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.
From the late 1960s through the reelection campaign of former President George W. Bush, conservatives honed their focus on grassroots and party infrastructure and it paid off. Republicans never suffered from a shortage of activists or campaign workers the right could draw on in any given cycle.
It’s what Democrat Mike Moschella describes as a laser-like focus on “the soil” (infrastructure), rather than “the seeds” (candidates). Moschella, and others on the left, looked longingly at the training and networking organization operatives on the right had built, especially after dozens of staffers and Democratic organizers couldn’t find a political gig to save their life after Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) lost in 2004. To Moschella, that was the spark for the push to duplicate the right’s network. .
Phase one meant establishing a permanent data infrastructure. The Atlas Project became the vehicle to track ad buys and all sorts of other data that progressive operatives and organizations could access in a centralized location. Catalist served the voter data component, and VAN would store voter files—creating an institutional memory that hadn’t previously existed on the left.
Phase two emphasizes training the human resources needed and in many ways it’s still in its infancy, but that’s the space organizations like Truman National Security Project and GAIN are now working to fill.
To analogize, think about a Fortune 500 company that recruits a hotshot student out of business school and places them in an executive training program. The recruit learns how every branch of the corporation works. Why not the same for potential campaign staffers? Rather than training that steers young operatives into one particular specialty, how about ensuring they’re well-rounded enough to step into any role with confidence?
“In the past, [Democratic organizations] gave you the crash-course training you’d get if you were a new Walmart employee,” Moschella says. “They’re not really training you to run the company; they’re training you to do a specific job.”
But developing a managerial class is the new goal, Moschella says.
The New Organizing Institute now holds weeklong campaign manager training, while the Analyst Institute has a group of 450 researchers running control treatment studies to determine what’s working in campaigns and what isn’t. The New Leaders Council has 20 schools around the country training diverse cohorts of liberals, moderates and conservatives—20 trainees per institution each year. The five-to-six month program focuses on community leadership development, targeting not only state representatives but lawyers, real estate agents and even teachers. There are already plans for five more schools by the end of next year.
“In 10 to 20 years, you’re going to have a really robust set of homegrown leaders on the Democratic side of the aisle with access to core training that they’ve been through,” Moschella says.
Part of the goal on the left is to match the network Republicans have been able to build on the right. At the party level, Republicans brought the RNC’s longstanding political management training program back into the party committee structure last cycle.
Located in the basement of the committee’s headquarters on Capitol Hill, RNC Political Director Rick Wiley says 25 work stations are made available to 25 aspiring political operatives every class. Each class is set up like a mock campaign featuring a real congressional district with multiple media markets.
Much of the week is dedicated to ground game, though experts from a variety of Republican organizations, including media buyers and communications experts, are among the featured speakers. For their final assignment, students are brought in at 8:30 on a Saturday, fed Chick-fil-A and expected to present their campaign plan. Evaluators included Wiley, RNC Press Secretary Kirsten Kukowski and National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Brian Walsh.
“All of the graders that we bring in and all of the presenters are people that have a need for talent,” Wiley says. Through May, 400 operatives were trained.
Outside of its campaign management and campaign finance schools, the RNC has also been training field staffers since mid-May. In each state, all of the RNC’s Victory directors, data directors and communications directors are brought in for job-specific training. And that’s on top of refresher courses teaching trainees how to set up offices and phone systems.
“We needed to add a lot more emphasis on social media for instance,” Wiley says. “Campaigns change and evolve every year, and we try and keep up with that.”
The Leadership Institute, a 501(c) (3),has 40 different training efforts, including youth campaigning, communications training, public speaking, professional career training in broadcast, campaign management and grassroots activism. The group doesn’t place trainees on campaigns, but job seekers are referred to conservativejobs.com, and the school keeps in contact with its graduates.
“Most of the people that come and take our training—they’re running on the local or state level,” says Patricia Simpson, political and online training director for the institute.
The institute frequently employs a coalition approach, partnering with other conservative nonprofits like the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Franklin Center, Heritage Foundation, Faith and Freedom Coalition and the American Conservative Union. As Election Day nears, the Leadership Institute plans on a series of webinars and in-classroom trainings.
As for the Atlas-GAIN partnership, its “Brownbag Series” of trainings ran throughout the summer—interns and entry-level organizers were invited to listen to speakers discuss the current political landscape. The partnership is currently hiring assistance so it can run trainings in all 50 states the Tuesday after Election Day this year.
Spillane wants to raise awareness about local career opportunities in order to cut back on the number of organizers flooding D.C. seeking jobs once the campaign season ends. She says the organization aims to remain in touch with trainees, allowing the partnership to track organizers and connect them with other up-and-coming operatives.
The Atlas Project’s online toolkit will establish a network of alumni with info on every staff member in every state—eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel with young talent ahead of every election cycle.
“The biggest challenge,” says Spillane, “is making sure people know the resource is available.”
Dave Nyczepir is the staff writer at Campaigns & Elections.Follow @DaveNyczepir