Campaign as Classroom: Dan Maffei MPP 1995 on lessons learned

September 25, 2008
by Dan Maffei

Originally published in the summer 2008 Harvard Kennedy School's Bulletin

In one of my electoral politics courses at the Kennedy School, we read a book called How To Win Your First Election. I studied it carefully, as I did all of the readings of those courses. I kept the books. And when nobody in my party challenged the incumbent congressman in my district in 2004, I dusted them off and started to methodically put together a campaign to challenge him in 2006.

While falling little more than 3,000 votes short (or less than two percent), my so-called loss showed a remarkable achievement. I had challenged a nine-term incumbent “cardinal” — a chair of an appropriations subcommittee — who had received more than 90 percent of the vote in 2004, and I almost beat him. I won the two most populated counties in the district and won the city of Syracuse 60 to 40. And I had beat all expectations, spending about half as much money as my well-funded opponent and without major national party support.

I still believed that a change in direction was vital in the country and in my district, so I decided to run again. My 2006 opponent announced his retirement from Congress in January of this year. And though I am in a challenging district where Republicans outnumber Democrats somewhat, most of the pundits in Washington and at home believe my campaign is one of the best opportunities nationwide for Democrats to pick up a seat long held by the GOP.

So what does one learn from going from a long-shot campaign to a much more winnable race? If these two campaigns were a course, how would I answer the midterm?

Lesson number one is, if you want to win a public office, you have to run for public office. Ironically this truism is the number one thing that derails most of the politically ambitious Kennedy School students when they graduate and move on in their careers. They may want to run for office, but the odds always seem to be against winning that first election, so they make it a self-fulfilling prophecy and decline to run.

Lesson number two is the importance of persistence. Asking for political support is not easy. Asking for people to give you their hard-earned money for your campaign is even more difficult. But I have found that it is hardest to ask and easiest for someone to avoid giving you what you need the first time you ask. But the seventh, eighth, or ninth time you ask, it becomes easy to ask and much harder for someone to continue to decline to give it to you.

Lesson number three is perhaps the toughest for me.

Not making the perfect the enemy of the good. When you run for office, you want everything to be perfect — from your website photograph to your position papers to your bumper stickers. You want to make sure every possible person who might support you is happy. But this is impossible, particularly in a congressional district with more than 650,000 people. In fact, the only way a campaign can even come close to doing what it needs to do is for the candidate to trust the people who are working for him. Letting go of some control is not easy and particularly challenging for me because I have experience working on numerous campaigns myself and served as press secretary to Senators Bill Bradley and Pat Moynihan and as a senior aide on the House Committee on Ways and Means staff before running myself. Learning to let go and accept other people’s work as representing you is probably the toughest part.

The final lesson is to keep everything in perspective.

This has always been a challenge for me. When I was finishing my MPP at Harvard, I became overly concerned with grades.

It’s nice to do well, but let’s face facts, it was very unlikely that it would matter whether I got a B+ or A- on anything. Now I am dealing with a situation where my campaign got a B+ last time, and this time I know we need to get an A - we need to win. Yet it is all the more important to keep matters in perspective. The presidential race, news events, a fickle electorate — too much is simply not in the control of even the most professional campaign.

My election this November is not a sure thing — nothing in electoral politics ever is — but the effect that my two campaigns has had on the political landscape and agenda in Upstate New York is indisputable. A good candidate believes in what he is doing regardless of the outcome. And if he is fortunate enough to win, that will make him a better congressman too.

Dan Maffei MPP 1995 is a Democratic candidate in the 2008 congressional elections in New York’s 25th congressional district. He currently works as senior vice president of Pinnacle Capital Management. In 2006, he came within two percentage points of defeating nine-term incumbent Rep. Jim Walsh (R-NY).

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