Rasiej Campaign Post-Mortem

Open-Source Politics 1.0:
Lessons from Advocates for Rasiej,
2005 Campaign for NYC Public Advocate

Micah L. Sifry, eCampaign Director

As a longtime community organizer, education activist and successful businessman in New York, I've come to realize that this city's most valuable asset -- its people -- is also its most neglected and under-utilized resource. Every day there are thousands of civic-minded individuals and organizations in hundreds of neighborhoods who are selflessly working to clean up our parks, improve our schools, care for neighbors, and strengthen our communities. Yet, too often, our voices and concerns are not heard and our collective power is never felt, in large part because our city government is stuck in an old paradigm: elect one person and supposedly they will solve our problems. And as a result, little thought is given to connecting and empowering our citizens to have a full voice in their own city.

I have decided to run for Public Advocate because I want to use my experience in bringing ideas and people together to change that outmoded and wasteful way of thinking and leverage the full potential of all New Yorkers. I believe we can do that by reinventing the Public Advocate's office for the 21st Century -- by refocusing it on reconnecting New York, and creating a vibrant, self-sustaining network of public advocates who can effectively raise concerns and solve their own problems and make their government work for them once again. In the coming weeks I will be launching a campaign to build the foundation of just such a network, and begin imagining a new vision for New York's future.
--Andrew Rasiej, campaign pre-launch announcement, April 3, 2005

Summary
From April to September of this year, my friend and business partner Andrew Rasiej ran an unconventional Internet-driven campaign for New York City's number-two office of Public Advocate. As a technology entrepreneur (founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, and before that the Plug-In digital music conference), education reformer (founder of MOUSE, a nonprofit that trains public school kids to be their school's own technologists) and adviser to Democrats (chair of Howard Dean's Internet Advisory Council, unpaid consultant to Tom Daschle, Richard Gephardt, Eliot Spitzer and other local Democrats), Andrew hoped to bring a new vision to politics and government. (Taking a leave of absence from editing Personal Democracy Forum, I joined the campaign in mid-May and helped with general strategy, communications, and online organizing.)

Our campaign generated a good deal of sympathetic coverage in both mainstream media and the blogosphere, and raised more money from more donors in less time than any in recent New York City memory. But ultimately, we came in fourth in the Democratic primary with just 5% of the vote, behind the incumbent, Betsy Gotbaum, who got 48%; her chief rival from the previous election, Norman Siegel, who got 30%; and a perennial candidate and complete unknown named Michael Brown, who got 10%. The purpose of this campaign post-mortem is to analyze what worked and what didn't, and to ponder the potential of Internet-powered politics in what, alas, may be the typical environment for many campaigns today, i.e. one where voters and the press are paying little attention.

We had three over-arching goals for this campaign:

  1. that we could push into the public debate some big new ideas about reinventing municipal government, fostering civic engagement, and the value of getting everyone an affordable highspeed Internet connection
  2. that the right way to run for office is to be as open, transparent, people-centered, small-donor-based and network-driven as possible (building on the experiences of various 2004 campaigns)
  3. that reform-minded individuals, groups, writers, editorialists, bloggers, and institutions, along with locally-focused civic activists, would find all of this refreshing and inspiring and they would rally to our banner and help amplify our message.

Arguably, we succeeded with our first goal, and learned vital lessons about how hard it is to live by our second goal, and how much (or little) these choices could affect our hopes for achieving our third goal.

We fell short because:

  1. We started very late, which meant a cascading chain of difficulties including low name recognition, weak ties to potential endorsers, intense pressure to raise vital funds, and difficulties in quickly finding experienced staff and building the necessary organizational infrastructure.
  2. We didn't anticipate how hard it would be to gain traction in a low-intensity election cycle, with an indifferent electorate that, along with the media, was paying little attention overall to municipal politics and practically no attention to the office of Public Advocate (even though it is first in line to succeed the Mayor), and essentially felt things in the city were moving in a positive direction (to the benefit of all incumbents)
  3. We misjudged how much people would care about our initial pledge to not take more than $100 per donors, and we overestimated how much the Internet could compensate for our weaknesses, in terms of spreading our message and assisting with fundraising
  4. We didn't realize how much self-proclaimed progressives and reformers in New York City would take an essentially conservative (i.e. indifferent) approach to an office that could be an innovative force for change in the city
  5. Low name recognition plus low voter attention meant that network effects (such as a message spreading virally, or friends of the campaign being able to convince their friends to donate money) were almost impossible to produce.

Obviously, it took a lot of chutzpah for a first-time candidate to make a serious bid for office under these circumstances, and more than one of my friends told me back in the spring that the whole campaign was doomed to be a quixotic failure. In addition, we should be careful from drawing too many general conclusions from our particular difficulties, especially those that flowed from running such a time-compressed effort.

