Born to Colombian immigrants, David Caicedo grew up in a working class, Brooklyn neighborhood. At best, he describes it as “politically apathetic.” It wasn’t until the summer after his freshman year of college, during Eliot Spitzer’s 2006 run for governor of New York, that Caicedo became engaged in politics at all—and that was only at his sister’s urging.
When Caicedo headed to the polls on primary day in his native state this past June, he was greeted by an empty polling location at 4 p.m. A look at the voter roll was even more depressing: he was only the fifth person in his precinct to vote all day.
“My neighborhood wasn’t even canvassed; there wasn’t even a sign—a single sign up—where I live. I consider myself to be on that prime voters list in the VAN,” says Caicedo, referring to the Voter Activation Network—the voter database housed by Democratic state parties across the country. “I know about the VAN; I know they’re using it. But for some reason my neighborhood wasn’t touched and that bothers me.”
Six years after his first exposure to the campaign world, the 25-year-old now can’t get enough of the rush—hopping from one race to the next.
But he’s searching for the skills to help effectively spread that passion in his own neighborhood and beyond. That’s how he ended up in College Park, Md. attending a grassroots training event titled “Raise Your Voice.” Organized by Democratic GAIN and the Atlas Project, the trainings are part of a new coordinated effort by liberal groups to bolster the left’s pool of available campaign talent and to train them well. The goal is to build a more national network of qualified young organizers—people like Caicedo—that campaigns and liberal organizations can draw on.
One of the operatives at the center of the new push is GAIN’s Executive Director Ashley Spillane, who has helped make the Atlas Project a household name for consultants and progressive organizations across the country.
Currently, Spillane is pulling double duty, serving as executive director of both groups. The goal for GAIN is to shift from a professional membership organization to one where the prime mission is professional development.
“We’re trying to make sure people are aware of the opportunities in their own communities,” Spillane says of young staffers and operatives. “The next career step doesn’t have to be in D.C. or as a political consultant.”
On the agenda for the training in College Park: three days of sessions on field organizing and fundraising, workshops on communications and a primer on the fundamentals of opposition research. The trainers included Marlon Marshall of Obama for America, John Hagner, field director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and prominent Democratic consultants, including the New Media Firm’s Will Robinson and opposition research guru Mike Gehrke.
The target group for the July training: recent college graduates looking to embark on a new career in politics, particularly young minorities. For a day and half, participants were exposed to four tracks and then spent the final day and a half focused on one specific area.
The DSCC’s Hagner took the lead on Organizing 101. Trainees practiced GOTV pitches and talked about what drew them to political organizing—good stories, Hagner notes, are key when it comes to connecting with voters and asking for their time and money.
“What organizers do is they take resources and people and turn them into power,” Hagner explained. “Some people begin volunteering because of the candidate, and they keep volunteering because of the organizer.”
As part of the training process, GAIN draws on its relationships with other Democratic organizations that are searching for new hires. Spillane’s eventual hope is that the programs become a way for aspiring organizers to become VAN or Catalist-certifed.
One condition of participation in Raise Your Voice was that all applicants be available and ready to work once the program ended. On the final day, trainees were set loose on a career fair featuring 18 Democratic organizations, including the SEIU, American Federation of Teachers, United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers and MoveOn.org. AFSCME ended up scheduling nine follow-up interviews for its “Political Apprentice” program, which teaches young, political talent the ins and outs of labor organizing.