2011 Democratic Rising Stars

Robert Burkes, 28, Democrat Principal and Director of Operations, Zata|3     At a time when reaching and mobilizing voters by phone is increasingly challenging, Robert Burkes is finding ways to get through.

Robert Burkes, 28, Democrat Principal and Director of Operations, Zata|3     At a time when reaching and mobilizing voters by phone is increasingly challenging, Robert Burkes is finding ways to get through. Key to his success is his ability to apply the latest social scientific findings to scriptwriting and data analysis while also attending to the practical details of call center management and client concerns. As a principal at Zata|3, his duties include managing the firm’s database system and operations to ensure that every calling program is executed according to plan.   In the 2010 election cycle, Burkes was among the first to identify the strength of Bill Halter, who was running to the left of Sen. Blanche Lincoln in a three-way Democratic Senate primary in Arkansas. Halter ultimately forced the sitting senator into a runoff, which he narrowly lost. Burkes says that growing up in a small town in the Mississippi Delta heavily influenced his political views. “I saw a lot of poverty growing up, and I went to school in a pretty segregated high school,” he says. “I went to a liberal arts college and started diving into some new ideas, and I took a swing to the left.”   As a Mississippi native, Burkes is particularly proud of the work he did in his home state on his first campaign as a Zata|3 intern: Travis Childers’ 2008 special congressional election win. “That was the first race where I was in the campaign headquarters,” says Burkes. “It was great to have that initial experience be a victory.”   Colin Campbell, 23, Democrat Associate, Bill Lynch Associates     Exhilarated by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Colin Campbell left the political sidelines and joined up as an organizing fellow while still an undergraduate at New York University. On the campaign, he helped get out the vote in northern New Jersey, New York City, and Philadelphia. He describes 11:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on election night, when the networks declared that Obama would be the next president, as a highlight of his early career in politics.   Since then, Campbell has made a name for himself as an extremely hard worker with an ability to inspire coworkers and get results. He talked his way into an internship with Democrat Bill Thompson’s 2009 New York City mayoral campaign and was rapidly promoted to field organizer and then internship program director. Thompson fell short on Election Day, but Campbell impressed his colleagues with his ninety-hour workweeks and prolific phone work.   In the 2010 cycle, Campbell helped elect three new Democratic New York State senators, including the only one to defeat a Republican incumbent. His biggest accomplishment of the year, however, was scoring an upset victory as campaign manager for Larry Hanley’s bid to become international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. This required unseating an incumbent, a feat that hadn’t even been attempted for almost three decades. Campbell helped devise a number of innovative tactics to secure and track endorsements from union leaders and delegates, and Hanley won with 372 out of 644 votes.   “Campaign strategy has always fascinated me,” Campbell says, adding that he has considered running for office himself, but is satisfied for now to remain a consultant. “In my eyes, it is better to be the kingmaker than the king.”   Scott Dworkin, 28, Democrat Founder and CEO, Bulldog Finance Group     In under a decade, Scott Dworkin has established himself at the forefront of a new generation of Democratic fundraisers. As founder and CEO of Bulldog Finance Group, he has established a track record as a tireless worker on behalf of his clients with a smart, innovative approach to bringing in campaign cash.   “We work directly with the candidate on a daily basis rather than with their team on a weekly conference call,” Dworkin says. “If you go a week without solving a problem, that can be a game changer.” Such an immersive approach means that Bulldog has to limit the number of clients it can take on in a given cycle. “We don’t work on five races in a state,” says Dworkin. “We think the candidates should be taken care of.”   Among Dworkin’s accomplishments is raising $1.9 million in under sixty days for Christine Jennings’s 2006 Florida congressional campaign. To achieve this haul, he devised a system that included coordination with the campaign’s communications efforts, working with bloggers on popular sites like ActBlue, and calling potential donors twelve to fifteen hours per day.   Some of the other candidates Dworkin has worked with as a finance consultant or fundraiser include former Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, Arkansas Senate candidate Bill Halter, and North Carolina Congressman Larry Kissell. He was also deputy director of the Real People Project for President Obama’s Inaugural Committee.   The key to his success, Dworkin says, is the work ethic of the team he has assembled at Bulldog. “Our mentality is to work campaign hours, not consultant hours,” he says.   