Nevertheless, change has to start somewhere, and if we don't try new things and (inevitably) make new mistakes, the old process of candidate selection and promotion is going to produce the same old results. Emboldened by a sense that the Internet is enabling more people to participate, inspired by all the evidence of public disaffection with politics as usual, and motivated by a desire to push a 21st century vision of government and civic life, we dove in and tried to put into practice what many of us have been talking about. What follows is meant to be a continuation of that conversation, neither its beginning nor its end.

Indeed, I am posting this essay on my blog in the hope that lots of people will read it and comment. My only request to commenters is that you use your real name and keep the discussion civil. I should add that Andrew fully encouraged me in writing this post-mortem, both because of our mutual belief in the value of more openness and transparency, and because he agreed that there might be some lessons here of use to others. (By the way, I know there's a problem with permalinks on this blog, and am in the process of trying to get that fixed. If you have trouble leaving a comment, just email it to me at msifry-at-gmail-dot-com and I'll post it.)

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Introduction
In the early months of 2005, a few of us had a not so modest dream: we were going to show how you could reinvent Democratic politics from the bottom-up, use information technology to involve people in campaigns in a vital new way, and put forward an agenda to reinvent local government as well. In a nutshell, we wanted to re-connect people to each other and to their government, and to demonstrate that if we changed the processes of government we could also change the results. All this, through the candidacy of Andrew Rasiej -- a technology entrepreneur, education activist and sometime adviser to top Democrats -- for the relatively obscure and wholly underutilized position of New York City Public Advocate.

What follows is the story of how our dream collided with reality.

It's not the whole story of the campaign, nor need it be. To a large degree, this is my personal analysis of what took place, based on contemporaneous notes and emails and the best of my recollections. The comments and critiques of my colleagues on the campaign, as well as those of close observers, will hopefully inform subsequent drafts of this memo, or at least will be accessible to all through comments and trackbacks below. (That's assuming we aren't sick of rehashing this topic before then.)

Why am I writing this? Apart from the cathartic value of reflecting on one's experience, I think perhaps that others can learn from what we tried to do. I have two (overlapping?) audiences in mind: people who think we need to galvanize new ideas/forces/leaders in order to change the direction of the country; and people who think new web-based communications technologies offer a different and better way of engaging people in politics. Arguably, we have an opportunity to open up politics to more voices now, and a chance to overthrow old ways of doing things.

If only it were so easy!

~

Accomplishments
For a campaign that didn't formally get started until the end of April 2005 and ended with the September 13 Democratic primary, we did pretty well. Our talented staff, led by Jill Harris (campaign manager from early July to the campaign's finish), Keara Depenbrock (deputy campaign manager), Giovanna Torchio (interim campaign manager from May through early July) Dan Gerstein (senior strategist), Jay Strell (press secretary), Kenn Herman (Internet director), Gregory Krakower (policy director), Sean Delgado (deputy press and field), Dan Shin (finance director), Ross Offinger (finance associate), Scot Covey (graphics designer and volunteer coordinator), Tom Berman and Jen Vento (advance), Anthony Russamano (scheduler), Pete Mele (office manager) and consultants Bill Hillsman (media), Joel Benenson and Pete Brodnitz (polling), Lori McGrogan (research), Nicco Mele and Scott Bulua (web) and Grant Draper (fundraising), plus some very devoted interns, worked hard and did a terrific job. Here are some highlights:

* New issues put on the city's agenda. As Andrew was fond of saying, campaigns aren't only about electing one person, they're also about advancing ideas, and this was certainly our biggest achievement. Our main idea was low-cost wireless Internet access for all, as a tool for closing the digital divide, improving educational opportunity, strengthening security, modernizing city services and invigorating civic engagement. We also helped pushed the idea of improving transit security via wiring the subways for cell phone service, offered a fresh vision of the role of the Public Advocate as a hub for all the city's volunteer civic advocates, and planted a seed among some key city council-members who favor a more open and transparent city budget process. All the newspaper editorials on the race praised our wireless Internet proposal, and it was prominently discussed in the two official campaign debates that were broadcast on NY1 and WNBC.

* Great press. We earned a great deal of favorable press coverage, including a whole column by the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, a laudatory column in the NY Sun that credited our call for low-cost universal wireless Internet service as "the best big idea of the 2005 campaign," and friendly profiles in New York magazine, Wired, Fortune, the Times Metro section, and the Daily News. Our Wi-Fi plan was featured in cover stories in AM Metro New York (the city's largest circulation daily) and L Magazine (a free entertainment weekly), as well as in the New York Times and the Amsterdam News. The Daily News featured our demand for better transit security through cellphone service in the subways. And our calls on the incumbent to release her public schedule, which we punctuated with an innovative videoblog called "Where is Betsy," earned favorable coverage in the New York Times and Daily News, ultimately becoming an important issue in the two official televised debates. (A collection of key clips and documents from the campaign can be found here.)

