John Balduzzi, 31, Democrat
Political Director, Kennedy Communications
Growing up in Syracuse, New York, John Balduzzi knows what it’s like to campaign in tough conditions. At the age of seven, he was traversing town on his bike to put up lawn signs for Gov. Mario Cuomo—no easy feat given upstate New York’s fall weather. Balduzzi’s New York connections run deep. After graduating from Ithaca College, it wasn’t long before he returned to the state as deputy political director for SEIU Local 200 and then as campaign manager for Rep. Dan Maffei’s 2006 race. In between he earned his stripes working under Terry McAuliffe at the DNC as a research associate and then on Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign. It was in those roles that Balduzzi learned the art of opposition research—he’s since served as lead research consultant for more than two dozen winning House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. “With the growth of new media, it seems like everyone is an opposition researcher,” he says. “Traditional
oppo is starting to cease to exist, but people need to realize that it’s still incredibly important.”
Fast forward to 2006 when Balduzzi took Dan Maffei from long-shot to contender in about six months time. “We were in the middle of central New York and not many people were talking about us,” Balduzzi recalls. “We knew the district was a Democratic district, but no one really believed us. That changed pretty quickly.” By September the race was one of the DCCC’s top targets. Maffei ended up losing a squeaker, but the close race paved the way for Maffei’s 2008 victory.
Now, as political director at the direct mail giant Kennedy Communications, Balduzzi has a full slate of clients on tap for 2010. An early success was Rep. Joe Sestak’s primary win over Sen. Arlen Specter last month.
Jennifer Bethel, 29, Democrat
Art Director, Goddard Claussen
As art director at an issue advocacy shop, Jennifer Bethel doesn’t fit into the traditional mold of a campaign consultant. She doesn’t raise money, act as a general strategist or lead field operations. What she does do is win. Since she joined Goddard Claussen four years ago, her team has won 94 percent of the campaigns on which she has designed materials.
What’s more impressive is that Bethel is nearly blind. That’s right, one of the most successful art directors in the business has a hard time seeing her oversized monitor. To Bethel, who has suffered from ocular albinism since she was born, her poor eyesight has made her a better designer. “I do believe it has made me a much better advocacy artist,” she says. “I use it to help me see differently and clearly and concisely deliver a message. I need to see things really big and bold. I see colors very strongly, and I’m able to really deliver a message.”
Bethel was always interested in design and recalls painting and drawing as a child. She was drawn to graphic design by early propaganda posters. “I liked the idea that you could educate people with design,” she says. She got her start in issue advocacy at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she worked on a campaign to educate local students on the negative effects of smoking.
Recently, Bethel designed the literature of the successful “Fed Up With Taxes? Yes! on 1” ballot initiative campaign in Maine.
Aaron Beytin, 32, Democrat
President, The Beytin Agency
To hear what kind of political consultant Aaron Beytin is, one needs only to mention his name to Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). “Aaron is one of the finest political consultants in the business,” Jackson says.
“I have watched polling numbers change as a result of Aaron’s persuasion mail,” Jackson, who has worked with Beytin for more than 10 years, adds. “I can’t say enough about Aaron’s unique skills,” Jackson goes on. “Aaron comes from a very unique category of comprehensive campaign consultants—he is capable of running the entire campaign.”
“There is no battle I would enter without Aaron Beytin,” Jackson concludes. And that’s only part of what the congressman had to say.
Beytin is probably best known for the eight years he spent at Kennedy Communications. Beytin linked up with Andrew Kennedy when he was forming the firm and was the shop’s first direct mail employee. Beytin says he was attracted to direct mail because he believes it remains a campaign’s most important tool.
“Direct mail always struck me as the medium that most campaigns truly use as their communications,” he says. “It’s a very interesting medium—it really allows you to target voters in a way that other mediums can’t.”
He decided this year to start his own firm to try new things in direct mail. He already has more than twenty clients and says he often prefers the local races no one has heard of. “I’ve worked with some big names, but the smaller names that aren’t necessarily household names, is really where I’ve learned lessons,” he says.
