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As a publicist by trade and a retired female pro football player I know firsthand how important the people behind the scenes and on the sidelines are to success. The unsung heroes who make it all work or, as Bette Midler would say, the wind beneath our wings. Okay, maybe that’s a bit too much, but you get the point.

But for all the cool stories about the Coach Carter’s who change players lives on and off the court, or the Scooter Braun’s who make a 12 year-old singer from Canada a household name, we rarely hear about the campaign managers who help political hopefuls run a successful campaign to get elected and sometimes make history.

Campaign Managers: the New Breed of Entrepreneurs

Yes, behind the Bartender-turned-Congresswoman and the first African American U.S. President, there was a campaign manager; the men and women who create strategies and put out fires, the ones who spend months on end working to get someone else a job, or convince a nation to vote for their candidate to save their own jobs. Campaign managers are the entrepreneurs in the shadows, they are the lineman who protect the quarterbacks and lead the star running back across the goal line. They do the majority of the work, are responsible for the risks, and usually get very little credit. In fact, when I searched online for articles on campaign managers, I was shocked to not find one single feature article of a campaign manager that had been successful. Can you imagine the adrenaline rush of being the campaign manager for Barack Obama, the country’s first black president in U.S. history? Or what it must have been like for Harvey Milk’s campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, when Milk was elected as the first openly gay City Supervisor?

A colorful collection of American national political vote badges
A colorful collection of American national political vote badges

On the flip side, imagine being Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, Robby Mook, on election night. When every presidential prediction outlet predicted your candidate to win and she gets beaten by Donald Trump, a reality TV star with seven bankruptcies, and a rapid fire Twitter finger that produced a viral social media reputation that would have kept most executives from a management position at Taco Bell.  

Campaign managers are a new breed of entrepreneurs. Some have limited budgets and staff, some work day jobs, some give up their jobs to run campaigns. In fact, there were campaign managers and candidates, like Missouri’s Cori Bush who gave up their employer provided health insurance to run for office and had no health insurance in the midst of a global pandemic.

They risk it all for an all-or-nothing run at success. This gig is not for the faint of heart. The hours are long, the job is often thankless, and the competition can get dirty. Good guys don’t often finish first, but we found one and, ironically, it was right in my own backyard. San Diego’s District 3 City Councilman, Stephen Whitburn, and his Campaign Manager, Ryan Darsey.

I spoke with Ryan exclusively on his post campaign win for an inside look at what it’s really like.

Campaign Manager Ryan Darsey

I would imagine the career of a campaign manager is not just about wins but who you win for. That being said, how have you based your decisions on who to work for?

First and foremost, I like to base my decision on who to work for by choosing someone who matches my passion to better the world around us. I also look to work for someone that not only shares my beliefs, but for someone who is willing to put the best interest of our community first.

What made you want to get into politics and if you weren’t doing this what would you be doing? Also have you ever considered running for an office yourself?
Campaign manager Ryan Darsey standing beside his grandma Jean while holding Gray Davis sign
Campaign manager Ryan Darsey standing beside his grandma Jean while holding Gray Davis sign

I was 11 years-old when I first took an interest into politics. It was during the 2000 Presidential election that initially caught my interest. I believed that Al Gore was the right choice and his campaign inspired me to get involved. Also my Grandma Jean, who has since passed, was a huge influence on me; she always told me that “we must help those who are less fortunate, and do all we can to make this world better.” If I were not involved in politics, I would be involved with our education system in some capacity, possibly teaching. I have considered running for office, but if I did, I would need to feel like I could bring an effective change to the people I would be representing. Only time will tell if that is the right path for me.

What are the top 5 traits of a winning campaign manager and what are the top 5 traits that win campaigns?

The top 5 traits of a good campaign manager are: passion, good work ethic, organization, being a good communicator, and staying caffeinated. The top 5 traits that win campaigns are: messaging that resonates with voters, fundraising, good field program, dedicated supporters/volunteers, and a loyal team.

How does someone win an election with no money?

They would need to have a strong message that resonates with voters, run a strong grass-roots campaign with an army of people willing to volunteer, and think of creative ways to get their name out to the voters.

What surprised you the most about politics and what surprised you the most about yourself working in politics?

The thing that surprised me the most about politics is even though it is a lot of hard work, and that there are days when you just want to give up, there are  moments and people that, in the end, make it all worth it. Those experiences keep me going, they fuel my drive and passion in this business. The thing that surprised me most about myself working in politics was how much this made me believe in myself and in my abilities to trust my instincts.

The next election is in 2022 and we have reached a point of doing so many things with the use of technology, can we now get rid of political mailers? I mean let’s be honest—we all hate political mailers. Do you ever see an election without the use of mailers that would be done strictly with the use of social media platforms?

I do not think that will happen in the near future because mail is an effective tool to reach voters who may not be on social media platforms. That being said, I believe you will see a greater emphasis on campaigns using social media more so than ever considering the amount of people you can reach in a quick amount of time.

I was shocked to hear U.S. Senate candidates Kelly Loeffler and Raphael Warnock have collectively spent over $278 million on radio, mailers, and television campaign ads for the upcoming run-off in Georgia. What does an average campaign spend on mailers and what is the total budget amount a candidate needs to plan on to run for office?

It depends on what office they are running for, how big the universe of voters you are trying to reach is, and the competitiveness of the race. A campaign should expect to spend about .50 to .60 cents per mail piece for each household you want to reach. I will say you should always try to raise as much money as you can because every dollar does make a difference.

If someone wanted to make a career change in their thirties and become a campaign manager, what are the steps?
Campaign manager Ryan Darsey (left) standing beside San Diego City Councilman Stephen Whitburn
Campaign manager Ryan Darsey (left) standing beside San Diego City Councilman Stephen Whitburn

The first step is making sure managing a campaign is something you really want to do. It is a lot of late nights, high-stress, and hard work. Another step is to get involved in your community, your local political party, and/or any organizations that cater to your beliefs. You will then get a better idea of what elected officials there are and who the future candidates there will be.

Who is the G.O.A.T of campaign managers and why?

Nationally, someone I really respect as a campaign manager is Jen O’Malley Dillon, who successfully managed President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign. Ms. Dillon did an incredible job when you consider the struggles that come with running a campaign during a pandemic, which had never been done before. Locally, Nick Serrano did an outstanding job of running the campaign of Mayor-elect Todd Gloria. I have immense respect for Nick’s work ethic, drive, and passion. I was able to see first-hand the hustle and tremendous work that Nick put into helping Todd Gloria win big.

Making a Difference

The good news is, no matter how strong or weak our economy is, there will always be elections so there will always be a need for campaign managers. And like an entrepreneur, it might not be easy and you will be tested at every level, but the journey will be memorable.

My grandfather used to tell me you can make money, make excuses, or make a difference, but you cannot do all three. But it appears I might have found an exception to that rule, which is politics. Where you can make money, make a difference, and if you’re Trump and lose your election, you can make excuses. Welcome to America.

What do you think about the world of being a campaign manager? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.