* Small-donor based campaign. A total of 1732 people made contributions averaging about $195 to the campaign, a total of nearly $340,000, of which just over $200,000 qualified for the city's 4-1 match for small contributions from NYC residents. Thus we ultimately raised about $1.15 million -- more money from more people in less time than any comparable citywide campaign. (Indeed, our contributor base was only about 350 to 450 donors smaller than each of the leading candidates, Betsy Gotbaum and Norman Siegel, both of whom had run before in 2001 and had been fundraising for the 2005 race for years in advance.)

* Innovative field operation. We built a small but efficient field operation that delivered hundreds of thousands of pieces of literature across the city, targeted through an innovative use of the 2001 voter file to areas with the highest voter turnout (using the Google Maps tool we were able to pinpoint high turnout locations to the level of subway stops and individual buildings). Our petitioners collected more than 22,000 signatures, easily qualifying Andrew for the ballot (7,500 valid signatures were needed to get on). And our street-level "wild postings" of Rasiej posters were widely acclaimed for their visibility and their distinctive fist-and-lightning-bolt logo (appropriated straight from the Tennessee Valley Authority and its Depression-era slogan of "electricity for all").

* Strong online presence. We started with an email list of about 1200 names and ultimately quadrupled it in size. Our website drew nearly 100,000 unique visitors a month. And, thanks in large degree to the volunteer help of pioneers Ryanne Hodson and Jay Dedman, our extensive videoblog got a good deal of notice from the rising community of videobloggers around the country. We were also endorsed or positively linked to by nearly 100 bloggers over the course of the campaign, including Instapundit (the #1 political blog), Doc Searls. David Weinberger, Joi Ito, SwingStateProject, CrooksandLiars.com and many others. (Most of these links are archived on the Rasiej.com blogroll.) For a week in mid-August, Andrew was the "Table for One" guest blogger at Talking Points Memo Cafe, a new and popular site, which led to a nice spike in traffic and a surprising amount of street-level name recognition. The day before the primary the search term "Rasiej" was the top search term on Technorati (and no, that didn't happen because my brother happens to be the founder and CEO of Technorati; it happened because we asked many of our blogger friends to post one last pro-Rasiej comment on their own blogs and then we invited our list to go out and read them and spread them around.)

All in all, I think it's fair to say that we had an impact on the political discourse in New York City, and made a wider impression as well. But on Primary Day, we came in fourth with a little over 5% of the vote. Not only did we come behind our two principal opponents, the incumbent Gotbaum (who got 48%) and the civil rights lawyer Siegel (who got 30%, repeating his second-place finish of 2001), we got fewer votes than a candidate, Michael Brown, who didn't seriously campaign, wasn't in the debates, ran no ads and spent almost no money. OUCH!

~

Shortcomings
Why did we come up short? First, the factors that were essentially outside of our control but handicapped our chances:

* Low name recognition. Andrew started the race with almost no name recognition, and on top of that he has a difficult-to-pronounce last name, "Rasiej." (Say "RA-shay".) We decided to tackle that head on from the beginning, calling our campaign "Advocates for Rasiej" rather than "Advocates for Andrew" or some variation on his first name (in part because another Andrew, Andrew Cuomo, is already well-known in NY politics). Our posters, fliers and online efforts were all designed to raise his name recognition. However, without greater TV exposure, the unfamiliarity of Andrew's name was still a major weakness.

* Low media attention to this race. The city's dailies ran very few stories on the Public Advocate's race -- despite the fact that the holder of the office is first in line to become acting mayor if the mayor dies or is incapacitated. The local TV stations almost completely ignored it. NY1, the local cable news station, devoted more coverage to the contested Brooklyn district attorney's race than it did to the PA's race, even though the holder of this office is next in line to succeed the mayor. The editors of two city dailies actually told us that they weren't going to bother covering the race or issuing an endorsement (though the editorial board of one of those papers did make a perfunctory effort late in the race to interview Andrew and the other candidates before making an endorsement).

* Disinterested Democratic electorate. Compared to the election of 2004, which saw thousands of New Yorkers engaged in grass-roots political activity and a dramatic jump in turnout, this election season was comatose. (Only 450,000 Democrats voted for mayor in the 2005 primary, compared to 785,000 in 2001.) This can be explained by many factors: voter fatigue from the 2004 election results, Mayor Bloomberg's popularity among core Democratic voters, and lack of excitement with the Democratic mayoral candidates being the most obvious. Still, we had hoped that activist Democrats might be attracted to our campaign as a continuation of the 2003-04 upsurge among grass-roots partisans who volunteered on a host of campaigns; this was not to be.

* Invisible office. Andrew liked to compare the Public Advocate's office to a dilapidated house at the end of the street that no one wants, that you could renovate and turn into a vital community center. The problem is, few New Yorkers had any idea what the Public Advocate's office was; not even half could name its current occupant, let alone any of her accomplishments. So half of our work was, in effect, a public education campaign about the existence of the office and its role under the city charter to be a ombudsman and an information provider. Low knowledge about the office meant even lower expectations about its value. The local media both bought into this baseline view and cynically fed it; in the few stories that appeared about the race, the phrase "nobody knows what this office is supposed to do" frequently appeared in one form or another.

