SMW NYC 2018: Speaker Spotlight: Suraj Patel, Candidate for Congress, NY-12



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Leading up to SMWNYC, we sit down with some of our featured speakers to get a preview of the insights they plan to share in April. First up: Suraj Patel, who is running for Congress in New York’s 12th District by running his campaign like a startup.

SMW: You’re an entrepreneur by trade. What was the moment in which you decided to apply your passion and talents to the political sphere?

SP: I’ve been involved in politics my whole life. It’s a huge source of inspiration. Earning the opportunity to advocate for people—to fight on their behalf—is so motivating. That said, I didn’t plan to enter the political arena myself until after this last Presidential Election when many of us realized we can’t sit on the sidelines anymore. My family moved here from India searching for opportunity, and they seized it when they got here. They worked their way up from security guards and store clerks to building a business and raising four unruly boys to adulthood. No small feat. Their story and our stories need to be told so that we all remember how wonderful this country already is and what truly makes it great. So much about this country is inspiring except for its politics right now, and we have an obligation to change that.

SMW: What are some of the advantages of being an “outsider” in the political world? What are some of the challenges you expect to face?

SP: Politics is the only business that blames its customers for not buying an unappealing product. Turnout in a New York City primary is around 10 percent. Only 26 percent of the country elected Donald Trump. And when you ask “insiders,” the refrain is always the same: “Young people don’t care, minorities don’t vote, new citizens don’t register.” Well, if you start with that attitude, you’re going to prove yourself right! Coming in with fresh eyes is a fantastic perspective and it’s going to be met with a lot of resistance. I’ve decided after months of hearing that kind of cynicism, that we don’t have time for it, we have a new electorate to build.

SMW: What are some of the things you learned in the process so far that would surprise people?

SP: I’m sure you’ll be as shocked as I was to know this: Almost all campaigns start by buying a “voter file” from the State Party. It’s a list of all the registered Democrats (or Republicans) in your district, their addresses, phone numbers, and their entire voting history. It literally comes on a physical CD, so I guess I have to find a Dell computer to put it in because I don’t know where else to put it.

Candidates will often look at the history and say, “Well, past participation is the greatest predictor of future participation, so let’s just target the folks who vote most often.” All campaign resources then go to targeting “likely” voters in their 50s and 60s, completely marginalizing everyone else, never asking them to participate. To us, this seems like the simplest answer to why the under-35 turnout in my district drops from 72 percent in a general election to 2 percent in a Congressional primary. We may end up being totally wrong, but I think it’s worth the effort to find out just if we can actually engage more people and make their voices heard. It’s a hill worth dying on.

SMW: You’ve been very explicit that you plan to run your campaign like a startup. What does that mean exactly?

SP: We’re starting with a blank slate, meaning we have no assumptions about a voter’s propensity to vote. All people deserve agency and all people deserve the chance to be represented. So, let’s go out and talk to and listen to all of them and see if we can’t get people to buy into building a real community that’s proud to vote.

What that means is that we’re going to disrupt the traditional silos and redundant political functions of a campaign and replace them with a brilliant Creative Director to create compelling content that demystifies this crazy process, an Engagement Director who makes sure we’re always adding value and meaning and connecting people within our community, and a Growth Marketer who knows how to use digital to help us scale our face-to-face interactions offline. We’ve drawn inspiration from Bonobos, Casper, Glossier, and all of the other digital native brands proving that if you only looked at past behavior, well then nothing new would ever happen.

SMW: How will you be tapping into the New York tech, media & marketing community to enlist support and build an army of collaborators?

SP: We’re issuing a call to action. We want every single creator, innovator, disrupter, or simply passionate advocate to bring us your ideas. We’ll execute them. If you think the DNC or our progressive candidates are doing it wrong and you have a better way to engage the country, we’re your campaign. We’re happy to serve as a guinea pig and run whatever crazy experiment you can dream up.

Sometimes you have to throw some Hail Mary’s to catch up and now’s the time. We plan to go to every community group, agency, startup or house party that will have us and we’ll lead a brainstorming session. Let’s upend politics together, let’s make it fun, and then let’s take that playbook to the rest of country. We’re not going to flip the House if we can’t rally around hope and possibility.

SMW: There’s been a steady stream of headlines around the role of tech platforms in last year’s election. Do you think digital and social media can be used ethically over the course of a political campaign?

SP: Social media, and particularly Facebook, is now the public commons. When you accumulate that much monopoly power, you have an obligation to behave like a responsible citizen, not just as a profit-maximizing company. Explicit political advertisements have transparency requirements, but third-party spending is so opaque. I think every advertisement ought to give you the source of funding at the bare minimum. There’s a lot these platforms can do to curb trolling and hate speech, and I wish they’d step up and take ownership or at least invest in digital literacy programs to help people identify real from “fake.”

But I think social media can be a powerful listening tool too, and used ethically for that purpose, has the potential to provide us with a far more accurate snapshot of what people care about. Rather than make tone-deaf appeals based on stereotypes about millennials or women or immigrants, we can use social to understand their values and attitudes and what we need to do to be better allies and to genuinely work with them and move the vision for this country forward. If used properly, digital has the potential to create better representation for our people than candidates relying on polls that are still conducted by calling “likely” voters on their landlines.

SMW: What are some of the things people can expect to see from you on the campaign trail?

SP: We’re going to have fun. The only thing I have to lose is this election—and that’s an incredibly freeing feeling. I feel like many Democrats have spent so much time trying to figure out how to not lose, that they’ve forgotten how to win. We plan to open a campaign office/co-working community space to be a hangout for activists and to highlight the remarkable work local groups are already doing in New York. We’ll have a taco truck for absentee ballots, we’ll buy beers at bars across the City for folks who let us listen to their stories, spin classes with fellow concerned citizens, and basically anything else that expands the electorate by motivating folks to get involved and reaching them where they are.

Finally, you can expect that we will not stray from our core values: climate change is happening, guns need controlling, science is real, free press is important, immigrants belong, gender is a spectrum, her body means her choice, fewer prisons, more schools, more bridges, no walls, accessible art, and of course, black lives do indeed matter.

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