We are proud of Jessica Smith, who volunteered for the Richard Thripp for Congress campaign, works as a Team Lead Digital Organizing Fellow with the Florida Democratic Party, is a Financial Team Officer with the Florida College Democrats, and is now studying Political Science, Statistics, and Research at Florida State University. One of Jessica’s course assignments is to interview a political candidate. I was happy to answer the following questions.
September 7, 2020
How would you describe your background in experience and education?
I don’t have any background in politics and had to learn almost everything from scratch. I stayed in school for a long time, earning a B.S. in Psychology, M.A. in Applied Learning and Instruction, and Ph.D. in Education in an Instructional Design & Technology speciality by the age of 28, including 3 years of teaching educational technology to future teachers. At the same time, I studied financial literacy and financial education for my Master’s capstone projects and doctoral dissertation. I chose this topic because personal finance is intensely interesting to me. I think these experiences and skills helped me be an effective leader of a large volunteer force that joined my campaign in May–August 2020.
What is your current position?
Unemployed, volunteering for a few campaigns
How would you describe effective campaign staffing?
There are at least 3 things no campaign can buy: Enthusiasm, time, and competence. If you waste a day, you can’t get it back. No amount of money buys enthusiasm. I saw that in Michael Bloomberg’s campaign among others. I was in the DeLand dog parade in February 2020 (pre-coronavirus), and 2 paid staffers, young kids, were there from the Bloomberg campaign. They were well paid, but had no enthusiasm. I didn’t even have any signs yet but I was giving out business cards left and right. You have to have that sort of enthusiasm in your staff. It helps if they really believe in your cause. Competence is critical too. Rep. Michael Waltz has spent $1 million on his campaign for re-election as of July 29, 2020, but they do stupid and incompetent things all the time, like writing the ballot access fee check for the wrong amount, putting out tone-deaf social media postings, and constantly talking about Jacksonville (not in the 6th district) in the few times Florida is mentioned at all.
Overall, it is critical to have good systems in place early. We should have bought the voter file (“DNC VoteBuilder Florida” or “VAN” for voter action network) much earlier. It’s $3,500 for a congressional campaign. Reconciling canvassing spreadsheets is no fun. To be honest, our Democratic primary opponent ran such a ghost ship that it’s embarrassing we lost. If we were running for Congress for the 4th time we would have won for sure.
What positions do you feel are absolutely necessary in a campaign? Why?
You definitely need a strong candidate, and you need a core team of hard-working staff or volunteers who really believe in the cause and are willing to work late nights without a lot of rewards. I actually was my own treasurer, which I don’t recommend at all. Having a good graphics designer is essential. So many of our volunteers and supporters were enchanted by our campaign graphics. We would never have gained traction without Emily Humphrey’s work. A volunteer coordinator is important and a position we didn’t have until very late. You also need boots on the ground to go canvassing (even during COVID-19 leaving door hangers is important), place signs, campaign at early voting and election date, et cetera. Ideally you would have someone to bring in big campaign contributions too (we did not). Also, you definitely need a tech person (we had a few), for things like setting up phone banking, canvassing turfs, text messaging campaigns… These can be tricky. Finally, going back to the idea of a strong candidate, as a candidate you need to have policy chops and be able to boil it down to a middle school reading level. I had the former, but the latter was a big struggle. You also must treat this as a full-time job, even if you’re a volunteer candidate. Sadly, this makes it impossible for so many hard-working people to actually run.
Why is it beneficial to work in a team style similar to the one that you have described?
What I’ve described is bare bones, with not a lot of layers. Each person has a lot of work to do, but they have a big impact in the campaign. There are no layers of management or approvals to go through. For instance, we had a volunteer, Chris, with direct access to my Twitter. There were no committees to approve the tweets he was sending out. Of course trust is important, and I had seen his work and loved it. But even if we added a lot of red tape for Chris to post a tweet, it wouldn’t have been helpful. Overall, relationships and human connection are so important. It’s important to be 100% authentic to foster these sorts of relationships. The former Democratic nominee for this congressional district, Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, talks about that regarding her work in 1985–1992 under Senator Ted Kennedy. He fostered the sort of loyalty where no matter what, you were on his team and he was on yours, even years later. That’s really what I’d like to see come out of our campaign. It’s a 2-way street. Some of our volunteers are launching political careers from this, and I’m writing letters of recommendation, being put down as a reference, networking, giving and receiving feedback, and so forth. We’re not just packing up the shop and going home. We’re here to tell you that young people will have a say in the future of this nation. We’re ready, we’re putting in the work, and we’re making it happen.
What can be negative about working in this style?
Some people really dislike it. One item I didn’t explicitly state, but was implied, is that I’m the type of person who is always questioning and re-evaluating whether what we are doing is the best thing to do. What would make the most impact? For instance, when placing yard signs on public roads, you could tell some are being placed by paid operatives because they didn’t care about visibility. The sign would be blocked by a telephone pole, or blocked by a shrub. They did their job, but they didn’t do it well. I would try to get maximum visibility, even placing them at stop signs on interstate off-ramps which is definitely unlawful, but the way I would always look at it is that we’re up against an opponent (Rep. Michael Waltz) with a bazooka of cash who won’t play by the rules anyway. It’s asymmetric warfare. The ability to be nimble and get things done quickly is so important. We had a few volunteers who didn’t work out, because they just wouldn’t buy into this sort of culture. I guess you could call it startup culture. I didn’t learn this during the campaign, but it was my first chance to apply it at a large scale, having consumed a ton of books, articles, podcasts, et cetera on entrepreneurship, productivity, and team management.
What is your favorite position to work in within this style of campaign management (including candidate)?
I really enjoy being the candidate. I wanted to have big events but didn’t because of coronavirus. Being the candidate gives you a bully pulpit of sorts where people take you seriously and will really listen. Our platform wasn’t original (it was pretty similar to Bernie Sanders), but it didn’t need to be. I had a lot of analogies I could use to explain why the status quo in our society is ridiculous, and it isn’t even quite the same as it used to be, having gotten progressively worse under Donald Trump. I wasn’t even very good at being a candidate, but I think I got better toward the end. A major downside is that everyone’s a critic, and a lot of the advice you get is contradictory and just plain wrong. There are also a lot of people who are just looking for a punching bag and take it out on you. Even running for Congress, which you think people would know about, you spend a lot of time just explaining the district boundaries and what a member of Congress does, and then the rest of the time is taken up by people saying you’re too young, or complaining about the Democrats destroying our country, and so forth. That gets frustrating.
What are your goals for the future?
Kristy and I are spending more time together and with our son. He’s 18 months, and for about half of that I was working on a doctoral dissertation and the other half I was running for Congress, so I missed more than I should have even being at home with him most of the time. In the longer term, I’m at a crossroads and I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I had started the Education PhD program at UCF in 2016 thinking I wanted to be a professor, but I soured on that and would need a few years of K–12 teaching experience (although I’ve taught university students for 3 years). We are in the fortunate position of being able to take a break and to think this through carefully. Although it’s a gauntlet, we will probably end up running for office again at some point. It’s really something you get better at with practice, and we’ll win next time. We also want to play a role in the Democratic party and the future of the United States of America and our planet.
Richard Thripp, PhD
Former Democratic Candidate for United States Representative
Florida’s 6th Congressional District