* Divided support base. If Betsy Gotbaum had much of the city's political establishment in her corner (former Mayors Koch and Dinkins, nearly every Democratic elected official, the teachers union, 1199, the NY Times endorsement, etc.), Norman Siegel had the support of a good number of Democratic clubs and union locals, as well as many pieces of the city's semi-organized left (CUNY's Professional Staff Congress, the Howard Dean campaign spinoff Democracy for NYC, the Critical Mass bikers, etc.). The "heroic lawyer" model of leadership evidently still makes many liberal hearts beat faster, even if it is woefully out of date. We thought that we could mobilize younger, wired workers (and engage many of them as campaign volunteers) and reach out to black and brown residents of Brooklyn and the Bronx, who our polling showed were the least attached to Gotbaum and most responsive to our platform. But, as discussed further below, the "techies" aren't a significant base.

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Mistakes we made
Those are the easiest answers for the weaknesses of a campaign that had such high expectations around it. Here are some tougher criticisms and self-criticisms. I offer these in a spirit of constructive debate. As Esther Dyson likes to say, "Always make new mistakes." In this campaign we made some old mistakes, and some new ones. And we tried some things that we couldn't have known were mistakes until we tried them.

* We started too late. First off, this made it much harder to build a conventional campaign staff and infrastructure, though our interim campaign manager Giovanna Torchio stepped into that gap valiantly and did a great job pulling the basic team and backbone together. From a political standpoint, it also meant that we were also playing catch-up in terms of relationships with outside forces that could either help or hurt the campaign (i.e. press, political clubs, activist groups, civic organizations, etc.). Andrew did bring to the table many personal relationships with reporters and elected officials, and these were definitely helpful. But in many cases people were meeting him for the first time when he went to a club or group's endorsement meeting and while he made many good impressions, it takes time to build relationships and trust. Finally, and this is obvious but has to be said anyway, starting late made it much harder to raise money and increase Andrew's name recognition.

* No campaign plan. Though there were plenty of people giving advice to the campaign team, including people who had run successful citywide campaigns and prominent local elected officials, no campaign plan was ever written. Many key pieces of a plan were implemented: in rough order, we did do an opposition research report on our opponent as well as on Andrew himself, we did do an internal poll, we did pull together a media plan, a field plan, a fundraising plan and an Internet plan. But time pressures prevented us from ever integrating all of these, and at times it felt like we were moving in several directions at once.

* Frontloaded spending. Thanks to Andrew's ability to lend the campaign more than half a million dollars in chunks as the cash was needed, we were able to meet our ongoing operating expenses while waiting for the NYC Campaign Finance Board to certify our matching claims and release the funds we were qualified for. And ultimately all the money was paid back. But because we started so late, ultimately we had less money to work with -- and the pressures of quickly pulling together a campaign team meant we paid a premium on salaries. (On the other hand, had we started earlier, our salary costs would have been commensurately higher, too.) When August rolled around, we had far less than we needed for a final paid media push. And a proposed benefit concert that could have brought in $500,000 came close to happening, but didn't.

* Fundraising in small amounts is harder than we expected. One of the things that excited me about this campaign was Andrew's initial pledge to not take any donation larger than $100, which is rooted in his (and my) belief that campaigns should be people-intensive, not focused on wooing big donors all the time. With the 4-1 match on donations from city residents, we thought that this wouldn't necessarily be a handicap; indeed, we expected to get some credit for running a people-centric campaign that held lots of "friend-raisers," and no big-dollar fundraisers.

But after an initial burst of support that came mostly from Andrew's personal list, supplemented by core staff and supporters tapping their own lists, which got us to about $65,000 for our first filing in mid-May, it soon became apparent that this was no magic bullet. In addition, while much of the money we raised was given online, hyper-stringent procedures required by the Campaign Finance Board gave many of our donors headaches and slowed down the process of obtaining matching funds.

Indeed, the day we sent out our first big e-mail, we got back dozens of replies from would-be supporters who were blocked from making an online donation because the address they gave didn't match their credit card information, to the letter and spelling of words as insignificant as Ave. or Avenue. Needless to say, it wasn't much fun to get complaints like "And you call yourself the technology guy!?" when the problem was being caused elsewhere. Ultimately, while 90% of our funds were raised online, more than half probably came in because Andrew or someone on our fundraising team reached donors on the phone and walked them through the online process.

The biggest problem with the $100 limit was that, combined with our late start, it made it even harder to raise the $125,000 from NYC residents that we needed to qualify for matching funds. Several of our senior staff understood this problem sooner than I did and started pushing for us to drop the $100 pledge; ultimately they prevailed and they were right. (See more on how we handled this issue below.)