Michael Bronstein, 30, Democrat
President, Bronstein & Weaver
In Michael Bronstein’s office hangs a monument to his direct mail firm’s modest beginnings. The back of a large cardboard box is prominently displayed in a bright pink frame. On the box are the names of dozens of local candidates that Bronstein and his business partner, Matt Weaver, cold-called in an attempt to drum up work. While starting their firm out of “the basement of my parents’ house,” the cardboard box served as their whiteboard. “We started out with no contacts and no political connections in-state, so we just picked up the phone and started calling people,” Bronstein says. “I realize now how completely insane that sounds.”
A graduate of Cornell University and then a Hansard Scholar at the London School of Economics, Bronstein had four years of work in British politics under his belt when he decided to return to the U.S. Bronstein founded Bronstein & Weaver in 2006, and began turning those names on the back of a cardboard box into paying clients. The firm’s mail won recognition during the bruising reelection of state Rep. Tony Payton, Jr. Last year, Bronstein & Weaver made PoliticsPA’s list of the top ten political consultants in the state.
Toby Chaudhuri, 33, Democrat
If you’re running a progressive campaign, Toby Chaudhuri is probably the person you want crafting your message. Chaudhuri just joined forces this year with Scott Goodstein to form Revolution Messaging, a new firm specializing in mobile communications, social media and lifestyle marketing. As a principal at the political technology firm, Chaudhuri works primarily with labor and progressive organizations developing communications strategies. He has managed more than $50 million in state and federal campaigns, directed media relations for five major annual political conventions to “Take Back America,” and performed specialty media outreach for the 2004 and 2008 Democratic National Conventions. Chaudhuri has also served as spokesman and media strategist for Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund. During the 2006 and 2008 election cycles he headed up communications for the Campaign for America’s Future, the progressive policy research institute.
Describing his approach to the business is easy for Chaudhuri. He says the sign above his desk says it all: “If you’re not winning, you’re losing. If you’re not defining yourselves, your opponents are defining you.”
Nick Gourevitch, 29, Democrat
Vice President, Global Strategy Group
Part political junkie, part computer programming guru, Nick Gourevitch may represent the future of polling. Since joining Global Strategy Group in 2004, Gourevitch has both changed the way polling data is collected and analyzed through his software and become a leading strategic mind in Democratic software development.
Gourevitch has developed online polling software as well as his own tab program for data processing. All of this, he says, has helped give Global Strategy Group an edge. “It definitely speeds things up,” he says. “When I first started here, it was pretty slow to just get the top line out. Now we can run polls, get things out that night and be much more timely for our clients.”
The software also helps the firm supplement data collected over the phone with its own voter databases, which allows it to be more accurate. “There’s a lot of polling out there these days,” Gourevitch says. “The advantages institutional pollsters have is that we can better spot when there is a flaw.”
Currently, Gourevitch’s clients include the DCCC, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a handful of Democrats in New York’s House delegation as well as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). He also worked on Rep. Bill Owens’ special election win in upstate New York last year.
Jef Pollock, the firm’s president and a former Rising Star, says Gourevitch has been pivotal to the group’s success. “He does absolutely everything right,” Pollock says. “He is one of the best people I have ever had the opportunity to work with. In a relatively short amount of time, he’s had a tremendous impact on the campaigns we work on and on the firm.”
Tom Jensen, 26, Democrat
Director, Public Policy Polling
The intersection of politics and numbers was something Tom Jensen was already working to master as a high school student in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After surveying the town’s electoral landscape, he started introducing local school board candidates to a more analytical way to plot and run their races. “It was really just trying to convince them to do things in a more sophisticated way,” says Jensen. “We ended up knocking out a bunch of incumbents.” Shortly after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2006, Jensen landed a job at Public Policy Polling and started helping build the company from a small in-state firm to a nationally known public pollster.
Although some in the political world like to deride so-called “robo-pollsters” as less than thorough with their methodology, PPP has succeeded in carving out a reputation as one of the country’s most accurate. PPP was the first public pollster to show now-Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) ahead of Democrat Martha Coakley in January’s special election. It also predicted Brown’s 5-point win right on the number. During the ’08 cycle, PPP was recognized by the Wall Street Journal as one of the two most accurate swing state pollsters in the country.
“He’s adding credibility and professionalism to a new wing of polling,” says media consultant Saul Shorr. “There are some people who question auto dialing. But the bottom line is that he’s got a record of good numbers, good insight and good analysis.” Jensen says PPP has worked with a handful of more traditional live interview pollsters in recent months, supplementing some of their work with automated polling. “It took us years to be
taken seriously and demonstrate that we know what we’re doing,” says Jensen. “Transparency is really the most important thing. Pollsters should release crosstabs, demographic composition and the full text of the survey.”
