After a few years in the trenches of New Jersey state politics, Mark Warren and Jennifer May wanted to launch their own consulting firm, but neither one was confident they had the business experience to make it work. So they both headed to business school first.
After earning their degrees from NYU business school, they helped lead the late John Adler (D) to a South Jersey congressional seat in 2008.
“We actually got the idea that we could add value to campaigns by streamlining compliance,” says Warren, who opted for a stint at the DCCC in 2010 before launching Next Level.
Warren headed to the committee as director of candidate services; May served as finance director on Rep. Scott Murphy’s (D-N.Y.) race. Next Level Partners launched earlier this year.
C&E caught up with Warren and May in their Capitol Hill office to talk about the new firm, their approach to compliance and how they got started in the business.
C&E: You both worked with John Adler in New Jersey long before he ran for Congress, right?
Warren: Absolutely. We worked with the state Assembly Democrats and the Camden County Democratic Committee, so we knew John for years. When he decided to run in 2008, he called us. I remember the day after Thanksgiving in 2007 we sat down in his law office. It was really a good omen because we told him to bring every list he had—holiday card list, alumni list, client list. And he did. We went through it all day and put together a finance plan.
John was a great candidate and his children and wife were in the campaign office every day in 2008. We have a lot of great memories of that. It was a shock when he passed away earlier this year. He was supportive of us in all of our endeavors and I think he would have come back and run again.
C&E: How is your approach to compliance different?
Warren: For a lot of compliance firms, their product is typically your FEC report and that tends to be done at the end of the quarter. We saw that if we committed to processing checks every single day and not at the end of the quarter, we could suddenly eliminate a lot of duplication. On a given day our clients will check their P.O. boxes between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. They’re going to scan their checks and we’ll look at them right away. We’ll actually have their deposits ready by 2 or 3 p.m. Once we’re done, campaign managers can run reports detailing exactly where they are in every budget category.
We also approach pricing differently. A lot of firms price by the hour, but we did some focus groups with campaign managers and found out that they get so frustrated in the third month of the quarter because you have this exploding variable cost. So we use monthly retainers that never change.
C&E: Is daily processing unique?
Warren: We certainly think it is. It’s really about whether you rush around at the end of the quarter or you commit to doing this every single day. We use a completely electronic system. Every campaign would always do step one in this process, which is to copy the check and the reply card. We ask them to scan it. It’s safe online and we call it compliance under glass. Especially with the scandal that’s going on out in California [with Dianne Feinstein’s former treasurer] and what we’ve seen in some other places—it’s important that all of our campaign managers and finance directors can log onto a computer and smartphone and see a copy of every deposit slip and every bank statement within seconds.
C&E: Does the uncertainty we’ve seen after the Citizen’s United decision have any practical impact on campaigns?
May: I think the FEC is certainly helpful navigating all of the changes that come up. The answers are often vague. They basically say, “Just go with it and if it’s not right, we’ll let you know.” For all of our campaigns, I really try to institute policies where they are only taking checks from individuals and partnerships with the forms, just to make sure that every single check is from a permissible source. Since we’re on a monthly retainer, our campaigns do feel they can call us with any question that arises and then we can call the FEC. We have heard from campaigns that they feel like hourly firms charge them like lawyers.
Warren: Back during the Hochul special election, there was a moment where I thought we might be changing the expectations in this industry. The finance director called one morning and asked, “Can you get these entered and ready for deposit by 1 p.m.?” If expectations are changing that way—it’s actually a really good thing.