Do As I Say: A Political Advice Column by Jeff Smith - Dec 17, 2013

Do As I Say: A Political Advice Column by Jeff Smith - Dec 17, 2013

Do As I Say: A Political Advice Column by Jeff Smith
January 30, 2014

Q. I saw that you were a Black Studies major and that the district you once represented was majority black. Given that background and experience, why do you think black New Yorkers appeared to support de Blasio over Thompson in the primary? 
—P.W., a student, but not yours, New York City

Remember, my district was in St. Louis, and I don’t presume to know what black New Yorkers are thinking. In fact, I probably shouldn’t presume to know what any New Yorkers are thinking, since I did not foresee de Blasio’s dramatic rise. But with that disclaimer, I’ll hazard a few thoughts:

1) De Blasio’s message was one of inclusion, which, per Marshall McLuhan, he reinforced through the medium: his biracial children who carried the message in television ads. And de Blasio hammered it home himself via extensive campaigning in black churches and neighborhoods.
2) At events I attended in front of largely black audiences, Thompson just didn’t seem to electrify people. Which may partially be explained by the fact that…
3) Most important, and most generalizable, black candidates often face constraints white candidates do not. Research suggests that minority candidates who stress issues popularly associated with minority groups have difficulty gaining crossover support. John Edwards, for instance, could come out for things that Barack Obama probably couldn’t during the 2008 primary, and so ran to his left on housing, healthcare and poverty, which disproportionately affect African-Americans. You see that carry through to today, as the president does everything in his power to frame issues disproportionately affecting blacks (i.e., criminal justice, unemployment) as nonracial. And so while de Blasio—once an Edwards adviser, perhaps not coincidentally—staked out a strong position against stop-and-frisk, for instance, Thompson seemed milquetoast as he resisted close association with a “minority” cause. The combination of de Blasio’s boldness and Thompson’s caution on various issues also helps explain de Blasio’s greater appeal in the black community.
Q. Dr. Smith: I’m a senior political science major at a well-regarded university. I love politics and am consider pursuing a Ph.D. in political science. But I’m also thinking about taking a shot at political journalism, or maybe even working on a campaign. I’m writing you because my class watched your movie, and my professor explained what happened to you since then, and when I Googled you I saw this column. What would your advice be?
—Budding Political Junkie, Southern California


My advice is two-prong. First, if you love politics, I wouldn’t pursue a Ph.D., because during the next five years of graduate school one of two things is likely to happen: Either 1) Your natural love of politics will dissipate as you are fed a steady diet of statistics, formal theory and academic literature about academic literature (as opposed to writing about politics/policy); or 2) You will quit graduate school.

It is rather difficult to retain a love of politics while immersed in the world of political science; it is even harder to impact the worlds of policy and politics from a political science perch.

However, should you decide to pursue a Ph.D., or if you decide to try journalism, I’d advise you to do a campaign or two when you graduate, because having actually worked on campaigns will make you a more insightful researcher, teacher or political reporter. Some of the best political scientists and political reporters are those who have spent time in the campaign trenches.

Q. I am hoping to find a position in the new administration, and have been checking in with my contacts from [a city government office] weekly. In all honesty, I am running out of things to say. This may sound silly, but I want to be persistent while making meaningful contact. Any suggestions? Thank you for your help.
—F.M., Manhattan


Send articles that will be of interest to them, individually. Doing it as a mass email is probably worse than not doing it at all. Tailor the articles to the interest of the person you write, and say that the piece reminded you of them. I’m sure you come across interesting pieces all the time, and the more tailored to the target, the better. For example, the Times just began an amazing series on poverty and homelessness and the opening profile of a middle-school girl was heartbreaking and compelling. But if you never discussed poverty, homelessness, or narrative nonfiction with your old supervisor, then don’t send him a note saying, “Hi Steve, I found this piece amazing. Thought you would, too. Enjoy!” Instead, you should find a piece on something you two had discussed—or perhaps on an avocation about which you know he is passionate. For instance, you might forward a recent BuzzFeed piece with a note like: “Hi, Steve. Came across this quirky little piece on grown men at a Brony convention. Since I’d heard that you were into My Little Pony, thought you might be interested! Be in touch!”

Jeff Smith (@JeffSmithMO on Twitter) is a former Missouri state senator who resigned from office after a felony conviction and served a year in federal prison. Now an assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the New School, Jeff recently co-authored The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis.


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Jeff Smith