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Workshop Attendees Get the Lowdown on Politics

Dean Levitan at workshop on running for public office
Photo by Brian Mosley/APS

Dean Levitan makes a point to workshop participants.
About eighty scientists and engineers picked up some pointers on how to run for public office at a recent campaign education workshop in Washington. Organized by Scientists and Engineers for America, the workshop took place May 10 at Georgetown University, and was also sponsored by APS and several other scientific societies.

There is increasing need for scientific input into policy issues, and although scientists may be interested in becoming involved in politics, they tend to be unfamiliar with the campaign process.  Speakers at the workshop covered the basics of how to run a campaign, as applied to offices ranging from local school board to Congress.

One question on some participants’ minds was how much political experience is needed to run for office.

“None,” answered speaker Dean Levitan of MHSC Partners, who has managed many successful campaigns. In fact, nowadays people are tired of politicians, and are looking for candidates with a different background, he said. “The American public is starving for a new kind of leadership,” said Levitan. Voters “want to know that you’re competent and capable, but you don’t necessarily need political experience to show that,” he said. A scientist or engineer can show that they have expertise on relevant issues.  

Levitan went over the elements of how to run a campaign, including budgeting, finding campaign staff, and targeting voters. Participants also took home a “campaign handbook” with more information.

Joe Trippi, who as a campaign manager for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign made pioneering use of the Internet, described how the Internet has changed political campaigns and is continuing to do so. Howard Dean’s campaign was the Wright brothers; Obama’s campaign is the Apollo project, he said. The Internet has created new ways to reach people and get them to donate. Internet tools such as social networking sites are now “important even for the most local race,” he said.

Workshop participants learned how to craft a message and communicate with the media. When communicating with the media and the public, a candidate needs to have a clear, concise message, and needs to keep repeating that message, said Kevan Chapman, communications director for physicist and congressman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI). Scientists tend to want to go into the details and nuances of their point, but in a campaign, they need to focus on the outcome of any policy they are advocating, not the finer points.

In a roundtable discussion with scientists who had successfully run for office, Louis Lanzerotti, chair of the AIP governing board and former school board member and former mayor of Harding Township, New Jersey, said that “scientists and engineers can really contribute a lot to local issues.” He gave an example of a question that came up in his district–the possible installation of artificial turf on athletic fields. This raised safety and environmental issues that a scientist could help analyze.  Lanzerotti said he got started in politics by sitting in on school board and town meetings, and by staying visible in the community and making contacts.

Nancy Cline, a civil engineer and public works director for the town of Addison, Texas, and Board of Trustee member for Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, also pointed to the need to get involved in the community. “When I ran, I ran against three opponents who had never been to a school board meeting,” she said.

Some participants wondered whether it helps to be a scientist, since most voters don’t relate to academic science. David “Doc” Westerling, a civil engineer and town moderator in Harvard, Massachusetts said that being a scientist “is both a liability and an asset.” There’s a risk of being perceived as elitist, but he found that the nickname “Doc” resonated with people, and he was perceived as honest. Lanzerotti said that the local paper reported “rocket scientist runs for town council,” and that helped his campaign. Cline pointed out that her work as a civil engineer,–“roads and commodes,” as she called it—connected to things people were familiar with, and that probably helped her get elected.

A parallel session presented advice for students, and participants and speakers networked after the workshop.

Participants generally said they found the workshop useful. For instance, APS member Hina Ayub, currently a physics graduate student, hopes to eventually run for a local office such as school board. “I want to start small,” she said. Before the workshop, she hadn’t known how much work goes into even a small campaign. “It does seem a bit overwhelming,” she said. Nonetheless, at the end of the workshop, she and others said they felt encouraged, having learned a lot about how to run for office and where to get help. 

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