Unfortunately, New Yorkers did not care enough about this race (or this office, or the abstract idea of campaign finance reform) to be excited by a no-big-money pledge. While some friends in the national campaign finance reform community were individually supportive, we got no meaningful recognition for Andrew's pledge from local reform activists, or the editorialists who have generally supported NYC's public financing system. We were especially disappointed that the New York Times editorial board, a longstanding champion of campaign finance reform, seemed uninterested in our pledge. And, to add insult to injury, when billionaire Mike Bloomberg's campaign announced that it would be holding hundreds of "friend-raisers" around the city to engage more supporters in his campaign, no one noticed that he had appropriated our very language.

Ironically, the $100 limit may well have helped us ultimately raise more $250 donations than we might have otherwise garnered. It was probably easier to ask many of our original $100 donors to make a second, later contribution for another $150 than it would have been to convince them right away to give $250. (Certainly this is what Andrew thinks!)

* Online advertising didn't produce. We made two significant purchases of online advertising -- a little under $20,000 for a run of blog-ads at the beginning of the campaign, in May, and about $75,000 for a wave of banner ads targeted at New York City residents on a host of news and entertainment sites that ran from early August til the end of the campaign. The purpose of the first run was simply to buy some name recognition among Andrew's core constituency of online political types and wired New Yorkers, and we were pleased with its results. The second run, which was targeted to New Yorkers and appeared on a mix of news sites and cultural sites aimed at young, hip types, however, did not produce the kind of impact we needed. About 80,000 click-throughs were generated (we had hoped for three to four times as many), and very few people signed up as a result. While I'm sure our online ads helped with Andrew's general visibility, and certainly helped grow our list, the money spent on this second run probably would have been better spent on traditional TV ads or more field efforts.

* Subcontracts to field operatives didn't produce. While the campaign's own field team, interns and volunteers did a bang-up job of flyering targeted locations, we also subcontracted some work organizing candidate appearances and postering/flyering to operatives in Brooklyn and Queens. Some church visits and visibility events were quite successful; others were a mess. On Election Day, Andrew and I were dismayed to discover a whole quadrant of voting sites in north-central Brooklyn devoid of any signage, even though we had been assured that these sites were covered (and indeed we were driving around doing visits to polling sites having been told they were covered). Needless to say, this weakness was a result of having to rely on outside operators who are hardly the most scrupulous people in politics.

* Open-source politics is little understood or appreciated. Here's another example of how hard it is to change the status quo: As we approached our first filing deadline with the Campaign Finance Board, we discovered that the CFB's system for reporting (known as C-Smart) required that we literally keypunch, by hand, all the data for every single contribution, even though we already had it all in our own database. Our Internet director, Kenn Herman, quickly wrote a program that would interface with C-Smart and enter the information quickly; in effect, an automated typing program. After we used it successfully for our first filing, we decided, in the spirit of open-source politics, to share Kenn's program freely with all the other campaigns in NYC, starting with our chief rivals for the Public Advocate's office. Several responded favorably, at least at first.

Well, apparently, no good deed goes unpunished. Much to our surprise, the CFB spokeswoman soon issued a statement warning that our program, which we dubbed "B-Smarter," was "unauthorized third-party software" and suggesting that any campaign that used it risked losing its matching funds. As a result, every campaign in NYC -- except ours -- was forced to waste dozens or even hundreds of hours on needlessly retyping contributor data into C-Smart, time and money that could have been more fruitfully spent talking to voters. We thought the press might take note of this small, but telling, example of how politics could be made more user-friendly, but other than The Politicker blog of the New York Observer, none did.

* Weak response from civic groups/activists. In a similar vein, we tried hard to implement Andrew's notion of reinventing the Public Advocate's office to be a hub for all the volunteer public advocates already at work in neighborhoods across the city fighting to make the city a better place by mentoring in schools, serving on community boards, feeding the hungry, cleaning up parks, etc. We tried to model this idea with WeFixNYC.com, a website where New Yorkers could email photos of things that need fixing in NYC, like potholes. But we were stymied in our desire to involve local activists more directly in this project, even people who are working on the issue of closing the digital divide, because of their groups' non-profit status.

If we had had a full-time political director on staff, or if we had come up from within these civic networks more organically, this might have been a more fruitful territory for us. Politicians who have been around for a long time "solve" the problem of engaging the leaders of non-profits by developing those relationships outside of the electoral campaign context; we imagined that the direct connection made possible by the Internet might be a short-cut around that obstacle. Perhaps, if Andrew had been running for an office with greater visibility, that would have been the case. But not here. Again, the press largely didn't understand or bother to cover the idea (apart from one local radio station and NY1).

* Tech "community" a fiction? Another one of the unconventional premises of our campaign was the idea that young, "wired" individuals who work and play in the new technology economy would rally to support one of their own, a candidate who "gets it" -- that is, who demonstrably understands the power and potential of networks and transparency in politics. Indeed, we started with lots of support and good will from key Internet organizers from the Dean, Clark, Kerry and Kucinich 2004 presidential campaigns along with "A-list" technology opinion-shapers like Doc Searls and David Weinberger. Nicco Mele, Dean's webmaster, was a key adviser, for example (his firm, EchoDitto, handled our web back-end), and Joe Trippi was helpful in pointing to the campaign as a model. Along the way we gained the support of other leading techies like Esther Dyson and Craig Newmark (of Craigslist), and made solid headway with top political bloggers like Joshua Marshall (TalkingPointsMemo) and Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit). And activists in NYC's wireless community were incredibly supportive, along with local sites like the DailyGotham and Gothamist.

