Letter to a Young Candidate

Dear young candidate, A few years back I, too, was a hardworking, idealistic college student who, like many politically active students, thought I might run for office one day. Friends of mine would join me to discuss politics as I tended bar after class at the West End (now Havana Central). We talked about political races the way most people discussed football stats. To us, watching Meet the Press on Sunday mornings was as exciting as Monday night football (well, almost as exciting). The idea of running for office one day was something we all dreamed about. I know now it is very different from what we pictured. I had the unique experience of running for the New York State Senate only one year after leaving college. Amazing as it was, the experience came with its share of ups and downs. I’m writing this letter to you—the new young idealist whose turn it is to ponder entering politics—to share some of that experience.

Four years of campaigning have given me almost a lifetime of good, bad, and just plain wild experiences. I’ve met Presidents Clinton and Obama. I’ve been accused of cheating on my wife (even though I’ve never been married). I’ve received support from Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin. Once I even sang “Love Shack” at a karaoke bar to raise money for my campaign. There’s nothing quite like politics.

I’m not a state senator today, but what I gained from my candidacy is invaluable. Grateful as I am for my education, I learned more as a grassroots candidate than any class or campaign internship could teach me. I won a party primary against a popular local politician and a wealthy businessman. I also lost to a longtime incumbent state senator—twice. But I’ve learned from all of it.

There’s a lot that can be improved in our political system. The best thing that can be done to improve it is to bring young idealists like you into the fold. I’m writing this letter hoping to help you navigate the road to running for office. I don’t have all the answers (or I’d be writing you from Albany!), but perhaps I can provide you with some insight. As a matter of full disclosure, I am a Democrat—but regardless of political affiliation, I hope this letter is helpful to any hardworking young person interested in public service.

MONEY I’m reluctant to say so, but money must be the first topic I address. All of the mailings, radio spots, TV commercials (in some races)—everything to get your message to voters must be paid for. When I first discussed a possible run with my friends as a student, we simply had no idea how much of a role money plays in politics. We shared certain conceptions about campaigning—meeting voters, debating opponents on the issues, getting good stories into the press, you name it. Early on when a campaign veteran told me I needed a serious emphasis on fundraising to pay for mass mailings, I naively dismissed his suggestion, telling him I would knock on doors to really get my message out. “Well Jim,” he responded. “Let’s do the math. Say you want to target about 35,000 homes. You’ve got 4 months until Election Day. If you walk almost every day that means you’ve got to target close to 300 houses a day. Good luck with that.”

The incumbent State Senator I was running against had started with over $100,000. I had over $100,000, too—in student loan debt. So I had to get to work.

The basic method of raising money is “dialing for dollars.” You, the candidate, must personally call friends, family, contacts, and donors to other, established politicians, many of whom you don’t personally know, to ask for money. I certainly don’t come from a wealthy background, so the idea of asking people for their hard-earned money couldn’t have been more counter-intuitive. Family and friends certainly weren’t used to being solicited either – so you can imagine how awkward that was. I remember thinking “I know this call isn’t fun for you. I wish you knew how much worse it feels to me on the other end!”

My first attempts at making these calls were nerve-wracking, but like everything else in life, practice makes perfect. Along the way, I gained quite a few stories for the grandkids. You’re supposed to call everyone you possibly can—including (and some say especially) family. Asking family was toughest for me. I remember calling one notoriously temperamental family member (who MUST remain nameless for fear of death). Knowing how stormy she could be, I was cringing as my assistant dialed the number. I asked myself, “What’s the worst that could happen? She’ll just say no.” I ended up getting a harsh lecture about how horrible a person I was to ask any family member for a donation. Although you sometimes get a nasty response (even from family members), most rejections tend to go much more smoothly.

Eventually I had a breakthrough. My new fundraising director taught me to change my very approach to fundraising. Instead of “begging” for money, I was going to share my energy with potential donors. Calls were still nerve racking; I remember him mouthing suggestions as I pumped a potential donor up over the phone, peppering them with recent campaign accomplishments, describing our shared values—leading right up to the ask: “I would be so grateful if you could support our campaign with a contribution of X dollars, so we can make this happen.” The pause between the end of my pitch and the person’s response often felt like an eternity. But, over time, positive responses dramatically increased in frequency.

My new fundraising consultant actually made dialing for dollars fun (well, almost). I’d pump myself up to make calls and he’d cheerlead—mouthing words of encouragement, pantomiming boxing moves, even telling jokes—anything in the background to keep me upbeat.

All of this emphasis on fundraising may, frankly, sound absurd to you. But, as one Senator memorably encouraged me: “You’ve got to raise more money—no more of the fun stuff—no knocking on doors, no press events, no meeting voters. Not until you raise more money.” This particular senator’s version of “tough love” was harsh, perhaps, but it was purposeful—he knew this was the only way I could win.

THE INTERNET The incumbent senator I was running against, Caesar Trunzo, was about 80 years old—I, on the other hand, was 25 at the time. Trunzo could raise money the traditional way from special interest groups and PACS at a ferocious clip. My opponent collected high-dollar checks, while I ended up raising smaller amounts from a wider group of newer donors that added up. The internet, however, did allow me to reach friends from student council in college, graduate school—even as far back as kindergarten. If I didn’t have an email address or phone number I mined data from Facebook, Myspace and other social networking sites.

