Friday, April 11, 2008

Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? If the kids have anything to say about it, yes.


Last night I went to an event put on by Democracy Matters, a student group dedicated to clean elections, at SMU. The event consisted of a documentary showing and some talkback with the subject of the documentary. Figuring I could use an education, and a meal, I went for the free JimmyJohns at 7 and stayed for the conversation til after midnight.

The subject of the movie, Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore?, is a guy by the name of Jeff Smith, who ran for the seat of retiring Missouri US Representative Dick Gephardt. Jeff was 29 at the time, and teaching political science classes as an adjunct professor at a couple universities in St. Louis. Seeing the opportunity to make a lasting impact and maintain the everyman image of the soon-to-be-vacated seat, Jeff decided to give the race everything he had.

He gathered a team of loyal, passionate, but extremely young and inexperienced folks to help him run his campaign. Together they beat down doors all over St. Louis and placed hundreds of thousands of phone calls in the hopes of gaining support. Nobody gave him a chance. The top candidate in the race had a last name synonymous with politics in St. Louis. In an early name recognition poll, 99% of voters had heard of his opponent, 3% claimed to have heard of him (though his campaign manager says 2 of those percentage points were people who thought they knew a Jeff Smith from somewhere).

In the end, Jeff raised more money than his rival (even with his opponent's mother being a US Senator with an impressive Rolodex), had far more volunteers working on his campaign, and darn near won--in fact, he won most of the key districts, but his opponent won the overall vote count.

Saddened, but not discouraged, Jeff ran a very successful (and even bigger) campaign to become a state Senator in Missouri based on the same principles his youthful team had run his previous campaign. He spoke to the difficulties of running a campaign in which you want to be beating down doors and meeting people in your district, but need to spend 6-7 hours a day calling people for campaign donations and support (less personal, but far more efficient). His favorite part of the campaigns were the coffees they had supporters put on--invite 15 of your friends over and Jeff will come talk issues with you for an hour or two. That or playing one-on-one basketball with inner city kids, saying if they won he'd give them $5 and if he won they had to pass out a few fliers in their neighborhood (though he found the word spread faster through their friends who shouted from every street corner than a short white guy had just beaten their friend).

A true grassroots campaigner, I gained a lot of respect for Jeff. Speaking with him for many hours after the event, I gained much more respect for him. He is very well read, has a great perspective on life, and genuinely enjoys people. He was horribly tired after filibustering for 5 hours that day and dealing with American Airlines flight issues, but he still really drove the conversation with the group of us who took him to Cafe Brazil.

I think the most impressive thing about Jeff and his campaign, though, was his willingness to take on unqualified, but very passionate youth to drive his campaign. While by the end his volunteer corps spanned all generations, few of the core group had even graduated college yet. The field manager even lied to the people he was managing, telling them he was 23 so that he would be perceived as older than the volunteers he was managing (he was actually 20 and admitted it on election day).

For their part, the kids proved him right--the learn-by-doing method triumphed once again, as the lack of "knowledge" freed them to be innovative and idealistic (they insisted on running a campaign free of slander). Additionally, because of their youth, they had the time and mind share to dedicate themselves entirely to the campaign--sleep seemed a rarity, and few had time for anything other than the campaign, yet they all stayed positive throughout. Many of them were even high schoolers who couldn't vote, but dedicated their summer and weekends to helping Jeff win.

Certainly cases can be made that the youth of today are impatient, self-interested, demanding, and don't have the encyclopedic knowledge of some of their predecessors, but I think Jeff Smith's campaign staff proved that we may just be a new kind of smart. We can retrieve information instantaneously and process new skills and ideas on the fly, rather than needing to have deep roots and work with the concepts for long periods of time. It's the same philosophy that my favorite billionaire Richard Branson employs with each new Virgin brand--a fresh look at stagnant industries can be best if taken by an outsider. If you are intelligent and dedicate yourself to a new challenge, the fact that you have little no experience in that specific field is irrelevant, or may even be a boon.

It may take a long time for the jobs of today to transform to suit these new kinds of brains, as it continues to take a while to incorporate the technology these brains rely on, but I encourage employers to allow for the possibility that previous skills might not necessarily be the biggest key indicator in what kind of a job someone will do for you. A few fresh brains who really understand people, like Jeff, have already discovered how to adapt. Will you?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very well written description of what is possible; you tell a very good story of the dedication it takes to bring change. But it is possible. That is a great message that I hope many others hear.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing this documentary on my "watch now" netflix and liking it.

-=A

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