In the 1930s, when future Philadelphia mayor Richardson Dilworth was mulling a run for a state Senate seat, he took the same advice doled out to first-time political candidates today: Go to the ward leaders. Make a donation. Kiss the ring.
“They were all the biggest whores," he would tell an interviewer decades later. "They'd take one look at us and decide we were real patsies. . . . There was very little money they could get out of us, but what they could, they did."
To government relations professionals like Lauren Vidas, little has changed for newcomers to state and local politics.
“Dilworth was speaking 90 years ago, but you just had Ori [Feibush] go through the same thing with Ed Nesmith,” she said. “We still rely on this word-of-mouth, know-a-guy system for political campaigns.”
Vidas says that’s why she signed on as an early investor in Jefferson’s List, a Philly-based startup aiming to develop a high-tech scoring system for campaign staffers.
Still in a pre-alpha stage, the venture got some early play as a “Yelp-for-politics,” a ranked list of consultants across the country. Like Yelp, access to the platform would be free, but consultants could pay an additional fee to spruce up their profiles, adding examples of their past work or other media.
But founder TJ Hurst says the comparison is an imprecise one, necessitated by the analogy-crazed pitch culture of Silicon Valley, where the startup has already scored seed money.
“When the initial rollout comes out, there will not be a rating system attached to it. That’s a longer-term project,” said Hurst, who is a past political operative himself. “What we’re moving toward is more like the Cook Political Report.”
Those reports project election outcomes for generic Republican and Democratic candidates in every political district by taking party registration advantage and past voting trends into account. In essence, Jefferson’s List would score political consultants’ past campaign work algorithmically, taking similar factors into account.
“I could look at the win/loss record of whoever ran Chaka Fattah’s campaign for the last 20 years, but that doesn't necessarily mean they’re running an effective campaign. And there are consultants doing great work who might never win,” Hurst explained. “If we control for election cycles and control for the district demographics, you start to get towards the value add.”
Other local consultants broadly agreed that the need to professionalize the market for campaign workers was dire and praised Hurst and partner Dan Siegel's efforts to shape their platform with input from local operatives.
“I think it’s a great idea. It will open the door for many younger consultants that have problems breaking into the old establishment,” said Fernando Treviño, of Treviño Strategic Consulting. “Also, it will be great for outside or independent candidates to have access to good consultants.”
Aren Platt, who operates the two-person firm Cycle Strategy, was also hopeful that a tool like Jefferson’s List could help smaller shops.
“If it works, it will make firms like ours without a large sales staff much more effective,” he said. “I think it has a lot of potential to help bring consultants and clients together so that we can focus our energies on winning elections rather than business development.”
Dan Fee, of the Echo Group, was similarly positive about the startup’s potential, but he wondered if the group would reach neophytes who could most benefit from their services. Big-time candidates, those with support from groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or the National Republican Campaign Committee, often already have a favored pool of vendors.
“In my experience, the new candidates are often the most naive – they'd be the ones who benefit the most from something like this – but they are also the ones who most often have a ‘guy’ who they rely on for handholding and guidance,” he said. “To be truly helpful, it's going to have to be a tool to help new candidates who may not have much money or even enough experience to know to look at a list like this."
Hurst said that he had high hopes for the potential of Jefferson’s List to help small consultants and candidates in a big-picture way.
“The biggest value add is helping people out of their networks,” he explained. “There are great people in the city who might be great matches for Newark or Richmond, but the only way to acquire that business is to fly to that area and take potential candidates out to lunch – and you still have a chance of losing out to someone’s brother-in-law.
Many sources wondered about the possibility that the network could be used for ulterior motives in the notoriously cutthroat world of politics – leaving bad reviews to damage a rival, for example – but Hurst was quick to allay those fears.
“There will be no text comments. We’ll maybe have some sort of a star rating,” he said. “This will not turn into the Philly.com comment system.”