But the fabled tech community turned out to be mostly a fable when it came to actually embracing Andrew's campaign and setting aside time to spread its message. Yes, about 100 local and national bloggers linked to the campaign. But few made an extended commitment to pitch in. To give one telling example, when I asked a core group of about 30 tech supporters to help us "kick the tires" on our WeFixNYC.com site by sending in a picture of a pothole before we announced the project to the public, at most 3 or 4 responded.

I chalk up our difficulty in mobilizing techies to several factors: 1) the number-two office in NYC is just not of great interest to techies, no matter how innovative the campaign tactics or message; 2) techies are predominantly political independents, or libertarians, and thus hard to mobilize in a Democratic primary context; 3) techies are focused on work, making money, and, for all their complaining about politics, a relatively immature political grouping (compared, to say, Old Media moguls in Hollywood). And unlike some cities where political bloggers play an important role in local affairs (take Portland, Oregon), in New York there is no hive of vibrant conversation about local politics. If anything the political blogging culture reflects the larger political culture here and is dominated by careerism and inside-baseball sniping. Some new websites like DailyGotham hope to change that, but they have so far gained only modest traction.

* Viral campaigns are hard to do in a low attention environment. We made several attempts at engaging our supporters and interested visitors to our website in a conversation that we hoped they would help spread. First, and throughout the campaign, we asked people to share their ideas for how to make New York City a better place. As email messages came in through our online suggestion box, we picked out the interesting ones and wrote back to the senders, thanking them for their ideas and asking for their permission to post them on our blog. Then I wrote up a blog post, adding some comments in the voice of the campaign, and urging others to join in. At one or two points in the campaign, we e-mailed our whole list asking them to help develop a list of "21 ideas for 21st century NYC." But we got very few responses. Yes, a few of the people who we listened to in this manner became campaign supporters, making a contribution or offering to volunteer. But not enough to become a self-sustaining hub of activity. (Overall, we got about 160 comments on a total of 150 blog posts between April and September, a sign of little community involvement.)

Likewise, we envisioned our videoblog as having a viral potential, especially the humorous "Where is Betsy?" posts that we did, attempting to track the current Public Advocate and demonstrate how inaccessible she is to the public she is supposed to serve. But again, apart from some decent press coverage, this "meme" didn't spread. Since every one of our "techie" gimmicks also functioned as a press hook, the time we spent coming up with them was not wasted. But our larger hope that these would help spread our message and build our grass-roots base was for nought. Again, the general lack of public interest in the Public Advocate's office deadened these possibilities.

It took us a long time to implement a "tell-a-friend" feature on our website that we thought would have viral potential. We wanted a way for strong supporters to not only forward a simple message to their friends, but for them to also be able to track their friends' responses and to see their own impact on growing our network. DemocracyinAction, the list and donation management tool that we were using, does not include that function. So our Internet team ultimately created one from scratch that included a Google Map showing a participant's own social network by zipcode, enabled them to see which of their friends had responded, and to also see the second-degree connections that might result as those friends invited additional people. We deployed this tool late in the campaign, and about fifty people (a little over 1% of our list at that point) used it to invite additional people to join. With time and attention, I believe this tool would have produced healthy results for us, especially because it gave us a new way to discover which of our own supporters were active connectors. But by this point, we were running out of steam.

* No Democratic or progressive leaders stepped forward. We put a good deal of time into seeking endorsements and other forms of support from Democratic and progressive leaders and groups in the city. Since Andrew has been active in New York City and state Democratic politics for several years, and has built strong personal relationships with a number of elected officials, we thought we had a chance at prying some Democratic leaders away from the establishment and into Andrew's camp. He personally spent a fair amount of time early in the campaign meeting working on this, but ultimately no one was willing to break away.

Likewise, the process of seeking endorsements from political clubs and organizations, while time-consuming, ultimately produced only one substantial score when Andrew was endorsed by the Laborers Union. (Norman Siegel, to his credit, had deeper relationships with many clubs and interest groups and earned a number of helpful endorsements that way.) Some important individuals who privately expressed admiration and support for Andrew were prevented by their boards (non-profit, educational, etc) from making public endorsements. Other than positive press attention from columnists like Thomas Friedman and Errol Louis, we got very little traction from outside validators. (It's not clear, given the Democratic establishment's near unanimous alignment with Gotbaum, whether this could have mattered to voters anyway.)

