source(s) do you turn to for news?
The NY Times, the Economist, the New Yorker
What advice would you give Bush as he embarks on his second term?
I think you want this question to be kind of cute, but it’s actually a very serious issue. Here’s the answer - he’s not going to take anyone’s advice, and certainly not going to take the advice of someone who disagrees with him. That is his biggest problem, - the strongest leaders are those who surround themselves with the smartest people they can find who disagree with them on some issues. He doesn’t do that. He has proven to be constitutionally incapable of listening and whatever gratuitous nonsense he wants to espouse about “working across the aisle” is designed specifically and only to fool those people who aren’t paying attention.
If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?
How did You feel on the Seventh Day knowing that you gave Man dominion over the world you had just created? Were you secure, peaceful with this knowledge or did You weep?
Interview by Mindy Bond