Jamie Emmons, 30, Democrat Chief of Staff, Office of Lexington, Kentucky Mayor Jim Gray     For Jamie Emmons, born into a family of politically active Kentucky Democrats, the question has never been whether to be involved in politics, but what role to play. “I think that, like with a lot of folks, [politics] is a family tradition,” he says.   Truer in Emmons’s case than most: From 2003 to 2009, he worked for his father’s consulting firm, Emmons & Company. (Jamie’s brother, Will, still works with the firm.) While there, Emmons worked on former Kentucky House Majority Leader Greg Stumbo’s unsuccessful 2007 campaign for lieutenant governor and then managed the 2008 special election campaign that returned Stumbo to his old House seat. In early 2009, Emmons joined Stumbo’s office and helped his boss stun the Kentucky political establishment by toppling a sitting speaker to take the House’s top spot.   Last year, Emmons managed the struggling runoff mayoral campaign of Lexington, Kentucky’s then–Vice Mayor Jim Gray. At the time, Gray faced extremely long odds, having lost the first round of voting to an incumbent with strong approval ratings. What’s more, Gray was an openly gay candidate running in a conservative state. Nevertheless, Emmons built coalitions, prepared Gray for debates, and worked with consultants (including Emmons & Company) on the campaign’s media plan. Among the innovative tactics he implemented were tele-town halls directed at specific sections of the city. In the end, the work paid off, and Gray won with 53 percent of the vote.   Emmons is currently Gray’s chief of staff and says that he finds governing just as fulfilling as campaigning. “It is challenging and fast paced,” he says. “Two things that are right up my alley.”   Natalie LeBlanc, 32, Democrat CaliforniaManaging Director, The Pivot Group     It’s hard to imagine a more jaded audience for direct mail than the postal workers forced to lug sacks of it each campaign season. But a mail piece that Natalie LeBlanc designed for a coalition opposed to a 2008 Massachusetts proposition to repeal the state income tax created so much buzz among mail carriers that it ended up being featured in Deliver, the U.S. Postal Service magazine.   Using advanced printing technology, the piece worked each recipient’s name and town into its cover art and provided specific numbers inside on how much funding their community stood to lose if the proposition passed. “Apparently, as the mail carriers were delivering the piece, they noticed that the artwork was different from person to person, and it caught their eye,” says LeBlanc.   LeBlanc first made her mark in her home state of California as political and legislative director for NARAL Pro-Choice California where in 2005 she helped defeat a ballot initiative that would have amended the state constitution to require parental notification for abortions and pass the first pharmacist’s duty to dispense law in the nation.   After a year in an American politics and political methodology Ph.D. program at George Washington University, she found she missed playing an active role in politics and signed on at the renowned mail firm MSHC Partners. There she made a name for herself producing effective, eye-catching mail that drew on rigorous testing and analysis and proudly served as a mail consultant on Al Franken’s successful 2008 Senate campaign to retake the seat formerly held by Paul Wellstone.   “Seeing Al Franken get sworn in was one of the high points of my life and my career,” she says.   In early 2010, LeBlanc moved back to her home state to open a California branch of MSHC Partners. When the firm shut down at the end of last year, she signed on with a spin-off firm, The Pivot Group, as director of its California operations.   Kathie Legg, 28, Democrat Senior Social Media and Mobile Manager, The DNC’s Organizing for America     Kathie Legg has been working for years to help people participate in politics via new media and politicians to increase their social media presence. So, it is little surprise that two of her fondest political memories are the day last October when she helped the Democratic Party surpass the Republican Party’s tally of Facebook fans and the day last December when the Democrats exceeded the Republicans in Twitter followers.   “That was just awesome and something we really celebrated,” says Legg. “It took a lot to get there.”   Legg is particularly proud of her social media work for the 2008 Obama campaign, which involved sending targeted messages about local political issues to Obama’s Facebook fans. “I cannot stress how manual that process was, but the response was fantastic,” she says. “People were thrilled to see Barack Obama posting things about their local communities.”   For Legg, the goal of making political campaigns and organizations more conversant in social media is to bring people into the political process who might not otherwise get involved. Toward that end, she has developed ways for voters to look up their polling places with mobile devices.   