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Ben Wessel Class of ’11.5

Graduation Year: 2011.5

Job Title: Regional Field Director on the Cory Booker's campaign for US Senate in New Jersey

Current City: Washington DC

Email: benkwessel@gmail.com

Current Job Description: A sort of middle-management gig on a political campaign, in charge of a specific region and a team of field organizers who orchestrate volunteer voter contact activities — namely making calls and knocking on doors.

I’m Ben Wessel, class of 2011.5, ES-Policy major, early decision admit to Middlebury, proud alum and (very small dollar) donor. I’m all over a little bit, but I’d feel comfortable calling DC my current city, although it’s one of four places I’ve been located this year. Right now I’m a Regional Field Director on the Cory Booker’s campaign for US Senate in New Jersey. An RFD (welcome to political lingo) is a sort of middle-management gig on a political campaign, in charge of a specific region and a team of field organizers who orchestrate volunteer voter contact activities — namely making calls and knocking on doors. As an RFD, I work to push my 8 field organizers to each build teams of volunteers in the communities they’re tasked with organizing; volunteers who do the bulk of that voter contact work to try and get out the vote (GOTV) for Cory Booker. It’s a lot of management, a lot of creatively solving problems with next-to-no resources, lots of engaging with people 100% different than yourself, and lots of cheerleading, all wrapped up in a 7-day/14hrs-a-day workweek. Before this job, I was working with 350.org as their Policy Campaigns Manager, helping them set up their more electoral campaign side of things.  I created their first electoral campaign, called Vote No KXL, which was organizing young people in Massachusetts around the special senate election there — working to get college students voting and volunteering for the candidate who was strong in his stance against the Keystone XL pipeline. We did traditional voter contact (knocking doors, making calls) and also more creative “earned media actions” — stunts, protests, flashmobs, parties, concerts, piñatas — to get the word out about the election. Before that I was the Youth and Latino vote director for President Obama’s campaign in New Hampshire for 9 months, where I built a plan and program to turn out voters on campuses in Latino neighborhoods in New Hampshire for President Obama.

I engaged with a bunch of different PCI programs during my time at Middlebury, but the two that most shaped my time at Midd and my future were:

  • My tenantship at the Old Stone Mill during Summer 2010 with the Race to Replace Vermont Yankee campaign
  • My role as co-leader of The Hunt! in JTerm 2011.

It’s funny to think about how I got involved with both of these projects –and with the PCI as a whole…

I know that when we started to develop an outline for the Race to Replace Vermont Yankee campaign, we were applying to a few different grant-making bodies on campus and we applied to the first iteration of what I guess is now the MiddChallenge grants competition. While we didn’t get the money, we were able to flesh out our campaign strategy and define clear objectives for our project. Once we ended up getting funding from the VT League of Conservation Voters and we (the 7 of us involved in the campaign) made the decision to stay in Middlebury for the summer to work on the campaign, we sought out the Old Stone Mill as an office space and Liz hooked us up bigtime. I think the fact that we created our own political campaign, without really knowing too much about what we were doing, was a skill that has bolstered my ability to write entire campaign plans and start totally new initiatives in my work life post-college. A lot of people who end up working in political campaigns have volunteered in campaigns before, or have interned for politcians, or stuff like that, but they tend to be very deferential to professional superiors. I really think the spirit that captures the heart of OSM is that it is students starting up their own project — everything from creating a company to starting a campaign to get out the vote. The audacity of twentysomethings to decide that they can do something on their own that can be successful and competitive is something that I took with me into my professional life. Maybe I just have an issue with authority, but I’ve never doubted that my ideas, my campaigns, my initiatives were less valid or less worthy than those of folks with more experience or just older folks. I think that’s the main takeaway from my time as an OSM tenant — that sometimes there’s no need to wait for the right opportunity to come along, sometimes you’ve got to create that opportunity for yourself. That isn’t to say that I haven’t absolutely loved my jobs where I am in the middle of a chain of command and in a more rigid hierarchy, but it does mean that I think I’m less afraid of offering my own ideas, starting my own projects, or believing in a vision that I came up with myself.

As far as running the Hunt goes, I freakin’ loved everything about that experience. Has it really shaped my professional life? I don’t know, but I think its contributed to a general life ethos of imbuing a spirit of fun and goofiness into everything I do — whether it is my job or anything else. Working with young people in politics, there’s often a tendency for people to take everything they do a little too seriously. I think the sheer goofy spirit of the Hunt definitely comes through in the way that I organize students on campuses during political campaigns. Everything from encouraging students to create photo petitions using cardboard cutouts of candidates to hosting a little scavenger hunt of my own to re-energize my organizers — i think this sort of stuff has roots in the work I did on the Hunt and how it does a great job of making everyone a little less stressed out about college, work, life, etc.

I think my next steps over the next few years will still be focusing on how to get more young people to vote in all elections — not necessarily from the “goodness of my own heart” or any socially redeeming reason, but mostly because I think it’s what we need to do to ensure we elect more Democrats, haha. I think the way we’ll be able to increase youth voter turnout is by not trying to take the same tactics that we use to try and make old people vote — it’ll be by being creative and thinking more about meeting young people where they are at and stuff like that. I guess I think that’s one of the most valuable lessons of all the PCI initiatives: it’s about taking problems that other folks have tried to solve and have failed, and applying more creative/fun/goofy/out-of-the-box problem solving strategies that our generation is pretty good at coming up with. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at least the PCI and Middlebury as a whole gives you the opportunity to try it out. I think it’s a pretty crucial thing to learn at college.

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