PPP’s campaign business is also expanding for the 2010 cycle. The company is working for two U.S. Senate campaigns, as well as a handful of members of Congress and some third party independent expenditure groups.
Tharon Johnson, 31, Democrat
Campaign Manager, Kasim Reed for Mayor
Tharon Johnson began the toughest campaign of his young political career in an unenviable position: His candidate was polling at 3 percent in a five-way race. Johnson had left a Congressional job that’s about as safe as they come—district director for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)—to join Kasim Reed’s campaign for mayor of Atlanta in April of 2009. It was far from the first campaign challenge that Johnson, who got his start in politics campaigning on the streets of Athens, Georgia at the age of four, faced. Johnson was Rep. John Barrow’s (D-Ga.) deputy campaign manger and field director in 2004. Barrow squeaked out a win with 52 percent of the vote in one of the country’s closest races.
“In the mayor’s race, we knew right away that we had to do some things to raise our profile and show that we could be competitive,” says Johnson. Despite having a longtime state Senator as a candidate, Reed’s name recognition was still fairly low. So the campaign was out of the gate first with radio ads, more than 120 days before the election.
They followed that with a massive field and canvassing program and made it to a runoff
with City Councilwoman Mary Norwood. The run-off put a spotlight on issues of class and race, with the national media focusing on the possibility that Atlanta stood to elect its first white mayor since 1974. Reed’s campaign ramped up turnout efforts for the December runoff and, despite having to endure a recount, won by 714 votes. “We did something in that race that I bet has never been done before,” says Johnson. “We turned out more people in the runoff election than we turned out in the general. And we had a 30 plus percent increase in African-American turnout in the runoff.”
Johnson was named 2010 Campaign Manager of the Year by the American Association of Political Consultants and became a senior advisor to Reed. “When I think about his leadership of my campaign, I think calmness and strength,” says the mayor. “We had what we thought was a very good campaign plan, but it required a strong stomach to stick with it.”
Clark Lee, 28, Democrat
Political Director, Los Angeles County Democratic Party
To those who have worked with him, Clark Lee represents the future of political operatives. To those who haven’t, Lee is perhaps best known for his chicken suit.
Lee was one of two College Democrats who shadowed Arnold Schwarzenegger during his 2003 gubernatorial run to show that Schwarzenegger was a “debate chicken.” Lee and his co-chicken were rewarded with an article on the front page of the New York Times, but his mom asked only “when am I going to get a real job,” Lee recalls.
Since then, Lee has become a leading operative in California, especially when it comes to Asian-American field operations. He has become the youngest member of the California Democratic Party Executive Board and handled Asian-American outreach in the Golden State for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid.
Lee recently managed Rep. Judy Chu’s special election victory. Chu faced a well-funded opponent in an East Los Angeles district that included large white, Hispanic and Asian-American populations. Lee, who speaks English, Mandarin and Spanish, proved to be the perfect person for the job.
Chu’s campaign faced one big challenge: On the ballot Chu appeared right next to Betty Chu, a cousin who presented a significant name ID challenge. “In English, we just tell people to vote for Judy,” says Lee, “In Chinese, both Betty and Judy’s names have three Chinese characters. Two of them are the same. The one that is different for Judy, it means heart.”
So Lee sent all of his targeted Chinese voters mail with a huge heart on it. It worked, and Chu’s base delivered her a significant victory. Chu’s husband, California Assemblyman
Mike Eng, has also worked with Lee and says he is the prototype for the next generation of political operatives. “Clark represents the future in terms of his ability to bridge the gap between disparate communities,” he says.
“And,” he adds, “he is someone who is incredibly upbeat, always positive and friendly to his coworkers.”
Toby McGrath, 34, Democrat
Political Director, Maine Street Solutions
Toby McGrath practically grew up in Massachusetts politics. His mother worked for Sen. John Kerry, so McGrath was schooled in door-to-door politicking at a young age. Still, McGrath didn’t graduate college with the intention of going into professional politics. After college, McGrath found himself in Los Angeles working at the Santa Monica Film Festival before being lured back to campaigns in his home state. His first campaign was with a staff of three in a district attorney’s race—and was a losing effort. “The good news is, I haven’t lost since then,” says McGrath.