Personally, I found our interaction with both the Working Families Party and ACORN, two of the most important progressive organizations in the city, to be a big letdown. One would think that these institutions, both of which pride themselves on being organizing and strategy hubs for the city's liberal-left, might have seen an opportunity in the little-known Public Advocate's office. After all, with Mayor Bloomberg an odds-on favorite for re-election, and no Republican even running for Public Advocate, whoever held the office would be the city's highest elected Democratic official. And, with no Republican running, there was no danger that an energetic primary battle among Democrats might hand the office to the other party. Mark Green, the first Public Advocate, had already shown that the office could be a center of alternative organizing and policy formation.

But while the leaders of both the WFP and ACORN were friendly to Andrew personally, their governing boards showed little imagination regarding the race. ACORN endorsed Gotbaum (presumably because she and they are aligned together on the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards development, a huge real-estate deal that is dividing the borough). And the WFP was split between Gotbaum and Siegel, whose old-fashioned appeals to "fight the power" apparently struck a responsive chord. Ultimately, the WFP stayed neutral in the race, which I suppose was sort of good for us. But as someone who has supported the WFP since its birth, I was greatly disappointed to see, first-hand, the limits of the party as a change agent.

* Message was too narrow? Or too broad? In my humble opinion, this was a campaign of ideas that never quite manage to boil them down into a single coherent message. Even now, I have a hard time condensing into a single phrase all of our notions about reinventing the Public Advocate's office; pressing for greater openness, transparency and accountability in government; and using universal low-cost wireless Internet access as a vehicle for empowering people, improving education, strengthening security, modernizing city services and competing in the Information Age. The themes we did come up with (thanks especially to Dan Gerstein) were "connecting New York City" and "bringing New York City into the 21st century," do capture all of those ideas, but without greater resources we didn't have the ability to convey this to enough people. And it's not as if people already know what a 21st century city that takes full advantage of the new communications technologies looks like. (Such places exist, but Americans -- outside maybe of those living in San Francisco or Seattle -- have no idea how far behind they're falling.)

Because we needed to punch through with something, we embraced "Wi-Fi" as a symbol of everything we were trying to achieve, issuing a detailed plan to "Wi-Fi NY," launching an online petition drive and holding a major launch announcement on the steps of City Hall with about 100 supporters and Andrew making a big speech holding a wireless router in front of a podium made of old PC mainframes. The press was happy to label Andrew the "Wi-Fi Guy." But with that came complaints that now we were a one-issue campaign, and worse that our "Wi-Fi NY" proposal ignored the digital divide and was mainly about making it easier for yuppies to check their e-mail while lounging in Central Park. In fact, we were trying to make a very broad point about how enhancing connectivity would enable all kinds of new efficiencies in city services, strengthen security, improve educational opportunities, and so on. (And for the New York Times editorial board to breezily dismiss our fifteen-page Wifi plan as "lacking details," was nothing short of outrageous).

I continue to believe that assuring that everyone has affordable access to a broadband link to the Internet is an idea as powerful as assuring that everyone have electricity or everyone have a dialtone coming into their home. Today, more than ever, information is power and the ability to both get information from and give information to the network ought to be seen as a civil right. As more people get on the net and as more applications are built around it, as the reigning telecommunications monopolies continue to gouge consumers while providing a subpar service, and as more Americans wake up to the implications of living in a "flat earth" (to use Thomas Friedman's term) and of falling behind our international competitors, I am sure this will become more of a political issue. And some smart politician or party will figure out how to ride it.

~

Does "open-source politics" have a future?
One last set of observations: My biggest personal disappointment was discovering how little our attempts to be an open, transparent and bottom-up campaign mattered in a context where few people were paying attention. This is perhaps the most important lesson for anyone considering an "open-source" style political endeavor. Such efforts should be able to gain traction in an environment where lots of people are personally motivated to care about the race or issue at stake. Obviously, a presidential campaign, or a congressional race that could shift the balance of power in Washington, are both likely to garner more free attention from self-starting political activists than, say, a down-ballot race for an urban office few people know about or understand. The same sobering fact may be true for city council races and state legislative races as well.

But at the same time, I question how much we really opened ourselves up to the possibilities of a people-intensive campaign where supporters are engaged not just for their ability to make a donation, but also for their ideas and their ongoing involvement. For example, in late June, when Andrew decided to lift his voluntary $100 limit on contributions and instead focus on $250 contributions (the maximum amount that would qualify for the 4-1 match), I argued that we should ask our existing donor base (which then numbered about 900 contributors) what they thought.

But all the other top campaign staff felt that, if the decision was already a given, then doing any kind of poll or listening process would just be a cynical exercise. In theory, our supporters could have responded "don't raise the $100 limit; we'll pitch in harder to make it work" -- though given the necessity of getting to $125,000 as quickly as possible made all of us quite skeptical of that working in time. So, at what might have been a "you have the power" moment for the campaign, we didn't really allow our base to have the power; nor did we trust that including them in our internal decision making process might have made us stronger. Time, and especially our lack of it, made us cut this corner.