As a student at the State University of New York at Albany, Legg interned with Republican state Sen. Tom Libous and found that she loved the work because it offered the opportunity to make a real difference in constituents’ lives. “It felt good to be really helping people,” she says.   Rachel Napear, 34, Democrat President, RMS, LLC     Rachel Napear started her political career in 1999 as an intern in the district office of Sen. Russ Feingold, but she was soon attracted to the more demanding schedule of campaigns. She worked on Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign and then proceeded to crisscross the country, working for the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee, on issue advocacy in Oregon, and as the executive director of the New Hampshire Senate Democratic Caucus.   In 2003, Napear settled down in New Jersey, where she picked up an MBA from Rutgers University in between helping Central Jersey Democrats win mayoral races. Among her most cherished campaign memories is a successful mayoral race in the Atlantic City suburb of Pleasantville. “That’s what politics is all about—it is the local stuff as well as the national,” she says. “It’s just as important for helping people.”   Napear launched her own consulting firm, RMS, LLC, in 2005 and carved out a successful niche focusing on Web design at a time when it was an afterthought for many campaigns. Within a few years, she became a recognized expert on new media in integrated political and marketing campaigns and now travels the world speaking on the topic. Back in the U.S., her clients and colleagues single her out for grasping as well as anyone how to drive political strategy online.   Napear is bullish on the future of the industry and proud of the influence her work has had on public policy. “It will be interesting to see how new media impacts the world and activism,” says Napear. “I’m just glad to be a part of it.”   Ben Nuckels, 32, Democrat Vice President, Joe Slade White & Company     When Ben Nuckels signed on as campaign manager for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in May 2010, the operation was in disarray. Quinn was behind in the polls, having squandered an early 30-point lead as a result of his pledge to raise taxes and controversy over a prisoner early release program. Things had gotten so bad that the candidate and his consulting team were no longer on speaking terms.   “It felt a bit like that classic battle scene where the castle’s being attacked, and you’re propping up the dead bodies to avoid getting hit by more arrows,” says Nuckels. “We knew it was going to be a tough year for Democrats and we’d have to innovate and take some calculated risks in order to win.”   One of these risks was to hold back spending over the summer in order to have maximum impact on television in the last two months before the election. (Many wrote the campaign off during the lull.) Another, grounded in the campaign’s research, was to ignore the issues that loomed over the entire 2010 cycle—jobs and the economy—and instead focus on values and character, drawing on the voters’ trust in Quinn and defining his opponent, Bill Brady, as out of touch. In the end, the risks paid off, and Quinn won by half a point.   In January, Nuckels joined Joe Slade White & Company, the media consulting firm he brought on to produce the spots that helped push Quinn over the top.   Bill Redding, 32, Democrat Account Executive, Catalist     Bill Redding, a Massachusetts native, was inaugurated into local politicking at the age of six, when his grandfather, a local planning board member, enlisted him to help pound in yard signs and knock on doors for local races. “My mother tells the story of me at the Cranberry Festival in Cape Cod running up to shake Tip O’Neill’s hand,” Redding recalls. During college, he interned for Sen. Ted Kennedy and worked as a volunteer on Al Gore’s 2000 primary and presidential campaign. “That sucked me in and convinced me that I could do this as a career,” he says.   In the decade since, Redding has worked for an array of candidates, organizations, and firms, all of them based in New England or Washington, D.C. Until last year, that is, when he spent six months as the statewide coordinated field director for the Arizona Democratic Party. Despite being brought on late in the campaign, he won extremely high marks from colleagues for his maturity and dedication in setting up a sophisticated field operation.   His efforts, which led to the recruitment of a record number of volunteers and over two million phone calls and 240,000 door-knocks to potential voters, were key to the narrow re-election of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. “It was a ridiculously tough year in a tough state, but we built a team statewide that did amazing things,” says Redding. Since the beginning of this year, Redding has been back in Washington, working as an account executive with Catalist.   Colin Rogero, 33, Democrat President, Revolution Media     While growing up in South Florida, Colin Rogero volunteered on political campaigns from a young age, but he took a meandering path to making politics his profession. After graduating from college, he moved to Los Angeles in 2002 to start a career in advertising. Along with some friends, he produced a documentary that told the story of several illegal immigrants, which was aired by PBS in a number of large markets.   “Then I went back to the ad world, and I had a crisis of conscience,” Rogero says. “I did something I felt had a positive effect on people, and now I am back selling products.” He decided to put his media skills to work influencing public policy full time.   After a few years with the consulting firm Strother-Duffy-Strother in Washington, D.C., Rogero started his own firm, Revolution Media, in late 2008. In the 2010 cycle, the firm worked on campaigns ranging from county prosecutor races to independent expenditures for U.S. Senate races.   A highlight for Rogero has been working with We Are America, a public affairs campaign dedicated to telling immigrants’ stories—one of which helped a Maryland teenager originally from India avoid deportation. “I got to play a part in getting his stay of deportation,” says Rogero. “I felt really good about that one.” Rogero draws on his experience in commercial advertising to bring an edgy, innovative approach to political messaging. “I am always willing to push the envelope a little bit more,” says Rogero. “I am always thinking of ways that media is being done in the world outside politics. I never want to feel like I am left behind.”   Scott Simpson, 35, Democrat Senior Associate, Gumbinner & Davies Communications     Even as Democratic fortunes in Virginia have gone south over the last few years, direct mail consultant Scott Simpson has helped a select few buck the trend. In 2009, when Republicans swept the state, he helped guide the only two Democratic pickups, flipping two House seats.   Then, in a special election to fill the state Senate seat vacated by Ken Cuccinelli, the newly elected attorney general, Simpson helped candidate Dave Marsden flip yet another seat for the Democrats. The key in this case was encouraging people to vote by mail, though getting through to voters was even more challenging than usual as the election was set for January 12, so Marsden’s literature had to find a way to stand out amid the flood of holiday mail. In the end, the vote-by-mail push worked. “Marsden won the absentee ballots by a little bit more than 500 votes, and he won the election by 300 votes,” says Simpson. “So he really won it on the absentee ballots; he lost it on Election Day.”   Simpson came to Gumbinner & Davies in 2009 after spending five years as a pollster, a background that informs his approach to direct mail messaging. “You have to look for things that test well,” he says, “but they need to fit the narrative that you’re building.” As a teenager growing up in Massachusetts, Simpson was initially drawn to politics because he thought the people running Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign seemed cool. His interest in making a career of it intensified as he came to recognize the importance of the country’s ongoing political battles.   Rory Steele, 33, Democrat Partner, Argo Strategies     Among Rory Steele’s impressive list of accomplishments as a political operative, none looms larger than helping Barack Obama win the Iowa caucuses in 2008 as a regional field director overseeing twenty-one counties in the southwestern portion of the state.   “The Iowa campaign was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he says. “There were some moments where I was like, ‘Wow, we can really do this.’ And then it was, ‘Wow, I’m sure we can do this.’ And then it was, ‘Wow, we’re going to do this.’ It was just great.” Steele’s work in Iowa earned him a front-page profile in the New YorkTimes, and after the caucuses, he worked on the Obama primary campaign in Nevada, Nebraska, and Ohiobefore serving as general election director in his home state of Washington.   At the end of 2008, Steele joined Seattle-based Argo Strategies, where he served as the direct mail consultant the next year on a successful referendum effort to preserve Washington State’s domestic partnership law. This was the first statewide gay rights initiative to pass after thirty defeats in other states.   Last year, Steele directed the Washington State Democratic Coordinated Campaign, which helped Sen. Patty Murray win a tough re-election contest. This victory was particularly satisfying as, almost a decade before, Murray had helped Steele get appropriate care from the Department of Veterans Affairs for a serious injury he had sustained while serving in the Marine Corps. “When she helped me,” says Steele, “that really opened my eyes to what good politics can do and what good representation can do.”   Dr. Aaron Strauss, 30, Democrat Senior Analyst & Director of Decision Analytics, The Mellman Group     Aaron Strauss has done truly groundbreaking work to put the power of computers, analysis, and experimentation to work for Democratic campaigns and progressive organizations. “Ever since I’ve gotten involved in politics,” Strauss says, “I’ve really wanted to make field organizers’ lives easier by making technology work for them instead of having technology be a constant struggle.”   