He headed up to Maine and ran a handful of successful races for state representative, moving to serve as chief of staff to the speaker of the state House. During his time in the speaker’s office, McGrath spearheaded an effort to allow voters to request absentee ballots electronically—Maine’s 2008 election was the first anywhere in the country where voters could request the ballots over the Internet. It was one of the first in a series of achievements for McGrath in Maine, including helping President Obama to an 18-point win in the state while working as Obama For America’s Maine campaign manager.
Now as political director at Maine Street Solutions, what many point to as most impressive is McGrath’s successful referendum campaigns—he oversaw the defeat of a taxpayer bill of rights referendum and an excise tax cut initiative, while practically moving mountains to do it. On the taxpayer rights referendum, “We were down 27 points in September and ended up winning by 20 points on Election Day,” McGrath recalls. The campaign against the excise tax measure also started with a similar polling deficit. Says Mike Saxl, managing principal at Maine Street, “Toby has shown that you can live anywhere in the country and still do national level political consulting.”
Reed Millar, 32, Democrat
Senior Project Manager, Grassroots Solutions
Reed Millar’s interest in politics and advocacy campaigns stem from his childhood. Born and raised outside Reading, Pennsylvania, Millar’s parents were activists in the 1970s. Of the things he remembers from his childhood, attending rallies and marches and enjoying the outdoors top the list.
It makes sense, then, that Millar has gone on to become a leading voice among environmental groups. Now at Grassroots Solutions, Millar works with the Sierra Club, the Alliance for Climate Protection and the Energy Action Coalition.
“Environmental issues have been central to what inspires me in politics,” he says. “It was among the issues that my parents were passionate about when I was a little kid. Our house was in the country so I spent a lot of my youth out in nature, hiking, capturing wildlife.”
Millar has unique skills as a consultant, says Cathy Duvall, the Sierra Club’s political director. “He brings a great mix of sophisticated tactics and scrappy solutions,” she says. “Whether it’s from how do you get something seemingly impossible to happen tomorrow, to what’s the best organizing model, Reed brings the whole range. And it’s tempered with a very dry sense of humor.”
At Grassroots Solutions, Millar has helped professionalize field operations—a typically ragtag part of the industry. “Perhaps the biggest frustration of being out in the field is you didn’t feel like you have much support,” he says. “One of the things that drew me to Grassroots Solutions is they were really committed to having the resources needed.”
Tammy Palmer, 29, Democrat
Senior Strategist, The Tyson Organization
Tammy Palmer’s work on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection campaign last year is probably the best example of a girl from the heartland working on big city race you’re ever going to find. After heading up a robust data collection program for Bloomberg, Palmer, who is from Oklahoma City, probably knows more about the Big Apple than New Yorkers who have spent their entire lives in the city.
Palmer is based in Fort Worth, Texas, the home of the Tyson Organization. For Bloomberg, she was charged with writing all the phone scripts and collecting all the data for the campaign’s extensive microtargeting program, which was done by Ken Strasma of Strategic Telemetry. The project, Strasma says, “involved over a dozen models, in
which almost 200,000 ID calls were completed over a 40-week period.”
With Palmer’s help, Strasma adds, “We were able to plan strategy weeks in advance while maintaining tight control on spending with no sacrifice in getting quality data.”
Palmer joked that the campaign was “a long couple of months,” but that she learned a lot from the experience. “When you have a chance to do something over that long period of time,” she says, “you can really manage the quality control.”
When she isn’t poring over data, Palmer enjoys classical music and has previously worked for the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. She notes, though, that everyone in her family is a musician but her. “That sort of skipped me,” she says, “but I still love it.”
Joe Rospars, 29, Democrat
Founding Partner and Creative Director, Blue State Digital
Joe Rospars’ life took a significant turn in the summer of 2003. Rospars was visiting home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., from Sweden where he was teaching English. He had been writing a blog and conversing with the likes of Ezra Klein about the nascent presidential campaign of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D). Rospars heard there was a bus heading up to Burlington to hear one of Dean’s speeches, so he decided to hitch a ride.