In retrospect, I blame my own inexperience for my failure to push harder for a different approach. A conventional campaign was hardly likely to win in this race, given the low attention of the press and the public, Andrew's essential invisibility, and the support for the incumbent from the local political establishment. As it is, we did not run a conventional campaign when you consider how much money and time we spent on building "buzz" and Andrew's street-level and online recognition. At one point, our campaign manager, Jill Harris, a seasoned veteran of local campaigns as well as the field director of the 2004 ACT operation in the battleground state of Ohio, said to me that she had never worked on such an unusual campaign. But, she noted, if we took the money and personnel that we were spending on our website, online ads, cultivating bloggers and street-level postering and poured it into more traditional field operations (some of which we were doing already), we'd lose anyway. So perhaps we should have been even more unconventional!

But, to be brutally honest, I don't think I trusted my own instincts enough on this, and in the rush to find experienced staff to put together a campaign organization we didn't make belief in "open-source politics" a requirement. (Nor would that have been possible or wise.) One telling moment that stands out in my mind: In mid-April, Andrew forwarded me a memo that he had received from a political consultant who was offering his services to the campaign. The consultant stated, in the frankest terms possible, that if Andrew truly wanted to win, he should toss aside his idealistic notions of running a small-donor-driven Internet-centric campaign and instead invest heavily in polling, focus groups, high-dollar fundraising events and then put the bulk of his cash into an expensive media campaign focused in the final weeks before the primary. Oh yes, and that would cost us a hefty penny in retainer and commissions, all payable to that consultant. (Andrew, to his credit, rejected this guy's proposal, saying that if he bought it, there would be little point in running since it would be such a conventional campaign it wouldn't change a thing.)

In reaction to that memo, I drew up one of my own that I entitled "The Rock Star and the Mosh Pit," evoking the image of a musician who trusts his fans enough to take a leap off the stage, knowing that he will be caught and lifted up by the people in the "mosh pit" below him. I wrote:

We are trying to do something unprecedented here: elevate Andrew not simply as a candidate for PA, but as the focal point of a people's movement for reconnecting NYC, lighting up the city with free wifi, liberating the Democratic party from big money and bankrupt habits, and reinventing the PA's office as a hub for public advocates all over the city. Instead of presenting a polished and poll-tested message, we're going out on a limb and assuming that a network of engaged participants are going to catch us. (That doesn't mean we aren't hiring talented and experienced people to help, just that we aren't running a typical top-down cautious campaign.)

To that end, we're looking for people to help with all aspects of creative outreach and organizing. Our goals, in rough order, are:
-start a viral conversation online around AdvocatesforRasiej.com and our fundraising drive, and keep stoking it as it grows
-sign up volunteers and listen to everyone's ideas, both on what the campaign should be doing and what the PA should be doing
-encourage people to self-organize and help spread the message (and offer them good tools for that)
-mobilize supporters for all the campaign's activities: petitioning, visibility events, GOTV, etc.

I handed this memo out at an evening meeting of Andrew's "brain trust" (about thirty friends, advisers and sympathetic people active in NY politics) that took place April 18th. I offered some specifics on how we could start engaging people on- and off-line:

First thoughts on first steps:

1. Make our blog the hub for interesting community conversations: this requires daily posting, a human voice (or two or three) that reflects Andrew's, and constant attention to the feedback rolling in

2. Engage the larger online communities by:
-Building a big blogroll of both local and national blogs
-One-on-one outreach to key bloggers (Kos, Jerome Armstrong, et al)
-Special attention to NYC sites (Research help needed asap)
-Special attention to communities of color online (ditto)

3. Walk the walk:
-Be open and transparent and occasionally vulnerable (admit mistakes and make new ones)
-Show the network it exists: visible feedback loop is vital (and viral)
-Try new tools and tactics (videoblog, podcast, SMS relay)

4. Devise some short-term targets for the network to focus on:
-Ask people for ideas for slogans
-Set a target of raising $X to run an online ad in the NYTimes
-Do a Flickr-style campaign of tagging photos of things that need to be fixed in NYC and ask site visitors to vote on the most urgent

Though something like thirty people attended the meeting, not one followed up with me.

I didn't want to admit it, but as early as mid-April it should have been clear that our dream of doing things differently was a lot harder to realize that we imagined. The sheer challenge of getting a campaign off the ground, making the matching funds threshold, getting on the ballot and taking care of core tasks like pitching the press, managing Andrew´┐Żs schedule, campaign finance reporting, bookkeeping, drafting policy statements, replies to endorsement questionnaires, developing fliers and getting them into the field -- all in record time -- meant that we couldn't also do everything according to an "open-source" philosophy of trusting your base to catch you. This time around there was no "mosh pit." Andrew, sensing exactly what was going on around him, did what any rational person would do and drew back from taking the leap. We were to be a top-down campaign using some nifty online tools that made fundraising easier and communications cheaper. But we didn't reinvent politics as usual. Not this time, anyway.

Posted by msifry at November 1, 2005 04:55 PM | TrackBack