In 2003, he built a next-generation voter file database that allowed campaigns to efficiently organize supporters and leverage social networks among them to aid in persuasion and turning out the vote. Then, in 2006, he wrote a program that allowed canvassers to use online maps rather than photocopied, highlighted street maps. The software, licensed by VAN, still forms the core of canvassing software used by thousands of campaigns each cycle.   Strauss’s primary focus in recent years has been on helping campaigns glean insights from the massive amount of data they already collect—or can easily access. During the 2008 Obama campaign, his research found that the day before an election is the optimal time to send out text messages aimed at turning out supporters and investigated how much and for how long a visit by Obama to a particular area increased support and enthusiasm there.   For smaller campaigns that can’t afford a microtargeting expert, he hopes to provide computerized “microtargeting for the masses,” which would automatically crunch the campaign’s data to determine which voters should be targeted with which message. Or, if a campaign is running ads in its major media market but not in peripheral markets, it can measure the ads’ effects by comparing the opinions of those exposed to them and not exposed to them. With far too many projects to list here, it is clear that Strauss will continue to impact how data-driven campaigns on the Democratic side are run for years to come.   Matthew E. Weaver, 31, Democrat Principal and Co-Founder, Bronstein & Weaver, Inc.     Matthew Weaver brings a combination of analysis-driven microtargeting and fierce competitiveness to his work as a direct mail consultant. Having been involved in athletics and politics all his life—his mother, a longtime Democratic committeewoman outside Philadelphia, had him handing out campaign literature at seven—he sees clear parallels between the pursuits. “I play rugby now, which is similar to politics,” he says. “Especially consulting—personal physical abuse of your mind and body.”   Since launching their own Philadelphia-based firm in 2006, Weaver and his partner Michael Bronstein have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the consulting scrum. “We never set out in this business with the goal of playing at the bottom for a very long time,” Weaver says. “We were going to do it big and not accept anything else.”   Indeed, Bronstein & Weaver have become nationally recognized in just a few years for their precision microtargeting in races throughout Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware—and are beginning to get inquiries from candidates across the country. Among the campaigns Weaver is proudest of having worked on was the 2008 re-election of Pennsylvania State Rep. Tony Payton, Jr., despite “all sorts of shenanigans” by members of the party establishment who opposed him.   Bronstein & Weaver’s work on that race won the 2009 Reed Award for Best Bare-Knuckled Street Fight Victory. The firm has also been named one of Pennsylvania’s top ten political consultants by pa2010.com, though Weaver alone made the site’s list of best-dressed political consultants, singled out for his “pinstripe suits, ‘Top-Gun’ style aviators, and the occasional tuxedo-style jacket.”   Isaac Wright, 31, Democrat CEO, Wright Strategies LLC     Isaac “Zac” Wright has made a specialty of electing Democrats in areas of the country that range from unfriendly to downright hostile. He was the general consultant to Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe’s 2010 re-election campaign, when Beebe won by a greater margin than any other Democratic gubernatorial candidate and was the only one to win in the Southeast. Two years earlier, he helped Jay Nixon win the governorship of Missouri by 19 points in the same election where Barack Obama lost the state by a hair.   Wright’s secret? “You’ve got to be willing to take on the toughest odds, to go into the battlefields, and be willing to fight to the end,” he says. “And, most importantly, to follow what you believe in, because in the end, if you’re fighting for what’s right and what you believe in, that counts more than the odds.”   Even as a college student, the rural northwest Tennessee native showed great political promise. He took time off to intern with Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and ended up as its youngest national press staff member. He took off again to serve as deputy press secretary on a U.S. Senate campaign. Later, he stayed in school while serving as press secretary on a state Senate election within commuting distance. “The only C I ever got in college was in Spanish that semester, because I just wasn’t there,” he says. “We wound up winning by 248 votes, so it was worth it.”

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Michael Carmichael

Bravo! For all the Democratic Rising Stars. What a brilliant crop of talent we have in our Party. Special Kudos for Colin Rogero, my old friend and stalwart campaign ally who helped Dennis Kucinich's presidential campaign immensely in several dimensions during the 2007-08 cycle. Just reading this page makes me feel a lot better about our potential as a Party in the 2012 cycle. Bravissimo!

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