Starting with that bus ride, Rospars ended up playing a pivotal role in Dean’s groundbreaking online campaign. “It was an experimental effort at trying to run a bottom up organization,” Rospars recalls. “Where we succeeded was in getting people connected with the campaign and expressing their passion for change at the particular moment. What we didn’t do particularly well was channel that into meaningful outcomes that could help us win.”
Starting in January 2007, Rospars continued what he started with the Dean campaign as new media director of President Obama’s campaign team. Learning from the mistakes of the previous cycle, Rospars set out to link online support to the campaign’s operation on the ground. The Obama new media team set a low barrier to entry for people to get involved with canvassing and phone banking. It also provided volunteers with the same tools the staff used to expand its field operation.
Rospars has since founded Blue State Digital, where he works with clients such as the Red Cross, Autism Speaks and unions to channel enthusiasm online into real world results. “What we’re doing at Blue State,” he says, “is continuing the take the passion and energy people have for organizations and putting that to work so those organizations become more powerful.”
Cheyenne Shaffer, 30, Democrat
Senior Associate & Production Manager, Mission Control
Politically Cheyenne Shaffer was torn growing up. Her father’s side of the family is Republican, her mother’s side Democrat. “My grandmother used to say, ‘If you didn’t vote Democrat in November, you didn’t get to come home for Christmas,’” Shaffer says. But she eventually picked a side. At 12 years old, she was marching in a campaign parade for Bill Clinton in her home state of Missouri, and her party ID was sealed.
After grad school Shaffer found herself working at a Democratic fundraising firm and got what she calls some great advice: “Someone told me I should become a finance director because if you can tolerate and are crazy enough to like it, you can advance quickly.” Shaffer worked for a slew of big Democrats, from Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas to Sen. Ben Cardin in Maryland. In 2006, Shaffer helped raised some $9 million for Cardin’s winning Senate campaign. The next year she joined the direct mail firm Mission Control where she now serves as the company’s production manager. From the start of the creative process to the art room and eventually to the printers and mail shop, Shaffer’s the one who makes sure Mission Control’s mail gets where it needs to go. And if there’s a hitch anywhere in the process, it’s her phone that rings.
“During the height of the campaign season I give up sleeping for the most part and just survive on chocolate and caffeine,” she says. Shaffer doubles as account executive for some major clients including EMILY’s List and the DCCC. “As the conduit among artists, writers and partners, she is the one who makes sure everything happens on time and on budget,” says Mission Control Partner Maren Hesla. “The fact that she manages so much chaos with good humor and a light touch is extraordinary.”
Emily Williams, 27, Democrat
Senior Account Executive, MSHC Partners
Emily Williams’ success in politics is best told by numbers. As the online campaign manager for President Obama’s 2008 team, Williams managed a $9 million online voter registration, early vote and GOTV program that reached more than 1.2 million voters in 19 states. She delivered more than 265,000 voter registrations.
That’s not bad considering Williams swore off political campaigns at an early age. Raised in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Williams’ father was heavily involved in politics, often taking his daughter to rallies. Williams didn’t want to follow in her father’s footsteps, though. “I wasn’t really drawn to the campaign trail,” she says.
Still, Williams remained politically engaged and as she got older became intrigued by new campaign tactics. She first linked up with MSHC during an internship after her freshman year of college and returned to the firm for the odd year election cycle in 2005. As MSHC became one of the first firms to devote resources to online campaigning, Williams found herself in good position to experiment with new technologies and strategies. “I was really lucky in my timing because we were really ahead of the curve in terms of how we were thinking about online advertising,” she says.
Williams has since been promoted at MSHC three times and has helped make the direct mail shop’s interactive online division one of the best in the business.
“We’re lucky to have her,” says Amy Niles Gonzalez, president of MSHC. “She is very good at understanding strategy and figuring out the tactics to deliver that strategy. Plus, she’s a really nice person, and she’s fun to be with.”
Each year Campaigns & Elections chooses a select group of political operatives and strategists to be named Rising Stars. The 2010 winners include not only consultants and campaign managers, but technological innovators, fundraisers and an art director.
Every one of the hundreds of applications we received painted a picture of talented and hard-working people who are younger than 35 years old, but the 40 chosen to be Rising Stars stood out above the rest.
This year's awards are presented by Aristotle.