Paul Newell on Starting a Political Campaign in New York City

newell.jpgLast week Streetsblog caught up with Paul Newell, who’s mounting the first primary challenge to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in 22 years. Discussing his candidacy, Newell made it clear that he is in it to win it. (He picked up some momentum yesterday, garnering the endorsement of BlogPAC, which describes itself as "a consortium of progressive bloggers from all 50 states.")

We’re running excerpts from the interview in two parts. In this segment, complementing our previous look at what it takes to get on the ballot, Newell shares his advice for potential candidates and sheds light on the mechanics of running for office. In the second part, which we’ll run tomorrow, Newell talks about why he decided to run against Silver, and how he believes transportation — and Albany — should be reformed.

Streetsblog: What’s your advice for someone pondering a run for office?

Paul Newell: A lot of people will say that you can’t beat an incumbent in New
York. And they’re wrong. Incumbents do lose, number one. Number two,
times have changed. The times when these old machine candidates just
turn out, punch out votes and kill any opposition are over. We do not
live in that city.

Running for office is an incredible opportunity. You will learn more
about yourself, your community, your state, than you ever could. You
will meet amazing people, and you will have an opportunity to
dramatically change your community for the better. It is fun. It is
hard work, and it is worth doing.

SB: Say someone makes the decision to run tomorrow. Does that give them enough time to get the organization beneath them that they need
to mount a credible campaign? If not, is there still something
worthwhile that could come out of a challenge to an incumbent?

PN: There’s always something worthwhile to come out of a challenge to
an incumbent — just to get them aware of their community again.

I don’t think it’s too late. It depends on what kind of network the
individual has. But it’s closing in on too late. June 3rd is
petitioning, so by June 3rd you need to have an
organization in place with money in the bank and a strategy to do
petitioning. That is really the actual deadline.

Honestly, people don’t make decisions in elections until shortly before
they vote anyway. You see that all the time. So if you can get an
organization together in the next month and a half, no it’s not too
late. But I would get started.

I think it is good for democracy, for our city and for our state,
for incumbents to be challenged in every election. I believe that it is
not healthy for anybody to run unopposed for elective office, ever.

I would be thrilled to talk with, meet with — discreetly or publicly
— anybody considering running for another seat in the New York City
area, or anywhere in New York State. [Editor’s note: Newell can be contacted through his website.]

Walk us through what it takes to get on the ballot.

PN: Well the ballot access process starts in June. The only requirement is you have
to be registered in the relevant party and reside in the district for
more than a year. If one meets that criteria, then one needs to
collect, for State Assembly it’s 500 signatures from registered
Democrats residing in the district. In point of fact you need a lot
more than that, because the whole system is written to prevent

So you can start collecting signatures on June 3rd. You hand them in
the second week of July. And you spend the next four weeks fighting a
court battle against your incumbent, who will try to throw you off the
ballot. Even if they think their case has no shot, they will try to
throw you off the ballot, just to waste your time and money.

The process though, is you break out petitions, you get your team
together, you set up stations, you knock on people’s doors, you do
site-based things, outside of supermarkets and subway stations and what
have you, and you collect signatures. You make sure they work, you bind
’em right, you cover all the legal ends, and you’ll get on the ballot.

SB: Tell me more about the fundraising aspect and the organizing
aspect. What did you have in place, and what did you know you needed to
do to mount your campaign?

PN: The first thing you have to do is talk to your family and loved
ones and figure out if it’s something you want to do. You have to make
a personal decision first. And the way you do that is you talk to the
people in your life. You also talk to anyone you know who has run for
office, and any candidates that you have worked for in the past. I
called up some candidates that I had never met and asked for advice.
Just asked them what’s involved in this, how do you make this decision.
You have to learn that first.

Then you start doing the feasibility portion of it. You say, "This is
something that I want to do," and determine that I will be able to
accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish by doing it. Then you say,
"Can we do it?" And that is also a process of talking to people in the
community, gauging that there is real need for change…

The first
official thing you do, in terms of an official legal act, is you have
to form a fundraising committee. And that’s just filing some paperwork
with the Board of Elections — either the State or the City, depending
on the office you’re running for. They’re very helpful folks up there
in Albany, they’re actually great. They’ll prompt you to open a bank
account. I started my bank account with $100 in pre-donated money. Then
you start reaching
out to people you know. Start first with your friends and your family,
who support what you’re trying to do, and you call and you ask them
for money. And that’s a hard thing for a lot of people to do. You have
to remember that you’re doing this for a reason. You have to believe
that them giving you money will improve our community… Otherwise it’s very hard to ask people for

You need to form a braintrust… There’s a couple of categories of
braintrust that you need: You need a finance braintrust, you need a
policy braintrust, and you need a campaign braintrust.

You need people who can help you think of ways to reach out to raise
money. You need people who know the issues facing your community well,
and can help you formulate your positions, write them up. You have to
believe of course, but work with people to write up these positions so
they make sense, so they’re cogent. And then you need to start talking
to people who you need to reach out to. How does this district break
down? How am I gonna reach out to people in the community?

And then, once you’re there — In New
York City, if you’re running for office, there’s nothing you can do
better than knocking on doors. I need a few thousand votes. I need,
certainly, less than 10,000 votes to radically change the way 19 million
New Yorkers are governed. I knock on doors every day. And I’m not
knocking on doors because it sounds good… If in an hour of knocking
on doors, I have four conversations, that’s worth it.

My goal is to be elected Assemblyman for the 64th District. This is not running for President. I can meet enough people to win this race.