While the internet tool won’t replace the traditional paper invitations that go out for fundraisers (yet), the efficiency is amazing. With a solid website and the ability to send mass emails you can ask for money and volunteers, as well as update supporters at the click of a mouse. Your campaign, which should always look to spend cash efficiently, can save enormous sums of money. And turnaround time is far quicker than “snail mail” or even waiting on calls. You’ll know who’s attending your events or coming down to volunteer as soon as they call or email you back.

Time and time again, my campaign used the internet to find ways around disadvantages. Early on in my campaign I had many avid volunteers but I didn’t have the resources for a phone bank so they could call voters. So I had an idea. They could get together at one supporter’s house or on their own and call friends from their cell phones. It was 2004, and just about everybody had a cell phone. So we emailed excel sheets of numbers to individuals and groups to call through on their cell phones. We called it “Donate your minutes for Dahroug.” Apparently we were onto something: Four years later the major presidential campaigns were using the concept to have supporters call voters from lists and scripts they could download onto their home computers!

Use of the internet helped my campaign win a major endorsement. In 2004, just as I began campaigning, former Presidential candidate Howard Dean announced a campaign to support a farm team of grassroots candidates across the country. Every few weeks Dean and his group Democracy for America (DFA) would select twelve candidates from thousands of applicants across the country. The “Dean Dozen” as they were called, were a diverse group of socially progressive and fiscally responsible candidates running for anything from Governor to School board. Barack Obama, then a U.S. Senate candidate, was selected in the first group of candidates. Each selected candidate received Dean’s endorsement, a generous contribution, and perhaps most valuably, an email blast touting their campaign to Dean’s supporters across the country, asking them to donate and volunteer. Our prospects seemed dim because by mid-summer DFA was only going to announce one final round of winners—and there were thousands of candidates across the country still applying. So I used the internet again, emailing everyone from politicians who endorsed me, former Dean volunteers, to friends from grade school asking them to send in emails to the contest on my behalf.

The aggressive courtship and the personal touch paid off and our campaign was selected. Our shoestring campaign for the state Senate was suddenly receiving small donations from across the state and even the country. I remember one rough morning checking my emails and seeing we received $500 from someone on the upper east side of Manhattan—my morning suddenly got a lot better.

YOUR VISION Candidates owe it to themselves and to voters to be true to themselves. Now, I’m not suggesting you be tactless, or uncouth, but you can respectfully tell the truth. Speaking of the truth, most candidates don’t give voters enough credit. It’s been my experience that voters know they may disagree with you on some things and will still vote for you anyway.

I’ve had plenty of loyal supporters who disagree with me on some things. They liked the fact that I respected them enough to tell them the truth about what I believed. And they would rather elect someone who would do what he thought was right (even if they disagreed) than what was politically beneficial. I once encountered a voter while I was campaigning who said “I’m a hard-core conservative but I’m voting for you—and you’re the first Democrat I’ll vote for.” His reasoning? The man liked the fact that I was independent from my party on spending and wanted term limits. But more important to him, I owned up to our differences when he asked me.

Despite the fact that they get a bad rap, consultants serve a valuable purpose for most campaigns to get their message out. To me this is what it comes down to: bad consultants try to change who a candidate is and what they stand for. Good consultants stay true to their candidate. They build a campaign around who he or she is, what he or she is, and promote his or her strengths. But, at the end of the day, final decisions are your responsibility. You have veto power and sometimes you’ve got to use it. And you’ve got to make the final call even if they don’t always agree.

My biggest regrets were the few times I didn’t go with my better instincts. One evening, a consultant and I were preparing a solicitation email to go out to our email list the next morning. Our pitch to donors was that if I was elected, we could put an end to 40 years of Republican rule. The email was written almost to perfection. All we needed was an eye-catching subject line to ensure people opened it. An advisor of mine was certain he had the perfect subject line: “A world without Joe Bruno…” Joe Bruno was the Republican Majority Leader.

Something about it just didn’t feel right to me. For starters, it just didn’t seem like my style. I could be aggressive against opponents but it was usually with a more civil tone. But it was a long day—and a long week. I was exhausted and just wanted to get it done so I could finally get some sleep. Besides, my advisor was dead certain it would get attention.

My advisor couldn’t be more right. Senate Majority Leader Bruno’s wife had just passed away that week. I was so busy I only found out from a friend after he received the mass email! Needless to say, I was mortified. The damage was not as bad as we thought. Luckily, many people understood it was an honest mistake.

But it just reinforced my conviction that candidates need to listen to their gut. My advisor was actually doing his job; he thought it was a good idea at the time and argued for what he thought was best for the campaign. The trouble was that I didn’t do my job because I didn’t listen to my intuition.

With the fervid fundraising, the high-pressure, win at all costs atmosphere, and the relentless demands on your time and well-being, it’s easy for a candidate to lose sight of what’s important. Stay true to yourself, trust your instincts. Keep the passion that inspired you to run for office in the first place. Keep your core values. You can lose a race. If you lose your sense of self, you lose everything that’s important.

Good luck, Jimmy Dahroug