Jeff Smith: Do As I Say — A Political Advice Column

Jeff SmithQ: If you were Anthony Weiner, would you run for mayor?
—L.G., Brooklyn

Full disclosure: Not being a native, I’m just learning New York City politics.

I always find irony—and sometimes tragedy—in the stories of disgraced pols who rush for immediate reinvention in the same ego-nurturing and soul-crushing arena that initially got them in trouble. It’s as if the Weiners and Sanfords of the world have determined that the artificial politico personas they have so painstakingly created are the only versions of themselves that they can still recognize. But true redemption requires you to hit the pause button, to sublimate ambition and reflect on what truly matters.

That said, if I were Weiner and felt that I’d done the necessary reparative work in my personal life, I’d run for either comptroller or public advocate. Though comptroller candidate Scott Stringer is familiar to Manhattanites, no one in either race has high citywide name ID, so both would be easier races and would be outside the blinding glare of a mayoral campaign. Of course, Weiner would still get more press than just about any candidate in the country, except perhaps the two who make the mayoral runoff.

In a nutshell, if he loses his next race, he’s done. So if he wants a career in public life, he should pick a race without a well-known front-runner like Christine Quinn. Then he can get time in a low-profile office where he could rehabilitate and position himself for a mayoral race in which his chances are better. Given his skills at self-promotion, this would seem reasonable. But right now just seems too soon to go for the Big Enchilada.

Q: I’d like to run for office in the next decade, but I’m a Democrat in a Republican-leaning area. I could move a few towns over and run as a Democrat, or I could switch parties and stay where I am. What would you advise?
—K.G., Location fluid!

You might also have noted in your signature that your principles are fluid.

I understand party affiliation can be easily shed—hell, look at Mayor Bloomberg. And I’m not averse to the concept; I helped an old friend switch parties years ago, and he may end up becoming Missouri’s next governor. But you seem a bit too malleable—willing to move, willing to switch parties, whatever it takes.

Ideally, a candidate needs a strong set of principles and a deep commitment to his community. Often candidates have one or the other. You appear to be lacking both, which is troubling.

It’s one thing to be a hungry candidate. It’s another thing to be starving. If I were you, I’d try to nail down exactly why you’re a Democrat, and then do some civic work in your community. Then write me again in a few years and I’ll be glad to help.

Q: How should a staffer proceed if the campaign she’s working for refuses to pay staff what they are owed?
—F.S., New York City

For the purposes of clarity I’ll assume this staffer is you.

Not paying staff indicates some serious deficiency of character and/or management skills on the part of the candidate, assuming she/he is aware of the problem. And so my gut instinct is that this is not someone with whom you will want to be involved in the future.

Should you wish to continue working for the candidate, go directly to the person who controls the checkbook and ask for the money owed, if you haven’t already. If that doesn’t work, approach the candidate.

If that doesn’t work—and you don’t care about continuing to work for the candidate—you have another alternative if you work in finance, giving you access to fundraising lists: Call everyone who had pledged but not given money every day for a week and give them a chance to make good on their pledges. Collect what you can. Then, assuming it will cover what you are owed, tell the candidate if she/he still refuses to pay you, you’ll go to the press. That could have serious professional consequences if you want to continue working in politics, but it also might get you the money, if that’s what you really care about.

If that doesn’t work, then you need to decide if it’s worth suing over. (It probably isn’t.) But again, if you plan to continue in politics, remember that future candidates may shy away from hiring someone who has sued a previous employer.

Q: I’ve heard your expertise as a candidate was in field operations. I don’t mean to be rude, but what’s so complicated about knocking on doors, tracking your supporters, and then urging them to vote? What did you do that was different in any substantial way from what, well, everybody else does?
—N.D., New York City

In my view, field isn’t a technique as much as it is a mentality. Sure, there are tactical improvements we made to a typical field program; for instance, I canvassed walking down the middle of the street with two volunteers leapfrogging each other on each side, enabling me to hit 250 doors a night. And—this was back in 2004, so technology was limited—the weekend before Election Day we gave each identified supporter a tag to hand our volunteers at each poll site so that we knew by midday exactly which supporters hadn’t yet voted and could focus our resources on getting them out.

Tactics like those helped on the margins. But what really made the difference was that every time any of our seven staffers or 18 full-time interns or 650 volunteers met someone in a grocery store or bowling alley or Cardinals game who commented on their campaign button, those staffers/interns/volunteers asked for the person’s name and address, and quickly passed that information up the food chain. The campaign wasn’t something they did at work. It was something they lived. That enthusiasm is what made it unusual, and it’s what I saw in the 2008 Obama campaign, but it seems pretty rare in American politics.


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